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Frank Newman

The biggest winners from Election 2022

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The biggest winners from the local body elections are: Nanaia Mahuta and the Maori Party!

Nanaia Mahuta has achieved exactly what she set out to achieve, and that is a much stronger presence of Maori around the local council decision making table. It’s a giant leap forward towards co-governance at a local level. There should be no doubt she had that intention when Parliament passed retrospective legislation under urgency to repeal the binding referendum right granted to electors under Section 19ZB of the Local Electoral Act.

At the time Mahuta justified removing the S19ZB right by saying it was racists, and a number of activist reporters and commentators echoed that lie. The right to force a local authority had nothing to do with race. Section 19ZB was introduced by the Clark Labour government to protect electors against a council changing the voting system (the system) without the consent of electors. The right also applied, and still applies, where a council passes a motion to change from FFP to STV (section 29 of the Local Electoral Act).

By repealing S19ZB Nanaia Mahuta blocked the dozen or so petitions that had been organised around the country. If signed by more than 5 percent of electors, those petitions would have forced their local council to seek a mandate from the public. The effect was that councils could introduce separate Maori seats, elected by those on the Maori roll, without the community having a say on the matter. Thirty-five councils now have Maori seats (29 territorial councils and six regional councils).

The result is now plain to see. There are now 66 Maori ward councillors. Four were elected under a Maori Party affiliation but there are others with equally strong views that may have connections to the more radical factions within Maoridom – like Hilda Halkyard-Harawira who was elected to the Far North District Council. She is the wife of former Maori Party MP, Hone Haraira. Te Ao Maori News describes her as an “activist and leader in the tino rangatiratanga movement” (absolute authority).

She is one of four Maori ward councillors in the Far North. The Council also has its first Maori mayor, who also stood as a Maori ward candidate, and now has a majority of councillors who identify as being Maori. All eyes will be on this council to see whether it puts the interests of Maori first, or whether it acts in the interests of all residents in the Far North district.

As predicted the Maori seats have given Maori radicals a free pass onto local councils.

Let’s not underestimate the uncertainties of a vested interest group controlling a local authority. That group now control rates and will have the absolute say on how much property owners will be rated in the future. They also have absolute control of how those funds will be spent, including how much will be for the direct benefit of Maori. They will decide council debt levels. They will control planning rules – what you can build and where and who must give their approval before you can do so. They will dictate whether iwi consent will be required, and which iwi. They will decide the spending on infrastructure, and which projects get priority. They will consider the legal issues surrounding tikanga, and the role of tikanga in property law and compliance issues.

These are critical questions, and more so given non-Maori are powerless to have a say. With the removal of the S19ZB right, the only pathway to removing the Maori seats is a council itself passing a resolution to that effect – or a law change by central government.  

Nanaia Mahuta will be well pleased with her progress towards reinstating Maori as the sovereign people and the Maori Party will be well pleased that it now has a presence in local government.  

Much has been made of the poor voter turnout: 42% nationwide compared with 46% in 2019. But little has been made of the dismal turnout in the Maori wards which averaged just 27% (ranging from 18.2% in Hastings to 42.9% in Wairoa).

That compares to a voter turnout of 81.5% in the 2020 general election and 72.9% for Maori.

The dismal voter turnout in the Maori wards raises the obvious question: Do Maori voters want them? It seems not, given only about half of those who identify as being Maori are registered on the Maori roll, and only 27% of those actually voted. That is consistent with the response Democracy Northland had when gathering signatures for the three petitions it organised in Northland.

The poor Maori turnout, and the fact that the number of Maori seats was allocated based on the numbers that identify as Maori and not the numbers registered on the Maori roll produces an extraordinary bias that the number of votes required to elect a member to a Maori seat is about a quarter that for the general seats. That raises some important questions about equity when a vote in the Maori ward is worth more than a vote in a general ward.

As expected, Maori leaders have been quick to blame anything and anyone but Maori voters for the poor turnout.

1News reported the winner of the new Taranaki Regional Council Māori constituency, Bonita Bigham blamed postal voting, “how often do they [our rangatahi] get a letter in the mail? What the heck is all that about?”

Those comments were more than a little ironic when she was elected unopposed. Boniota Bigham was one of 14 Maori candidates who got a free pass onto council without having to face a contest, which, while convenient for her and the others, is an indictment in itself. What the heck was all that about? It’s a fair question to ask.

Boniota Bigham does have a suggestion: “These are generational problems and solutions need to be future-focused and responsive to our people, to help them engage”.

That comment is revealing. They are words with no real meaning and may explain why the Local Government NZ Te Maruata Committee that she has chaired since 2016 has been totally unsuccessful at improving voter engagement in the local government process.

A couple of very simple questions would show the postal voting system is not the problem.

Why is it that 82% of the population can take time out to visit a polling booth on election day, yet only 42% can be bothered completing a ballot paper and posting it over a three-week period?  How hard can it be to read the candidate profiles in the booklet provided, tick a form, and post an envelope?

And where is the evidence that online voting would actually increase participation? No doubt various “experts” will have differing expert opinions on that. What we do know is the voter turnout for the Northpower Community Trust elections which can be completed online was just 24.26% when last held in 2019 – hardly an endorsement of online voting, although to be fair it’s not exactly the Hollywood of local politics.

Common sense would suggest the problem is not with the voting system. The problem is more likely to be one that’s a bit inconvenient for local politicians to accept: People are just not interested enough to take five minutes out of their TV time to fill in the voting paper.

The question then is why are they not switched into local politics? Here are some possible reasons.

Media coverage of local politics is almost non-existent because many local newspapers don’t report a lot of local news anymore. In Whangarei for example, there is now one local weekly paper when previously there had been two competing for stories, and that one paper is now an anaemic 16 pages; 10 pages of advertising and the balance is largely syndicated columns of no local relevance. Four of the advertising pages are paid for by the local council, so it is no surprise that the newspaper is not going to ask the tough questions of its largest advertiser! Even in the daily newspaper, what little editorial content is published is largely written elsewhere, about things that are happening somewhere else.   

Furthermore, even the election coverage that did appear, particularly in the provincial and rural newspapers, was bizarre. Stuff took it upon itself to “investigate” candidates and “expose” those they said had an association with Voices for Freedom. The articles took the form of a witch hunt and revealed those who had attended the Parliamentary protests with fascinating tidbits like they practice meditation thrown in for good effect, couched in the conspiracy theories “exposed” by their “Fire & Fury” documentary.

Ironically Stuff appears to have either not seen or turned a blind eye to the scrutiny of other candidates, even when real evidence could be found via Google. A case in point is a candidate, and now an elected councillor, who the NZ Institute of Chartered Accountants just last year found guilty of unethical behaviour and misleading the Disciplinary Tribunal when responding to their enquiries. It seems that a real story was of little interest to a media fixated on inventing conspiracy theories.

Quite simply, the media failed to look beyond its own advocacy and investigate the issues that would be of real relevance to their readers. Questioning those in power or seeking power is a fundamental role of the media. Instead, they took the lazy way out and largely regurgitated the candidate responses that did not say anything that the candidate had not already said in their bland campaign material – or they engaged in their own advocacy. 

If the media will not seek out information about candidates, perhaps there is a role for the Electoral Commission (whose job it is to maintain confidence in the electoral system) to require candidates to make a declaration about matters that could reasonably be considered relevant for voters. If they also had the authority to nullify an election result where a candidate makes a material omission from that statement, then at least voters could have confidence that the skeletons in the closet are in full view.

Then there is the issue of local politicians imposing their views onto the public, instead of representing the public. I often hear people say it’s not worth making a submission to their local authority because they don’t take any notice anyway, and that’s a fair comment – I am reluctant to make submissions to Parliament for exactly the same reason. In practice, councillors often only communicate with their electors through their Facebook page and rarely do they ask the public at large for their views. The public will take more interest in local council matters if councillors ask for and respect public feedback – it’s as simple as that.

What I do see is councillors engaging in social media chit-chat and pretending it is community engagement. It’s not. Sorry to be the one to break the news to councillors and candidates, but no-one other than your own supporters are interested in selfies and snapshots of you having fish and chips for dinner. It’s bland, contrived nonsense, and the public knows it. If councillors don’t make it interesting, people won’t be interested. Make it interesting, and people will be interested. The challenge is to do it within the constraints of a Code of Conduct that muzzles councillors.  

Then there is the inescapable fact that about 40% of the population are renters and don’t directly pay rates to the Council. Therefore, the decisions of their local council do not directly affect them in the pocket (or such is their perception). This is consistent with the voting pattern that turnout is lower in urban centres than it is in rural and well-to-do areas. It is also consistent with the general rule that older people are more likely to vote, presumably because they are more likely to be homeowners on fixed incomes and therefore more affected by rate increases.

The easy way to increase voter turnout is to make people feel as though their voice matters – not just once every three years, but every day of every year. Councillors may also try engaging with the community on important decisions, instead of blocking them from having a say – as councillors did on the issue of Maori wards.

This would require a fundamental mind-shift by councillors from using their vote to advance their cause or impose their world-view, to seeing their role as representing the entire community. Too many councillors are advocates for a cause rather than a representative of the people – and it is they who should be held to account for the decline in public interest in local government. 

There is another possible reason for people not voting. Quite possibly they are so unimpressed with the candidates on offer that they don’t want to vote for any of them. While that is more likely to be at the fringes rather than a dominant reason, it would be easily addressed by simply adding  “No confidence” as an option on the ballot paper. If no confidence wins, the position would remain vacant until a fresh election is held. That of course would mean the entire voting system would be held to account, and that may be too uncomfortable for politicians to accept – especially those who are more intent on manipulating the voting system to advance their own particular agendas.

The difficulty we now have is the fox is in charge of the hen house. It will take something dramatic to chase it out.