Local Democracy is broken, but whose fault is it?

Geoff SimmonsPolitics14 Comments

Local democracy is failing to deliver in many parts of the country, which in some extreme cases (Canterbury) has led to the removal of their powers. In Auckland a similar threat hung over the Council if they didn’t pass the Unitary Plan. Is this the right response or should we be giving them more powers instead to make them more relevant.

Falling Turnout

Local democracy is locked in a vicious cycle, which ultimately looks like a death spiral. Turnout at its elections has dropped precipitously from almost 60% in 1989 to almost 40% in 2013. Compare that with national elections with 77% turnout, down from around 90% in the 1940s and 50s.

Falling voter turnout is a problem in many countries at all levels of government, but in our local authorities it is getting to the point where democracy is seriously compromised. The result of poor turnout is that decisions are made in the interests of a shrinking group of voters; usually the older, wealthier members of society. This of course reinforces existing divisions, making people even less likely to engage in the whole process.

We’ve seen a number of examples of this in action: Auckland Council’s repeated bowing to the NIMBYs that oppose increased density of development in inner city suburbs; the capture of Horizons Regional Council by farming interests in order to water down the plans to improve water quality; the frustration Environment Minister Nick Smith has publicly expressed over lack of progress by Regional Councils on water quality, despite 95% of Kiwis saying they want swimmable rivers.

What can we do?

Low turnout suggests that local authorities are failing to work in the best interests of the population. Does that mean we should get rid of them or limit their powers further? That seems to be the Government’s ultimate response, but it may only make the problems worse – further undermining local government and thereby ensuring declining engagement. Are there other options?

Of course, making it easier to vote would help. Given the decline in post boxes online voting is long overdue, but was stymied this time around. However, much like compulsory voting, reducing the barrier to vote doesn’t mean that people will make better decisions.

The fundamental problem is that many people simply don’t see the point in investing the time in understanding local politics enough to make an informed decision. This is known as salience – a feeling that your vote will not make a difference.[1] Voting in local elections, as it stands, simply doesn’t make enough of a difference to the lives of the voters for them to warrant taking an interest.

In New Zealand, spending by local authorities is 3.8% of GDP and 11% of total government spending. Contrast this with the UK where local authority spending is 10% of GDP, and 26% of total government spending. That sort of spending power is worth people getting out of bed and voting for, because it funds stuff that affects their lives.

So maybe instead of stifling local authority spending in order to improve their effectiveness, we should be increasing it. There are plenty of examples of areas where our central government has given local authorities responsibility for an issue but left them without any of the effective tools to deal with it.

Giving local authorities more power

Perhaps the best example of this is transport. Auckland Council has been talking about congestion charging for years as a way to pay for transport infrastructure, but Government has only recently seen the light. Meanwhile in Wellington most mayoral candidates are making promises that they can’t keep because roads are outside their jurisdiction. Central Government determines the spine of the road infrastructure (State Highway 1), and can even ignore whether projects meet a cost benefit test. Then the local authorities have to scramble around making public & active transport fit those decisions by central government.

On the environmental side, Local Government New Zealand is also calling for the tools their members need to deliver their responsibilities. They want the ability to levy taxes and royalties (e.g. for water use and pollution) and to compel developers to contribute to environmental projects to offset any damage they do.

The New Zealand Initiative has argued that local authorities should be able to experiment more with policies in Special Economic Zones. They also argue that local authorities should be able to keep some of the financial benefits from projects such as housing developments and mines as an incentive to overcome NIMBYs and encourage economic activity locally. These ideas are promising, provided they are balanced with environmental and social needs to ensure true progress.

The trouble is that no politician is going to hand more money and power to local government when they are in such a democratically parlous state. It is a catch 22. In the next blog we will look at some more practical short-term solutions to the malaise.

New Models of Local Democracy

Local democracy is in a death spiral. Turnout is low, partly because they have no power. They have no power (and no immediate prospect of getting more) because performance is poor. Performance is poor in part because turnout is low.

How do we break the cycle? The “go to” in our culture is amalgamation; such as Auckland’s super city model. That approach is a sensible way to deliver regional services – water and roads for one – but falls down for others. Auckland is still struggling to manage that balance with its Local Boards, and other regions such as Wellington have rejected that solution outright.

And why should it work? If people are struggling to engage with local body politics when it is local, why will they engage more when it is at the more distant regional level? Remember a key determinant of election turnout is that people think their vote will make a difference to their lives. The only advantage of absorbing local government into regional government would come if central government devolved more responsibility to them.

Another option would be to reduce the power of the Council generally and invest more power in the Mayor – the London model. That might get people more interested in finding about that contest at least. The Auckland reform went some way towards that model but elsewhere the mayoralty remains a pretty toothless position.

So how can we break the death spiral and restore the confidence of both the people and central government in local government? There are answers, but they involve persuading politicians to hand over power, which can be difficult.

Over the past few decades, new models of democracy have emerged. In the old days governments and councils provided information or, if you were lucky, consultation. Now we have found ways to involve citizens, collaborate and even empower them to make the decisions. These new approaches have huge potential, provided the politicians are content to remove themselves entirely from the decision making process.

Collaboration can be powerful but has a checkered history in its short time in New Zealand. The best example is the Land and Water Forum, which has had some limited success but not as much as it should have. The main problem is that it isn’t true collaboration, because Government is involved in the forum but then picks and chooses what it will implement. This approach lacks credibility, which is why Fish and Game have walked from the process. If you are going to all the bother of collaborating and compromising to find a position that everyone can agree to, you don’t want to then have someone else making the final call.

We are now seeing collaboration being used for Wellington transport. After the Basin Flyover got kicked for touch, NZTA swallowed its pride and sat down with the local authorities to hammer out a long-term solution in a process known as Get Welly Moving. This is promising, but it remains to be seen how truly open to ideas they are. At the moment NZTA is spending billions funneling more cars into Wellington’s CBD; a place where many people are expressly demanding better public transport, walking and cycling options to enhance denser inner city living.

We can go even further than collaboration by empowering local communities to make decisions themselves. Citizen’s assemblies and juries are where a representative group of citizens come together to debate and make a decision. Experiments have shown that when ordinary citizens are armed with the evidence they make incredibly rational decisions.

We are seeing this approach used to resolve the Island Bay cycleway dispute. After a great deal of controversy the Council has gone back to the community to find a solution, including helping them develop a 10 year plan for the development of the suburb. Mayoral hopeful Nick Leggett wants to give this same opportunity to other communities.

The added bonus of this approach is that it is very much aligned with our Treaty obligations. The Maori version of the Article 2 of the Treaty includes the word rangatiratanga, which in the English version was incorrectly defined as property rights. In modern terms it really is the right of communities to have a say in how their services are run. To honour the Treaty we have to offer this opportunity to Maori communities, but there is no reason all communities couldn’t take it up. Rangatiratanga could be for everyone.

Low turnout, and the resulting poor performance of local authorities is a real concern. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we should push more power to the centre; quite the contrary. It could be a sign that we need to do local democracy differently.

[1] Mark N. Franklin. “Electoral Participation.” in Controversies in Voting Behavior p. 87

Local Democracy is broken, but whose fault is it? was last modified: September 27th, 2016 by Geoff Simmons
About the Author
Geoff Simmons

Geoff Simmons

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Geoff Simmons is an economist working for the Morgan Foundation. Geoff has an Honours degree from Auckland University and over ten years experience working for NZ Treasury and as a manager in the UK civil service. Geoff has co-authored three books alongside Gareth.

  • Riks

    An improvement to the current system would be to put the candidate information sent out with the voting forms online. With this you could include a comparison of their views on the major issues (similar to what was done in the general election with the major parties) and the ability to submit questions directly to the candidates. The candidates don’t have to answer the questions but like Trade Me you could see the number of unanswered questions.

  • Warwick Barnes

    The answer is some kind of revolution I think. Sack them all at both levels. They wilfully ignore the wishes of their electorate and do pretty much as they please. Ideology wise the candidates and parties have drifted closer and closer to each other. The reality is its the same old shit no matter who you vote for. Who wants to participate in a system as flawed as that?

  • Peter Lewis

    It actually makes no difference who you vote for because it makes no difference who gets in.
    The mayor leads the city the way the bowsprit leads the boat.
    As do the elected Councillors.

    The way the local authority act now works is that all the elected officials are permitted to do is read reports and sip tea.

    Their only allowable point of contact with the council staff is the council
    CEO who can ignore, stall or frustrate them as he chooses – with no
    penalty.

    The elected representatives cannot pick up the phone and say ‘mend those potholes’ or ‘remove those bus lanes, the voters hate them’.

    We have even had the Auckland Council CEO publicly gagging the elected
    Councillors from discussing controversial subjects with the media and the ratepayers.

    The inmates have taken over the asylum and are running it for their own benefit and according to their own beliefs.

    There is quite a discussion now about the low level of voter turnout, and how to improve this.

    This disinterest in voting is actually quite a logical and rational reaction
    to the ratepayers eventual realization that the whole thing is a
    meaningless and impotent charade that will change nothing. So people
    just don’t bother.

    So don’t loose any sleep about your vote – because it is really just a
    futile exercise left over from past era when different rules applied.

  • Alanna Barrett

    So who carries about local Government Elections. Every one in NZ has never even heard of Southland District Council. We are the council that is the only example of Legislation which is now before parliament used in the Local Government Amendment Act No 2. We do not have community Boards. Since 1989 SDC through the Local Government commissioners Governance Rulings has been removing our Community Boards and we have the CEO Boards, called Nightcaps CDA, Ohai CDA. And the damage these local governance has done is unbelievable. Ohai has a average valuation of $19,500 each house, and SDC over Charge with rates of $2,500. This Governance is illegal as any member whom places any written submission of opposing on any Annual Plan LTP have had it minute they will be rules ” out of order”. This council has allowed the cleric “Uriah Heep” in the back office to run our council. The amount of creative accountancy is unreal and the Auditor Sign’s off on anything.? Local Governance is dangerous and an extreme down here. Council staff do lie in courts of NZ law for successful prosecutions. The wild wild west, and buy up large on any land in these zoned areas does not have to be publicly disclosed. In the 23 years as a voter I have only ever once voted for a candidate. We have sitting members? No vote.? But this year is the only time we can vote for a Mayor.? Because the other candidate has withdrawn. We wait to see.?

    • Deirdre Kent

      Sounds ghastly.

  • Floss

    Is creating a super city the answer, in my opinion no, it further undermines local democracy and participation. When the will of the people are ignored, they feel disenfranchised and disillusioned. So how do we stop the bleed out. Just maybe there needs to be more accountability, for example, if you run for election on a certain ticket for example ‘no water meters’ and you vote contrary to your election promise you should be impeached or you should be required to go back to the electorate (snap election) for a decision as to whether or not they still want you to represent them. Just a thought.

  • Tom

    First cripple it, then encourage people to complain, then increase the load-shifting to profit-oriented private management with claims that the free market can do it better. Or just take over directly from locals and centralise, cutting the locals out of any power over what once was theirs.

    We’re just seeing standard neolib tactics, the same that are being used here and in the USA to destroy any useful public organization that’s not a profit-maker for the rulers and their friends.

    Christchurch gets mentioned, but Kaipara should also be on everyone’s minds. In the Local Government Act, the government guaranteed citizens the right to consultation before a local council could spend their money or put them deep in debt. The Auditor General is also in that so-called law, standing as the expert who guarantees the books are okay. Suuuuure. Then when this Act is violated and the AG fails to catch it year after year, despite the complaints of citizens with strong suspicions, and the ratepayers go to court, THE GOVERNMENT PASSES A RETROSPECTIVE ACT THAT WITHDRAWS ALL THE PROMISED PROTECTIONS BUT EMPHASIZES THE CITIZENS’ OBLIGATIONS TO PAY OFF DEBTS THAT WERE KEPT SECRET FROM THEM.

    Why is anyone surprised when people stop participating? Everything is going to plan – just not the ordinary person’s plan.

  • KevinMcCready

    You are kidding Geoff? Talk to infosec about zeroday then talk to me again about online voting. A much better article would have focused on STV or local MMP as a vital reform. And your first sentence?? You do know why the council was sacked don’t you? Very disappointing article. I expected better from you.

  • ((( Karl Kane )))

    Massey is experimenting with tools to help engage young voters, that the research shows don’t vote because: they are unaware of the elections (not consuming local news media… ), unaware of candidate ethos and values (they all say the same thing… ‘liveable cities, unlock transport, build economy”– the ‘how’/’at what cost’ avoided) and don’t know how local bodies impact on their lives. http://www.votelocal.nz helps lower those three barriers.

  • Anthony Rimell

    Geoff, as a candidate in Christchurch, I’ve seen a noticeable lask of opportunities in Chch to meet candidates/ voters – either face-to-face, or in any on line process. I think we need to invest more time and energy into identifying how voters want to connect, and why the current processes arent working for them.

    It is also true, as others have written, that the 1989 reforms have seriously eroded the sense of empowerment people feel with regard to their local body groups (Councils, etc). Appalingly, one candidate here has even suggested that Councils should ‘go the full monty’, and be like nothing more than boards of directors of companies/ corporations.

    Add in, here in Chch, our experience of a sacked Regional Council – supposedly over incompetence, but in reality because it refused to kowtow to Central Government demands – and you have levels of disilliusionment and apathy that are distressing and dangerous.

    It is time for a ground-up assessment of local government; led by the governed not the governors.

  • KJT

    We all know now that any council, which actually listens to constituents, will be overridden by central Government on any conflict, with wealthy vested interests, so why bother.

  • Deirdre Kent

    Great article Geoff, full of a lot of figures and facts. We in the Kapiti Coast District Council all but lost our community boards a few years ago, just one vote saved them. But they have so few powers. I think there has to be a rebellion and wrote a blog on it once called The Declaration of Interdependence http://neweconomics.net.nz/index.php/2016/09/declaration-of-interdependence-by-a-community/. I hear the Quakers have put out a document on the Treaty lately and in it they talk about rangitiratanga for small governance units in Maoridom. Looking forward to reading it because it has lessons for us all.

  • Amyra

    In practical terms, what is democracy? It means we get a limited say every 1093 (give or take) days. We, the electors, often don’t know the people standing or what they stand for; or we do know them and what they stand for but disagree with them. They get voted in, and then they do what they like, or what central government will allow them to do for 1000 odd days and we have no further say. Consultations you say? They’re a joke.

    Making voting easier is not the answer. How hard is it to mark a piece of paper and put it in the post? Online voting? Nah, not everyone has access and besides, online voting is too easy to hijack. To get people voting, they have to believe their votes counts for something and these days it doesn’t seem to. Also making consultations meaningful would be a step in the right direction.

  • Jim Owen

    In the 1880’s we changed our voting system from being a property right to being a human right and as a result the first government voted in under the new system was the Liberal Party Government based for the first time on one man one vote. During the first term of this government that was extended to include one woman one vote. One of the essential things which then came into play was the development of the political party and its increasing strength during the 20th Century.
    The advantage of this method are numerous but importantly it allows people to quickly identify whose “side” they feel most closely associated with. Local government in New Zealand has very few councillors voted in on a Party ticket and so voters are asked to vote for Tommy Smith, Peggy Sue or Uncle Tom Cobbly on the basis that they are going to lower rates but give us a new park, bridge, town hall and better pavements but will control expenses. The UK where as Geoff points out a great deal more government spending is done by local bodies the voting is done on party lines and I would like to see the same here with an MMP system. This would also make the special rights type appointments unnecessary as it would sort out the proportions of those who vote in a much fairer manner.