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Local Body elections


Local body elections delivered some shock results apparently, but the vast majority of people won’t be troubled at all.

All around the country, commentators are saying the people have spoken; the people are angry; the people want this, or more accurately, like petulant toddlers confronted with a vegetable, the people don’t want THAT.

But actually, rather than a strident voice for change, most people didn’t so much as whisper a preference.

In Invercargill, where voter turn-out is traditionally strong, Nobby Clark romped home with a 2957 vote margin on his closest opponent. Taking a step back from the rhetoric, based on Electoral Commission figures Nobby secured just 36% of the mayoral vote from those who actually voted, he only got 19% of the potential electoral roll vote, and when we include those who couldn’t even be bothered enrolling, just 17% of the total eligible votes. All, up 83% of Invercargill’s eligible voters did not vote for Nobby.

The top six council candidates actually attracted more support than their new mayor; Nigel Skelt and Tom Campbell each secured 41% of actual votes.

(Even with waning popularity and a council table who spoke in an almost-unanimous voice of a cognitive deficit, Sir Tim Shadbolt in 2019  achieved his sixth term with 48% of the vote – that year Nobby was the top polling councillor, he actually got 33% more votes than he did this time around in his mayoral campaign.)

If we were listening, truly listening, to the Sound of Silence, we would place an empty chair at the head of the Invercargill City Council table because 54% of eligible voters, an absolute majority, whichever electoral system you’re using, chose not to vote at all.

Some have been quick to blame the postal ballot. Granted, there are probably people who don’t know how to address and mail a letter in 2022 – but considering online polls where maybe, 200 people from a fan base of 78,000 followers will click a box I don’t think the voting method has anything to do with it.

The primary reason is for low turnout is we just don’t care.

We don’t know who our councillors are. We don’t know what they do, or what they’re even supposed to do. From the sounds of it, a lot of them are in the same boat.

Come election time we get head shots and brief biopsies inviting us to bring our collective prejudices to the ballot. So how do we feel about accountants, teachers, lawyers, pharmacists, men, women, young people, aged people, working parents, married, single, ethnic minorities?

In the day-to-day world these are all the kind of details we have been taught not to put on our CVs to avoid prejudicial practice from seasoned HR people who have taken courses in overcoming their individual bias.

Local body candidates are not screened for competency, they are not reference checked, there is no random drug test, no-one has checked their stated qualifications, their medical or police records,  even the interview stage is purely voluntary.

Nor can the candidates complain of discrimination through process – apparently when we’re collectively sexist, racist and ageist, then we’re not being sexist, racist or ageist at all.

Little surprise that most people are a little uncomfortable. We all know people who say one politician much the same as the other, what they are most afraid of is finding themselves having voted for the person who it is invariably discovered after the election stands for everything they personally abhor, and becoming vicariously culpable for everything they do.

I was working in marketing when a local body candidate explained their professionally appropriate experience and eminently sensible platform, only to stop themselves mid-spiel and say: “I’m even boring myself.”

Much as we want competent and capable governance, it is the electoral kiss of death.

Jokingly, I threw out: “Vote (candidate) they’ve got a guinea pig.”

“I’d vote for that,” said the graphic designer.

A winning strategy. Maybe not everyone voted for the guinea pig – some may have voted for the only candidate with a sense of humour.

But guinea pig and self-deprecation aside, nothing in that campaign spoke of competency for the role, and apparently, it didn’t need to.

Any competent marketer can get any person elected.

It’s not that good people don’t stand for local government. They do. But it’s hard for them to get a seat at the table with all those good looking guinea pigs on the ballot.

I think we would get much better councils if we pulled people at random from the electoral role – just like jury service.

Yes, they’ll need training; Yes, some of them will be absolutely useless (I suspect far fewer than the ones we elect).  And, once the appointed councillors have served their three year terms, or maybe four, we will have something else New Zealand business desperately needs, a pool of people from all walks of life with the governance experience necessary to create diverse and varied boards to take us into the future.

If you liked the outcome of the local body elections, you’re probably in the minority. If you didn’t,  go easy on your fellow citizens – they didn’t vote for this either.

We need to start talking electoral reform, but that reform to be meaningful, has to be a lot deeper than simply how we tick the box.

It’s all Just Cause and Effect   which, although it has nothing to do with elections, has everything to do with New Zealand and remains the one book you should read this year.


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