Mayor Dave Cull has suggested we might move to a single city ward as a result of Andrew Noone’s default victory in Waikouaiti-Port Chalmers, leaving nearly 7,000 registered voters without a say at all on the make-up of the Council that governs them. Some planning functions, roading for example, would be decentralised to the community boards. I am certainly in favour of reviewing our ward boundaries ahead of the next election, but I can’t see this as the solution. It may increase the choice of candidates for residents (Port Chalmers farmers could vote for Mike Lord if they wanted him to represent their interests), but it in turn makes it harder for residents of those areas to be elected to Council in the future (given the lower voter base of their community relative to their urban/suburban counterparts). For this to be fair, the decentralisation would need to be so extensive as to give those living further out a form of Home Rule over their affairs. As Stu Fleming put it, “Dunedin has to figure out if it wants the large city boundary, or if it is really a central urban area with diverse communities attached. I think it is the latter. Council tends to tie itself in knots trying to reconcile the completely different needs.”
The bigger a ward becomes, the more difficult it is for candidates to connect with the voters whose support they need to make it to the Council table. There are two ways of doing this: having the free time and physical capacity to individually visit every household in the city (impossible if you have mobility issues, say, or a 9-5 job), or invest enough in advertising to get your message out that way. I already think charging people $200 to exercise their democratic right to stand is excessive. Setting the bar so high for a reaching the entire electorate only compounds this. Stacking the odds in favour of the independently wealthy or self-employed is bad for our democracy. We need to broaden demographic representation on Council, not narrow it.
There have been suggestions that the high number of candidates in one Central Ward may have something to do with the poor voter turnout. Did the sheer volume of candidates overwhelm potential voters, who gave up and didn’t bother? I’m not saying this is or isn’t valid, but we do need to talk to people who felt this way to try and get the best understanding we can of why participation in local democracy is plummeting. This is something that local authorities and iwi, central government, the Electoral Commission, our secondary/tertiary education system, community groups, and media outlets need to be working together on very seriously. Bryce Edwards has suggested an inquiry, but this can’t be a top down checklist of suggestions to be ignored by those with the power to enact them. It also can’t be One Size Fits All. It needs to driven at the community level, because it is the only way we will find local solutions to local problems.
Shifting the trend won’t be easy, and it may not happen quickly, but it is urgent that we begin to address it through as many avenues as possible. This is why I support the introduction of online voting – not because I think it will be the participatory lightning rod some seem to think, but because we can’t afford to sideline any tools that we may have at our disposal. The same goes for putting polling booths on University campuses. We know that the student demographic have very low participation rates, a polling booth (even short term) is a move that we know would increase that with a captive audience of thousands of them on any given day. Big problem areas with simple solutions are the simplest place to start.
How we run our elections, and how we can increase the level of participation in them, are big questions that require strong public input to be meaningfully answered. The incoming council has plenty of other pressing concerns (finishing and implementing our Energy Plan and Transport Strategies among them), but it is worth kicking these big ideas around now while the most recent local election is still fresh in our minds.
Finally, might I just say that it is an honour to have been asked by the people of Dunedin to represent them on the Dunedin City Council. Thank you to everyone who offered their support and encouragement over the past year, allowing me to end up where I have. To be honest, it hasn’t really sunk in yet, and it has been an emotional few days, but I look forward to fighting for our future as a smart, green city for many generations to come.