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‘Local world’ lacks contest of ideas

Opinion Piece

This general election has been called a “Covid election”, as voters have the important task of figuring out and choosing between different approaches to managing not only a pandemic but also competing approaches to stimulating economic recovery and setting a direction and mode of travel into the future.

The significance of this battle to govern New Zealand is well covered by media and the stark contrasts (in current context) are broadly understood by voters. That contrast in choice is also due, in part, to the simple messaging about priorities and the crucial points of difference between the parties competing for our individual vote. It is also about perceptions of “competency” in the practical art of “governance” itself. Who are the most skilled and equipped individuals, and which party leader can pull together the best team to lead us in this important period?

Election campaigns are the best of times and the worst of times for those of us who are ardent supporters of democratic principles and who participate in debates about the place of “collectivism” or public/civil affairs vs individualism. This is the stuff of what we are as a society and would aspire to be. It is about what we must provide for via taxes vs fees and charges for services, as public goods, or will leave to private enterprise and individual choice, and what regulation to wrap around the activities of individuals, groups and sectors.

We voters also occupy a local world, however, in which there is virtually no contest between competing ideas about what it is our local governments (regional and territorial) ought to do to assist us individually and as communities in economic recovery during and after a “crisis”.

Ordinarily work programmes of our councils are rarely ever described for what they deliver in terms of the fundamental infrastructure fabric within which our economy must operate. There is potential for them to be either constrained, strangled and rorted, or enabled, facilitated with opportunities and given wings to fly.

Local government elections are near bereft of disclosure by candidates on their political affinity and ideology. There are no announcements about manifesto or on policies, and little said on platforms and spending priorities. There is little disclosure of the incumbents' voting records or on the influencing activities by incumbents or candidates.

Do they think democracy and accountability to ratepayers and voters really is important, or do they actually prefer that appointed boards manage assets? Do they support participatory democracy or do they prefer representative democracy? Do they think none of this matters, as they observe it's possible to passively slot into chambers and wait for the machinery of government to spit out reports for consideration.

As voters we get few opportunities prior to and after local body elections to learn about and test candidates' ideas about what they think the drivers and constraints are on our economic activity, and on what the priorities for ratepayer spend are. There is no provision for an “opposition” in local government, other than via ratepayer associations — think about joining your local one.

■ Jane is president of the NZ Federation of Ratepayers Association and lives in the Bay of Islands.

  1. Peter Jones says:

    Kia ora Jane, I will be offering a clear alternative to representative democracy in the upcoming by-election. Participatory democracy is my passion and the number of votes that I get will indicate whether the public wants someone who will passively slot into chambers and wait for the machinery of government to spit out reports for consideration, or whether they want someone who will actually think for themselves and build a beachhead for an “opposition” in local government.
    Personally I don’t fancy my chances. LOL.