In October this year we have Local Government and District Health Boards elections. Traditionally voter turnout is not great. As someone seeking a third term on a local Council and a second term on a DHB this article is my ten cents worth on why I think public interest is limited and will include a few suggestions as to how we might improve democratic involvement.
At the top of my list is the fact that the public have a much more limited understanding about the role and functions of both Territorial Authorities and Regional Councils than they do regarding the functions of central government. I think the media have to take some responsibility for the poor coverage of local body politics in this regard. I hope it is not related to the lack of entertainment value offered by Mayor and councillor behaviour that leaves us feeling ignored.
Council services are very foundational to the basic health and well-being of local households and it is not until a catastrophe like the Christchurch earthquake that folk get to appreciate the services they take for granted on a daily basis. Local Government NZ has identified that Councils do a poor job of communicating beyond official documents with their ratepayers where their rates money is spent. They suggest that people maneuvering their car around road cones should see signage explaining that this a maintenance activity of the local council.
It has been suggested that people do not believe that voting in local elections makes any difference to the outcomes they get from their rating contribution. I think that this is a blatantly wrong assumption and in fact they get much more itemised and transparent feedback on how their rates are spent through their rates invoice, than they ever do for the central tax take. Transparency creates its own problem in that ratepayers feel aggrieved if a service they don’t personally utilise, like a library is rated against their property and fail to see the amenity value that such a service adds to the value of their property. Whereas very few tax payers suggest that because they don’t have children attending state schools, or haven’t occupied a public hospital bed in the last tax year, their tax rate should diminish.
There is also a perception that Councils mismanage the monies they are responsible for. In 2015 the Local Government Funding Agency reported that the sector was in a very sound financial position and despite the fact that a number of councils face some serious challenges in regards to affordability of rates, there was evidence that most councils were employing appropriate financial strategies in response to forecasts.
So Councils need to take a good hard look at their communication strategies so that voters get a clearer sense of what is at stake if they elect the wrong people to govern the provision of local infrastructure. I think that Councils need to become more innovative and less formal when it comes to consulting with ratepayers over long term and annual plans and finally local media need to take a more active interest in all candidates for Council, not just the Mayoral race.
Judy Turner, Deputy Leader