ON THE EVIDENCE to date, the turnout for this year’s local government elections will plumb new depths. Some will blame indifference, others apathy, and a courageous few will interpret the record low turnout as proof that democracy itself is failing.
The case that democracy is failing – or has already failed – is a strong one. All over the country there is a growing sense among voters that whoever is running their cities, it isn’t the people they elected to office three years ago. Indeed, there is a strong suspicion that any elected representative brave or foolhardy enough to stand up and speak out against the policies and conduct of the council machine is asking for serious trouble.
Everywhere, mealy-mouthed “Codes of Conduct” are being used by the docile majority to slap down and silence the outspoken minority. Even worse, local authority CEOs are using these same codes to prevent councillors from holding council staff to account. Worst of all, council lawyers are intervening in the democratic process by warning councillors that any evidence suggesting their unwillingness to be guided by “the facts” pertaining to a particular policy – especially one involving the private sector – may disqualify them from casting a vote on whether or not it should proceed.
The “advice” supplied to councillors will almost always be based on “the facts” – as curated by Council staff (ably assisted by those with a vested interest in the policy getting the go-ahead). The “consultation process” which, in theory, is supposed to allow the community to put forward arguments for and against any policy proposal, seldom provides for anything more than the Council calling for, and receiving, public submissions. Since those behind such proposals have already persuaded council staffers to present them to councillors, the chances of opponents’ submissions slowing them down are slim to non-existent.
Now, just suppose you were among those opposing a specific council project. Perhaps you helped put together a submission containing evidence of the proposal’s potential for inflicting economic, cultural, and/or environmental harm on the city, town or district involved. Now suppose that your submission’s evidence is ignored and the council gives the project the green light. Outraged, you decide to stand for the Council at the next election, promising the electors that you will do all within your power to prevent the project going ahead. And, you win.
The Council’s final vote on the project looms. Thanks to your relentless lobbying of fellow councillors, there is every chance that the project will be voted down – albeit by the narrowest of margins.
A few days prior to the Council meeting, however, you are visited by the Council’s “Democracy Services Manager” and its chief legal adviser. Bluntly they inform you that you may not be permitted to cast a vote on whether or not the project should proceed. There is evidence, they say, that you have prejudged the matter. That you are incapable of approaching the proposal fairly and dispassionately. Were you to cast a vote that led to the project’s cancellation, its promoters might have grounds for taking the Council to court.
Not believing your ears, you launch into a tirade against the Democracy Services Manager, accusing her of traducing the democratic process by making it virtually impossible for any councillor to take a firm position on any issue for fear of being stripped of their voting rights. How, you demand to know, can the voters discover where Council candidates stand on issues that matter to them, when those same candidates know that the slightest forthrightness on their part, on any subject, may be construed, at some future point, as evidence of bias? The Democracy Services Manager bursts into tears and runs out of the room. The Council’s lawyer just smiles.
The next morning, the Council CEO forwards to the Mayor a strongly-worded complaint alleging your aggressive violation of the Councillors’ Code of Conduct. This is the same Code of Conduct which you, flushed with your victory at the polls, signed-up to without bothering to read it too thoroughly. Unaccountably, the news media knows all about the CEO’s complaint, and wants to know why you “emotionally assaulted” the Democracy Services Manager. The Council’s lawyer has also spoken to the media. He has informed them of the need to prevent “hotheads” from placing the Council in legal jeopardy. Overnight, your laboriously constructed majority melts away.
Curiously, on the day, the Mayor does not attempt to debar you from voting. The project is debated for the final time. You say your piece – although not with your usual élan – the deputy Mayor dutifully rehearses all the arguments in favour, and he is followed by ….. silence. The motion to proceed is carried. Only a handful of your (former) allies summon-up the decency to abstain.
Such is the “democracy” we are being invited to support by sending in our voting papers. To say that it has become a charade would be to seriously understate the problem. Most councillors long ago gave up being representatives of the people in favour of becoming rubber-stamps for the Council bureaucracy. Money-wise, it has proved to be a very good deal. The ordinary Auckland City Councillor stands to receive a “base remuneration” of $107,794.
Now you know what local democracy is worth. Now, perhaps, you understand why so few citizens are bothering to post their votes.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 29 September 2022.