'Neither Wayne Brown or Efeso Collins seems to have inspired voters sufficiently to suggest there will be a big voter turnout, or that much will change whomever the new mayor is.' Photo: Q+A

Central government needs to allow local government more genuine say on critical issues such as housing and water or low voter turnouts will continue

Opinion: Most of the immediate circumstances that directly affect people’s lives come within the purview of local government, not central government. And with more and more local authorities espousing the principle of “localism” (making decisions at the level closest to where they have impact) that will continue to be so.

Many of the big issues across the country this local body election year – from Three Waters to housing intensification, rapidly rising rates bills, public transport, and the delivery of core services – relate primarily to local government.

Yet the signs to date are that, consistent with the trend of the past 30 years, voter turnout will continue to decline at this year’s October 8 local body elections. In 1989, 57% of eligible voters turned out – by 2019 that figure had declined to 42%, compared with just over 75% of voters who voted in the last general election. Reported early voting this election is lower than ever.

Consistent with declining public interest in local body elections, the numbers of people seeking election to local government has also been declining, reaching its lowest levels in the 2019 elections. However, contrary to that trend, there has been a sharp increase in the proportion of women, Māori, and those under 40 elected since 2016. Now, the establishment of Māori wards in 35 local authorities will lead to a further boost in Māori representation after this year’s elections.

Despite local government starting to become more inclusive and representative, it remains a turn-off to many voters and potential candidates. A recent television debate for the tightly contested Wellington mayoralty exemplified why. The incumbent mayor, Andy Foster, has struggled at times to lead a council that has been hostile and dysfunctional, but his two main challengers showed a woeful lack of interest in and understanding of the major issues confronting the city. Neither presented any coherent plan for the city’s future. Paul Eagle appeared more interested in moving on from a faltering parliamentary career while Tory Whanau’s focus seemed to be on achieving a future parliamentary career. Viewers were left none the wiser how the city would be better off, whomever of the three is elected.

It is the same in Auckland where the supercity faces a range of problems and challenges at the end of its first decade. With the incumbent mayor, Phil Goff, retiring the two main contenders are abrasive former Far North Mayor Wayne Brown whose two terms there ended in controversy, and Labour and Greens-endorsed first-term Councillor Efeso Collins. It is a classic left/right contest. Brown appears slightly ahead at present, after strategic withdrawals from other right-wing candidates, while Collins’ chances rest on mobilising the traditional left-leaning voters of South and West Auckland in his favour. So far, neither seems to have inspired voters sufficiently to suggest there will be a big voter turnout, or that much will change whomever the new mayor is.

In Christchurch the race to succeed retiring Mayor Lianne Dalziel is between right-leaning property developer, businessman and first-term Councillor Phil Mauger, and popular but controversial former Canterbury District Health Board chief executive David Meates. Mauger has the backing of some right-wing councillors and National Party connections, and Meates is supported by former Mayor Garry Moore, and some of Dalziel’s former campaign personnel. A recent poll showed Mauger with a huge lead over Meates, but it also showed nearly half of Christchurch voters did not believe the city council could meet the needs of residents, suggesting a lack of confidence in both candidates to make a difference.

The end of an era is looming in Invercargill with veteran Mayor Sir Tim Shadbolt looking likely to be defeated, and virtually publicly admitting as much already. There is still a possibility he could come through the middle in what is a very crowded field, but his performance failings over the last term make that unlikely. Shadbolt, who has been the positive public face of Invercargill’s renaissance since the mid-1990s, now seems set to pay the price for having stayed on one term longer than he should have.

The more central government tries to centralise and control policy making as it is at present … the more the public will see local government as ineffective

If the level of public apathy about the coming local body elections is not enough of a problem, there is also the complicating and worrying emergence of extreme right-wing anti-vax and anti-mandate candidates in many local authority contests. While they have every right to seek office in a democracy, their presence is potentially distracting and disruptive, especially if any of them secure election. That possibility might spur more voters to participate but seems more likely to have the opposite effect.

Local Government New Zealand should be commended for having made a huge effort to promote this year’s local body elections, wanting to encourage more candidates to come forward, and to increase voter turnout. However, it is not clear whether its campaign will make much difference.

The problem is much more fundamental than a lack of interest in what local government does. It is more a lack of confidence that local government can make a difference, no matter who is elected and what policies they follow. This is notwithstanding that in areas such as housing provision, infrastructure and public transport, local government decisions have a far more immediate impact on people’s lives than central government.

But central government is not helping public perceptions of the effectiveness of local government. The more central government tries to centralise and control policy making as it is at present – in housing and water services especially – the more the public will see local government as ineffective. Therefore, to restore public confidence in local government, central government needs to pull back and allow local government more genuine say on these critical issues, rather than continuing to tell them what to do.

Until that happens, public apathy towards local government will continue, and the harder it will become to attract quality candidates for major leadership roles. The likely poor turnout at the coming election will undoubtedly shake local government leaders, but it should be an even bigger wake-up call for central government.

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