Hamilton City CEO Calls For Local Electoral Reform

An interesting op-ed appeared in the Stuff website yesterday, reporting on the call from Hamilton City’s CEO Richard Briggs for reform of local government elections (reported on Radio NZ three weeks ago). The Stuff article is written by three academic management specialists, so it’s refreshingly non-partisan in its approach. Briggs has stated his view that the low electoral turnout is simply unacceptable. He has been empowered by recent legislative changes that give council CEOs an important role in promoting local governance and democracy that takes it out of the political realm (although unfortunately they can still be hobbled by councillors voting for inadequate financial provision, as happened in Christchurch where only $80,000 was available to campaign for increased turnout).

We disagree, however, that the key issue is that politicians do not have control of the political process. That is something that is demonstrably wrong in the approach taken by the Stuff article authors. The naive notion that all the political left like to promulgate during their electoral campaigns is that too much power has been given to unelected bureaucrats and that they will promise to fix it. Then nothing ever changes, and why is that? The actual truth is that politicians, especially left wing ones, are generally far more knowledgable about local government affairs than they will ever admit. That is certainly the case in Christchurch with the current Mayor that we have, and some of the councillors in her camp. The inconvenient truth some are unwilling to admit is that the politicians find it convenient to blame bureaucrats for unpopular decisions they want to push through, in other words scapegoating and blame deflecting is definitely part of the political master plan.

The authors of the Stuff article have used examples they are familiar with in order to justify their claims that the electoral system is being controlled by bureaucrats. But the reality is a whole lot different. The reason that bureaucrats are doing the work is that politicians simply don’t care. The truth about low electoral turnout is that it reflects increasing disempowerment of a significant chunk of the local electorate from the political process as politicians of all hues pander overwhelmingly to the elite and wealthy of society in order to, essentially, buy votes. The authors display astounding naievety about the probity of local governance, which is inherently weak and corrupt. Or maybe that is part of their PR campaign on behalf of the political left.

If you want real electoral reform at local level it is necessary to give all voters direct input into the funding of local government. We all have a staje in central government as we all pay our taxes. In local government, the power of councils to levy property owners gives them a vested level of political power that is denied to non owners. The local government rating system needs to be changed to one that means rates are paid by all citizens, not just those that own property. Otherwise local government will remain what it is – a tool of central government to shore up political power at a local level. It is totally shameful that Labour and fellow travellers of the left have focused on gaining votes from the elite and wealthy on the grounds that any political power is better than principles.