Parliamentary committee reviews have been ignored; the council elections changes little –  the real chance to change our local government and election system arrives in just a few weeks

Cries of concern from political leaders about low voter turnout in local body elections are now a regular refrain. In truth, they are a feint for the lack of action they have taken to do anything meaningful about the deteriorating situation.

Not since the Michael Bassett-led reforms of 1989 has any government shown any effective interest in boosting the local election franchise.

A short history of inaction

If a New Zealand government had been genuinely interested in or prioritised local election voting, it could have listened to its own parliamentary select committee. Every three years the Justice Committee carries out an inquiry into the local election.

Following what was then a record low voting turnout at the 2013 election, the select committee made a series of recommendations. This included a national local elections’ campaign run by the Electoral Commission instead of the 78 individual ones that currently take place.

MPs recommended the voting period be reduced from the present three weeks, that the period avoid the school holidays, that online voting be trialled and, perhaps most significantly, that some form of “civics” education take place in high schools to improve awareness and understanding of the role local government plays.

The 2016 local election review, reflecting the perceived priority of the issue, was deferred and then combined with the 2017 General Election review. That didn’t report until after the 2019 local elections, defeating its purpose of seeking to improve the subsequent election.

This review made 20 recommendations for improvement. These restated a number of the 2013 review recommendations and added suggestions about improving/standardising voting methods as well as a series of technical improvements. Most of these typically bi-partisan recommendations have not been implemented over the intervening nine years.

A small number of improvements have been made. The number and location of ballot boxes has been expanded from the traditional council-owned premises to more accessible supermarkets, donations rules have been standardised, and some advertising and candidate information quality enhanced (no guarantees about candidate quality though).

A recommendation to improve the clarity and ease of the voting form was achieved unintentionally with the abolition of hospital boards eliminating the need to vote for an additional array of positions not related to local government and usually using a different voting method.

Māori wards were made easier to establish by the current government when it voided the problematic but democratic process that previously existed whereby local electors had to approve them. However this election cycle, Māori wards appear to have averaged among the lowest turnouts.

The consequence of all these “improvements” has been a continuing decline in New Zealand-wide voting levels.

Even with significant issues for debate in council elections such as Three Waters or forced housing intensification, or with high profile local mayoral contests, turnout is seldom much impacted. The most significant issue in Auckland in a generation, the establishment of the new Super City – opposed by all the previous councils bar one – saw turnout reach just 50 percent.

Governments frequently say they do not want to get too involved in local government elections to respect the independence and different nature of the sector. But then when the sector agrees on a course of action, governments frequently fail to implement it.

The problem with local government voting participation doesn’t have much to do with the voting system or the way elections are run – as seen by continuing decline when improvements have been made.

The key problem is a problem with local government itself: low satisfaction levels, poor trust, failure to make greater progress on the biggest challenges and as a result disinterest.

Unless this government or the next one is prepared to deal with this, the problem will likely continue to deteriorate.

Local government is the problem

Kiwis are overwhelmingly disengaged with local government because for all the headlines, hashtag campaigns and other hectoring, it doesn’t matter enough.

This is not to say the actual work notionally delegated to regional and local authorities doesn’t matter. Public transport operations, housing rules and environmental protections are vital work. Local and sports parks, libraries and playgrounds are highly regarded council assets.

But councils have too limited control and funding of too many of the things that matter most to people and which need the most attention. Significant transport projects need at best 50 percent central government funding and for the most transformational ones, such as Auckland light rail, much more than that. Housing and many environmental, climate and other council activities involve navigating a web of, at times, competing central policy dictates.

And there is never enough money. This is because the primary council funding base, property rates, is an antiquated and now inadequate income source. Property taxes, recognisable as today’s rates, were formally established in the English-speaking world from 1290 following the Magna Carta signing. They haven’t changed substantively. There have been almost as many reviews recommending improvements to this as there have been about what to do with the Auckland port. As with the port, no government has substantively acted.

Countries New Zealand can compare itself with began to act on making local government matter decades ago.

From the year 2000 in the UK, urban and regional local authorities were given the option to amalgamate if their citizens supported this and in return get greater local government control and funding over their priorities, tied to delivery.

Copenhagen and Vienna were devolved special status from their national governments to control more of their destiny. Voting in these jurisdictions now varies from 60-70 percent and the OECD and World Bank highlight their city development achievements.

Australia took a different approach by making voting compulsory and so in the state of Victoria which runs Melbourne, state election turnouts exceed 90 percent.

The chance for change has come

The New Zealand problem that needs fixing is not just an improvement in the voting system. On October 28, 18 months work will land when the Future for Local Government Review will be published. Established by the current government, its purpose is to fundamentally review the country’s local government and recommend changes it thinks are needed.

The public will have several months to give feedback before the Review is finalised in June 2023, around four months before the next General Election.

Labour has some form in improving local government with both the significant 1989 reforms and Helen Clark’s government initiating the Auckland amalgamation. Rather than reforming local government, National has typically focused on key sector issues by changing housing policy, funding specific transport projects or attempting to improve resource management. The Review will become a 2023 General Election issue, if the political parties believe voters care enough about it.

We know it’s an issue governments care about. They have so frequently asked the Productivity Commission to examine areas of local government performance (35 percent of the Commission’s reports by early 2020) that it provided a sixth report summarising its insights.

This report described nine areas the Commission said, if acted on, would provide substantial improvements across many areas of national wellbeing including more than 30 percent lower housing costs and better transport infrastructure. These include expanding funding tools, fixing the planning system, incentivising better council performance and a much improved central government understanding of, and activity and relationship with, local government. The Commission says a systems approach is needed to fix these profound problems. That means a complete overhaul addressing all the issues it has raised.

At the heart of this will be whether a central government is prepared to give up some power so local government can be more effective with the power it is given.

No government since the 1980s has been up for this challenge. Governments usually prefer to progress only the issues that connect most with their political or policy preference views. Hopefully the Review gives political parties the cover to embrace this. Because until a government signs up to completing this work, the shadow boxing about election turnout is destined to continue.

Mark Thomas leads Serviceworks, a cities and technology business. He was previously an elected member of part of the Auckland Council and is a director of the Committee for Auckland.

Leave a comment