Voting papers are being sent out today, and lots of people say they won’t fill them out because they don’t know anything about the candidates. Respected website ‘The Spinoff’ is trying to fix that through its Policy Local tool. But it’s not the only one. Catherine Jeffcoat talks to the rest of the watchdogs.
The Spinoff local election coverage is made possible thanks to The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism click here.
In my day job at the Sustainable Business Council, we recently invited a panel of young people from not-for-profit and activist groups to tell our Annual Council Meeting how businesses could better engage with the community. Members listened carefully and asked thoughtful questions about what businesses needed to know, and how to build relationships.
Then out of the blue, Bevan, who runs a drycleaning firm in Taranaki, is a hard-core Chiefs fan, and never misses an Annual Council Meeting, said: “So we know young people really care about climate change and the planet, but how do we get them to vote?”.
Bevan is right to be concerned. Voting turnout in New Zealand’s local elections has long been dire and in decline, particularly among the young. Research carried out by Auckland Council after the 2016 local government election found the voting rate was highest among those who have voted before: males, older Pākehā people, ratepayers and people who have lived in Auckland for a number of years. Youth turnout lagged far behind that of people aged 65+.
When Auckland Council asked non-voters why they didn’t vote, the top reasons were “not knowing enough about the candidates (25%) or the policies (22%), not knowing who to vote for (16%), and the amount of effort required to select a candidate (10%)”. Recent research carried out by youth advocacy group Seed Waikato backed those findings, showing a high number of young people feel disconnected from local government.
Throughout Aotearoa, moves are underway to correct that democracy deficit: to bridge the information gap and help elect councils that will take action on the issues their communities care about. More and more organisations are undertaking citizen scrutiny initiatives to increase the amount of information available on candidates. Their goal is to make sure voters know what’s at stake in these elections and motivate them to vote, by getting beyond the vague slogans in voting booklets and telling people what their aspiring elected representatives really stand for.
Jenny Coatham at Generation Zero Dunedin doesn’t hesitate when asked whether young people care more about climate change than local government elections.
“Councils, on the whole, are not good at engaging and consulting with young people. They tend to want to do it on their terms, which mean writing a submission to the consultation document, and that’s not particularly exciting for your average 18, 20-year-old.”
Coatham says a lot of young people – and people generally – don’t realise how much councils shape their towns and cities, and how damaging it can be if poor-quality candidates are put in charge. Generation Zero is looking to bring that home this election. It has developed scorecards for Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, building on the scorecards they produced for the 2016 local body elections. Volunteers like Coatham have been charged with looking at candidates’ plans for making substantial progress on climate change as well as assessing their engagement with the community and leadership abilities. Results will be published when voting papers are sent out, and some regions are running follow up events, including panels, with information available on Gen Zero’s Facebook page. They’re just one of a rising number of groups trying to illuminate the issues and explain the candidates in this year’s local elections.
Explaining the DHB elections
DHB elections are often the most low-information contests in local democracy, with many voters knowing few or even none of the candidates. The Public Health Association is trying to change that. It ran scorecards for District Health Board candidates in Wellington in 2016, and this year it will be producing them in Christchurch and Dunedin as well. PHA chief executive Prudence Stone sees this as a chance to raise awareness of what DHBs actually do as well as increase voting rates.
“I’m not sure if many people even know how huge the role is. DHBs have to oversee one of New Zealand’s largest workforces and are the biggest owners of state capital, with assets like hospitals, Primary Healthcare Organisations and emergency services, and all the contracts that fall under that.
“If a DHB is made up of our peers in the community, well, what kind of a peer are you, are you just a cowboy who wants something on your CV or are you actually qualified?”
Focusing on transport policy
Bryan Crump, a familiar voice on Radio New Zealand, was moved to start his own podcast a year ago. The Traffic Jam covers Wellington’s transport issues in the wake of the city’s much-derided, deeply unpopular bus service overhaul. Crump is now taking his advocacy one step further, organising election panels with groups like the AA and Cycle Wellington.
“There’s actually a lot of fence-sitting from councillors saying they support a more walkable and liveable city as well as a four-lane highway to the airport,” he says. “Well, you can’t afford both. These meetings will give people a really clear idea of who to vote for your priorities.”
Crump says Wellington’s buses will be front-and-centre in the debates. “There was a lot of anger expressed against regional councillors after what happened with the buses – but who are you going to put in instead? Yes, the Regional Council showed a lack of care over that issue. But you can’t expect councillors to pay attention to an issue if voters are not collectively paying attention.” The Traffic Jam has already held one meeting on September 18 and will run another one on September 25. Visit its blog, as well as Facebook and Twitter.
Putting the spotlight on climate change
Inspired by Generation Zero, the Common Climate Network has developed a toolkit that any region can use to find out where their candidates stand on climate action, which has been picked up by groups around the country. The results will be published by Generation Zero at localelections.nz.
Low Carbon Kāpiti used the Common Climate Network template in a questionnaire sent out to candidates on the Kāpiti Coast District Council. Representatives from the organisation have been attending candidate meetings and asking questions in person. Its spokesman Jake Roos says the council has signed up to being carbon neutral by 2025, but has work to do to achieve its goal.
“Ideally, road maintenance, which is a huge contract, would be part of the carbon footprint, but there’s not enough data. And there have been poor decisions lately in terms of buying new gas boilers and diesel vehicles. We need councillors that ensure council spending aligns with going carbon neutral, and doesn’t rely too heavily on offsets”.
Roos hopes the scorecards will help voters identify the candidates who have well-formulated plans for how to make the district carbon neutral. They will also be published via localelections.nz and promoted through Facebook.
Alicia Hall is the founder and spokesperson for Millions of Mothers which has sent the Common Climate Network questionnaire to a number of councils, from Kaipara to Kaikōura. The results will go live on the local elections website as well as on the group’s website and on social media in the hope it will reveal which candidates are making the future health of younger generations a priority.
“We think it is important for everyone to vote, especially youth, given the impact of inaction around the climate crisis will have on their future. We are encouraging people to vote according to their values and keeping their children’s future environment in mind.”
Testing candidates’ knowledge
Organise Aotearoa has surveyed all candidates standing for Hamilton City Council and Waikato Regional Council and ranked them on a number of social and environmental issues. Hamish McDonald, Kirikiriroa branch member, says he was surprised at how many candidates had a poor understanding of some key issues. Only 24% of respondents could answer a question about which way they would vote on a bylaw later this year. “Most candidates were pretty naive about public transport and about how homeless people are treated in Kirikiriroa,” he says. “Even with our survey results, it will still be very difficult to know what you are voting for.”
That lack of knowledge – and sometimes cooperation – from candidates is a problem affecting many of these citizen scrutiny efforts, even if a non-answer can sometimes be revealing. Women in Urbanism is also creating a local government scorecard to profile the candidates in Auckland, Wellington and possibly Christchurch on urban design as it affects women, with questions covering transport, safety, climate change, and creating liveable cities. Gabriela Jimenez-Rojas, a WIU committee member, acknowledges some candidates might not have thought about urban design through the lens of how well cities work for women. But she hopes respondents will show their “passion for democracy, sustainability and quality of life”. “We are hoping candidates are well-informed or are at least open-minded to the challenges faced in urban living for all people, but especially women,”
Generation Zero’s Coatham says her ambition is that increasing the flow of information on what candidates believe will show voters what’s at stake in these elections. She points to an example of a bad council decision from World War II when the US Army Engineering Corps were stationed in Dunedin. Its officers saw sea-level rise and flooding was going to be a problem for the city and told council it would install some levees for free as practice before its troops headed out to the Pacific. Council declined the offer.
“Now hundreds, if not thousands, of families are going to lose their home or potentially lose their home, who have built their community around a place where the infrastructure just isn’t there to help them. And the cost of adapting now is millions if not billions. And the longer we delay, the more costly it gets,” Coatham says. “The decisions that our representatives are making, not just at national levels but at local levels, are going to affect not just the next election cycle or the election cycle after that, but they’re going to have a lot of costs associated with them for generations to come.”
The fee for this piece was donated directly to the Ihumātao/SOUL campaign