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Local ElectionsSeptember 26, 2019

No-one wants to stand in our local elections. No seriously, it’s bad


The number of uncontested races has been one of the talking points of these local elections. But the headlines still haven’t conveyed the true extent of the problem. Hayden Donnell reports.

The Spinoff local election coverage is entirely funded by The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism, click here.

If you’re like most New Zealanders, you’ve been voraciously consuming local elections coverage over the last few weeks. So you’ll know many candidates have already won their races by default

Whangānui already has its next mayor. No-one mustered the guts to challenge former Wheel of Fortune champion Hamish McDouall’s re-election bid, besides one brave Auckland journalist. No-one opposed Gore’s mayor Tracey Hicks either. Nor Auckland deputy mayor Bill Cashmore, Rangitīkei mayor Andy Watson, or Clutha mayor Bryan Cadogan.

Radio New Zealand, Stuff, and the Herald have all covered these high-profile uncontested elections, saying they raise concerns about our democratic process. But the stories don’t convey the full extent of the problem. Down ballots, in lesser known local boards and health authorities, voters often have pretty much no options. Analysis by Policy Local’s Chris McIntyre shows that of the 572 elections taking place in New Zealand, 101 – or nearly 1 in 5 – will go uncontested. All up, 235 candidates have been elected without being voted on. 

Some races aren’t just uncontested though. In 15 elections, there weren’t enough candidates to fill the positions available. All but one of those were community board races, but Buller District Council will be short a councillor after too few candidates put their names forward in its Inangahua Ward. Two elections – Murupara Community Board (Galatea-Waiohau Subdivision) and Oreti Community Board (Makarewa Subdivision) – attracted no candidates at all.  

Many of the most unappealing council races were in the lower South Island, with 70 of the uncontested seats clustered in Southland District Council, Clutha District Council and Dunedin City Council.

At the risk of comparing councils to a business, if this was a business and people were avoiding its job listings like they were laced with the bubonic plague, we would start asking questions about its pay and conditions and workplace culture. Councils definitely have concerns in both those areas. Remuneration is okay in bigger centres, less so in smaller constituencies

But the job is often thankless. The hours are bad and if you do anything exciting, the local ratepayer association will hire assassins yell at you in a cold community hall on a Monday evening. In exchange for the cheque, you get to be the person everyone complains to about rates, rubbish, and wastewater. Every time a pothole appears, you’ll end up getting called names on Facebook by someone who looks like Leighton Smith but with less joie de vivre.

But maybe the lack of candidates reflects our diminishing affection for local democracy in general. Only 43% of eligible voters sent in ballots in 2016, and even that figure was distorted upward by the fact that 90% of people aged 70+ voted. Fixing local democracy would likely involve implementing changes to make sure it better reflects the communities it serves. 

That could mean introducing compulsory STV voting in council and community board races, sentencing postal voting to death, stopping referendums on Māori representation, or lowering the voting age to 16. Something has to be done. Democracy doesn’t work that well without anything to vote on. And the residents of Oreti’s Makarewa Subdivision need someone to yell at about potholes.

The Spinoff local election coverage is entirely funded by The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism, click here.

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