Local Elections in New Zealand

We have local elections coming up here and there are some striking differences from the UK, as well as similarities. There are actually three elections in this region; for Tasman District Council mayor,  Tasman District Council councillors, and for the Local District Health Board members.

The main differences:

  • The geography is enormous.
  • Voting is [almost] entirely by post.
  • Clearer understanding of council/board responsibilities.
  • Candidates run as individuals, not under any party banner.

And the similarities:

  • Mayor (Council Leader) is a full time post. Others part time.
  • Similar ratio of applicants to posts.
  • Limited knowledge of candidates amongst voters.

The geography is striking by UK standards. For comparison Tendring District Council (Clacton, Frinton and surrounds) covers 340 square kilometres and 140,000 people. Tasman District covers 10,000 square kilometres and 47,000 people. The Health Board, including three districts, covers 227,000 square kilometres and 145,000 people. Those zeros on the square kilometre figures here are not typos. The Health Board area here really does cover about the same number of people as Tendring District Council, but over an area nearly 1,000 times as large, or twice the size of Wales.

Possibly as a result of the geography voting is entirely by post. Papers were received in this household a week ago and the voting closes in a fortnight. You can vote in person, up to the closing date, but this is primarily for people who do not get their postal voting papers for some reason. There are concerns here, as in the UK, about fraudulent perversion of postal votes, though the long term solution here is seen as electronic voting. “Real Me”, a single point of eContact with NZ government already exists.

The relatively simple governance structure, in Tasman District, of [just] local council and central government makes it relatively clear what the responsibilities are. There is a Motueka town council, but its powers are minimal. The Health Board covers; hospitals, primary care and pharmacy. The District Council covers; planning and recreational facilities as well as water, sewage and roads. Schools are run nationally. That has to be better than the dogs breakfast of; European [currently], national, county, district, mayoral layers of government, plus the confusion between hospitals and local government of care of the elderly, plus the [increasing] range of different schools (Grammar, free, academy, faith, comprehensive . . .). I think it is fair to say that the electorate here are much clearer than in the UK, over what the people they elect are going to be responsible for. In most other parts of New Zealand there is Regional Council above the District.

The numbers of candidates / positions for each election are:

  • Tasman Mayor – 3 candidates for one position.
  • Tasman Councillors – 5 candidates for the three Motueka seats on Tasman District Council.
  • Health Board – 15 candidates for 7 positions.

This compares with the six candidates for two positions in the ward when I was elected as a local councillor in Clacton. There are similar rumblings here about the quality of some candidates, but it seems than in NZ as in the UK there is an adequate supply of adequate candidates for the system to work effectively. That may be helped in NZ by Councillors receiving NZ$38,000 pa (c £20,000 pa), compared to £5,000 in the UK. Each  district decides its own voting format, which means here that the Health Board uses Single Transferable Vote (STV) and the Council (Mayor and Councillors) uses First Past The Post.

And then we come to some familiar problems. The candidates a simply not well known. Voters do get an official list of candidates, including a short statement from each. And they run as individuals. No party affiliation to guide the voter here. Despite this turnout for local elections here is around 50%, compared to 35%-40% in the UK (for elections not coinciding with a national election).

The lack of knowledge seems to arise from a lack of media coverage of how these locally elected politicians are performing, which is strikingly similar to the UK. And, by and large, that reflects the general lack on interest amongst residents. Some issues raise the political pulse; TPIP, mineral extraction in national parks, but not many. Clearly it is that much easier in the internet age to do some research into the different candidates; though inevitably people do ask people they know, who they regard as more informed. That is not necessarily a bad thing as at least their vote is “informed”, when some votes in the UK might be criticised for being cast after consulting little more than their prejudices. The turnout does seem to indicate that more voters feel able and interested to vote than in the UK.

Is there anything the UK might learn from Tasman Council, about local elections. Maybe that clarity over responsibilities does facilitate effective democracy.


Racial Tolerance

Dame Susan Devoy recently launched a campaign to encourage New Zealander’s to identify and talk about racist incidents in New Zealand, as a way of ensuring that New Zealand remains a beacon of racial tolerance. You can read her open letter here.

As an incomer to New Zealand the lack of any racial tension is certainly something that you notice. The two main racial types are European and Maori, and the country is genuinely bi-cultural. There is an ongoing process of restitution to Maori communities over breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi (1840) by European, essentially British, settlers. Elsewhere in the world I am sure such a process would be controversial. In New Zealand it commands, as far as I am aware, universal support.

The letter does not mention “migrants” or “immigration”. However, the press conference to launch the campaign seems to have developed a life of its own. I cannot find a verbatim transcript or video of the event, but many newspapers report that Dame Susan said, amongst other things, the New Zealand “must not become as racist as Australia”! She also aid that “she did not want migrants being blamed for every issue and problem”. Maybe these outrageous comments are simply designed to raise the profile of the campaign launch.

However, it would be very sad if Dame Susan really was confusing concerns over immigration with racism. Clearly immigrants will sometimes come from a different racial type. However, if UK residents object to immigration, that relates to pressure on low-skilled jobs, education, healthcare, housing and social services; with no distinction as to whether the migrant is Nordic, Germanic, Latin, Slavic or indeed Eskimo.

I cannot help but feel it is rather sad that New Zealand should achieve global visibility over a program to combat racism, when race relations in New Zealand must be amongst the best in the world. I would also point out that Dame Susan is NOT an official of the New Zealand Government. The New Zealand Human Rights Commission, that Dame Susan sits on is an “Independent Crown Entity”.

New Zealand is indeed a wonderfully tolerant place and that is something that New Zealanders quietly get on with making a reality, with or without a news conference to launch a[nother] campaign.