With just under three weeks before voting papers being mailed out for local government elections, candidates are out in force. Flyers and pamphlets are landing in peoples letter boxes and campaign signage has gone up. But how many people care?
That is an interesting – and important – question. The reasoning that has existed all along has been that that the bigger the turn out in local government elections of electors, the clearer the mandate – or lack of – that will be given. But how well do people in New Zealand understand local government elections and how important do they think local government politics are to them and their communities?
If we look at Christchurch in 2019, we see a council dealing with major issues. Some of them are ongoing earthquake recovery issues, that might persist for another decade but gradually lessening in importance. Some are ones that have sprouted out of an apparent lack of accountability over council spending, misguided priorities and concerns about how our infrastructure should be managed.
There are several candidates standing against incumbent Mayor Lianne Dalziel who has said that she wants a third term. Ms Dalziel believes that she is standing to see through unfinished projects that started under her watch. She is challenged by well known activist John Minto who envisages a city with free bus transportation (which has actually been introduced in Dunkirk, France. Businessman Darryll Park who has held a number of executive positions, including South Island Manager at Air New Zealand is also standing.
In Christchurch City Council all of the wards have multiple candidates standing. This is in contrast with several smaller electorates where a single candidate has stood, and effectively won their seat simply by declaring their candidacy. This includes Waipa District Council in the North Island where the Mayor Jim Mylchreest has been re-elected unopposed simply because nobody else in the district is standing for Mayor. Likewise Waitomo District will get three new councillors unopposed for lack of competition in their wards.
It bothers me that people are so disinterested in local Government elections that in some cases nearly half a council can be elected unopposed, as has happened in Waitomo. Yet at the same time, in a small rural electorate with only a few thousand people and a largely rural rate payer base, I am not dreadfully surprised. Despite a smorgasbord of issues to keep them occupied it seems that drinking water, transport, rubbish collection, civil defence and all of the other issues that councils have to deal with are simply not sexy enough to elicit contenders.
And like many others I am not sure what one does to make that interest grow. A compulsory course in civics to make sure people understand the how the electoral system works only goes so far, and despite it being an offence to not be on the electoral roll, I do not know many are not enrolled, but I suspect it is in the thousands.
But in the big cities the campaigns are rumbling along. Auckland Mayor Phil Goff is facing down 20 challengers; Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel has 12 challengers; 14 are challenging Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull; Hamilton Mayor Andrew King has 7 including three of his current city councillors.