In between the controversy over berm mowing in Auckland and panic that Americas Cup sailors might go offshore if we don’t fund them quick enough, you might find the odd article about voter apathy in the postal voting for local body elections.
In Hamilton, the worst performing local body, less than ten percent of eligible voters have bothered Around the country, returns are down 25 to 50 percent on what they were at the same period in the last local body elections in 2010. The key words in those articles are ‘disconnect’ and ‘lack of understanding,’ and, of course, ‘apathy’.
Apathy means a lack of interest or concern. Our local councils run all the infrastructure that comes into our houses; maintain or not the streets we drive, ride and walk on; allow people the right to build and develop in our cities and regions; make sure a whole swathe of things are safe enough for us to use, eat and enjoy; plan what the place we live in will be like in the future; and that is not even close to the full list. So the suggestion is that those who have not voted are apparently uninterested or unconcerned about the things on the list.
This seems unlikely. You can hear the grumbles about rates, what it’s being spent on, who’s getting it wherever you go. So what about disconnected, or lacking in understanding? People who I encounter are certainly not disconnected from the services I outlined above; if any one of those services is disrupted, broken or damaged, our neighbours around us will put up with it for a while, but within a week there has been comment and contact made with the council. When one of our lampposts fell over, it was fixed within the day, which can only have been possible because someone contacted the council. Which also indicates that people understand who is running the services they use. They know noise control is through the council, that you have to have two people ring from different numbers within 15 minutes (leading to calls from a cell phone and a landline); they know that dog control doesn’t come and pick up dogs so it is easier to give the mongrel the fright of its life with a stick so they never come back.
I cannot conclude that people are apathetic, disconnected or lack understanding about the services the council provides that matter to them. But that’s the clincher; what matters to them. Our councillors don’t matter to us. And the people purporting to represent us on council generally do not matter to us because they are not doing it for us. They are doing it for a target group who already sent their postal votes in, not for any higher goal of representing the wider community. One of the solutions suggested by learned observers to the low voter turnout is to bed in a party system at local body level; this just institutionalises the sense that people are not standing for the common good, but for particular interests.
There are exceptions. Terry Molloy’s one here in Tauranga. He has the common good in his bones; if you are in his ward, he will always make time to meet you, listen to you, help you if he can. Obviously I am going to say Manu Caddie in Gisborne is another. But he is, and I worry what carrying all that on his shoulders will do to him over time.
I contend that the failure today is that politics is a career, not a calling. If you are blessed enough to speak on your paepae at your marae, if you are called to that position, you hold it is as a precious jewel, a gift to stand in front of people and speak for them. No money changes hands, very little thanks is spoken, but it is precious. And to do it, you struggle; to hold down a job while being available to the marae, to keep upskilling your language and knowledge. Politics is a career. You get paid. In Tauranga, quite handsomely. And money is a thief of goodwill, humility and the common good.
If it cost the person standing to be councillor, not just in the campaign, but when they arrived at the council table, people would listen to what they had to say in the campaign. Because they would be keenly aware of the integrity and motivation of the speaker, rather than bitter that this person is getting paid more than them to just speak nice words. People are not apathetic, disconnected or lacking in understanding; people are not voting as a protest against the perceived largesse for a few.
We know the common refrain: if you don’t vote, don’t complain. Clearly, well over three quarters of registered voters reject that and see not voting for what it is: a protest. It’s time for a reform before we are facing a revolution.