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Opinion: Politicians need to regain control of local government

Is it time for election reform?

By Dr Andy Asquith, Dr Andrew Cardow and Dr Karen Webster

The chief executive of Hamilton City Council Richard Briggs is calling for reform of local government elections. This echoes a call we have been making for some time. Given the somewhat half-hearted voter turnout figures in this year’s local elections, it is time for a review of the local electoral system in New Zealand.

What is disturbing about the Briggs statement is that it comes from a chief executive, and not a local government politician. Recent legislation has empowered chief executives – as opposed to councils or the Electoral Commission – with the role of promoting elections and local democracy. 

This disconnect between local government politicians and the promotion of participation in local government elections is an emerging pattern. Increasingly, we see unelected council officers actively engaged in making fundamental decisions about local elections with, at best, minimal input from local politicians or citizens.

Given politicians have the biggest stake in the electoral game, shouldn’t they be at the forefront of this discussion? Instead, we have heard repeatedly, off the record from local government politicians, that low turnout reflects voter satisfaction. This ‘head in the sand’ approach mistakes apathy for satisfaction and is akin to playing the violin while the town hall burns.

What we see instead is the gradual removal of politicians from the debate around local elections. This can be illustrated by some recent examples. In 2015 two of us were invited to join an Auckland Council Election Planning Reference Group to prepare for the 2016 local elections. The two primary tasks of the group were to increase the number of candidates standing who were not male, pale and stale and to increase voter engagement and turnout.

We know that in terms of the latter, the group failed. What was most striking about the membership of the group was the absence of any elected member. Apart from a former Auckland councillor, no one familiar with the pressures of standing for election and serving as a current politician was included. The agenda was formulated and dominated by a few senior officers.

Who is promoting online voting?

Prior to this latest round of elections, much noise was made about the possible use of online voting. Given that elections are political events, you might expect this discussion to be led by Local Government New Zealand, the collective voice of our local body politicians. But this was not the case.

After Local Government NZ abandoned the idea on cost grounds, the Online Voting Working Group was established. This group, under the auspices of the Society of Local Government Managers, was essentially driven by a senior officer from Auckland and sought to galvanise eight other councils into pursuing online voting in 2019. While Local Government NZ was represented on the working group, it was the officers who dominated proceedings – dangling a panacea to deal with the issue of low voter turnout.

During the election campaign this year, three distinct voices called for a move to online voting in 2022: the leaders of the two private companies running the majority of our local elections and the General Manager of Democracy Services at Auckland Council. Once again, in a space of fundamental importance in a democracy – the conduct of elections – the politicians have been completely silent, as was Local Government NZ.

Politicians need to put themselves front and centre

If we are to address the issue of why voters do not engage in our local elections, we need our local body politicians front and centre. Public Administration 101 states clearly that our local government managers work under the direction of our elected politicians. What we are increasingly seeing is local government managers setting the tone, direction and style of engagement and debate within our local councils.

It is time for our local politicians to step up to the mantle and seize control of the agenda. It is, supposedly, after all, their agenda – or have our mayors and councillors essentially abdicated all responsibility to appointed chief executives and managers? If the latter is the case, then why not simply abolish democratically elected local government and have a Wellington-appointed official determining what’s best for the people from Invercargill to the Far North?

An obvious solution would be to make the Electoral Commission responsible for the organisation and promotion of local government elections. This would allow councillors to set policy, reconnect with their communities and promote the importance of local democracy. Then managers and officers can go about implementing the policy decisions of our democratically elected councils.

Dr Andy Asquith and Dr Andrew Cardow are public management specialists at the Massey Business School and Dr Karen Webster is a public management specialist at AUT.

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