The diminished power of local councillors, election booklets that have “passed their use-by date” and uncertainty over amalgamation all helped drive turnout to a record low in this year’s local council elections.
That was the verdict of Mike Reid, Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ)’s principal policy advisor, in a lecture given to the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies.
Turnout in this year’s elections was 41%, continuing a trend of turnout falling from around 50% in the 1990s. Within that wider figure there were some differences, Reid said, with turnout at 49% for councils serving populations of under 20,000, against 36% for larger councils. The highest turnout was 63%, in Westland, while the lowest, 30.5%, was in Waikato.
There were 13 women mayors out of 67 – roughly one in five – and 30% of councillors women, unchanged from recent years. “It has almost, if you like, hit a glass ceiling,” Reid said.
LGNZ surveys from the early 2000s showed that the reasons influencing people not to vote included:
- Didn’t know enough (31%)
- Not interested (14%)
- Forgot or left it too late (24%)
- Too busy (14%)
It did not help, Reid said, that the candidate information booklet provided to voters “has passed its use-by date … it’s getting harder to distinguish candidates from their 150 words.”
But a more serious problem was the “diminishing” power of local councils, which were being overridden by central government: “Why would you spend time voting, when the people you’re voting for can’t make any decisions?”
The voting process had also become more complicated, the uncertainty created by the amalgamation had deterred many candidates (and thus made election campaigns less interesting), and the large size of New Zealand local councils make them relatively distant from voters, Reid said.
Anecdotal evidence suggested that strong personalities helped increase turnout. This led to the not entirely serious conclusion, Reid said, that “we should encourage John Banks to stand again”.
Another way to encourage greater turnout would be to devolve more power to local councils. Councils could also be supported to engage their communities better, Reid said, pointing to the example of Brisbane, where councillors held regular neighbourhood clinics with support from council officers.
He also noted the promise by the new Christchurch mayor, Lianne Dalziel, to delegate more powers to community boards, and the success of the ‘Vote Auckland’ website in disseminating information on candidates.
However, he warned that more local government mergers would probably drive turnout even lower. In the future, people would be saying: “I don’t think we’ll ever be back to the great days of 40% turnout.”