March 22, 2008

Time to Renew Local Democracy

Monday, October 15, 2007

When most people of voting age cannot be bothered to vote in local body elections then we should be concerned about the health of our local democracy. With voter participation at just 42% in 2004 and possibly even lower this year we need to start asking questions about the causes of this deterioration in local democracy.

Is it simply voter apathy? Are people so content with arrangements that they see no reason to get involved? Or did the proliferation of voting documents for several elected bodies, using different methods of election, different ways of listing candidates deter people from making the effort?

Having three weeks in which to vote appears to have made the situation worse rather than better as residents put the voting papers to one side to "look at later". Postal voting must also be reviewed. The last minute publicity during the last two days of the elections contributed to the late flurry of votes. Perhaps having a single day as a focus would deliver a greater sense of community participation and voter turnout? Perhaps having local polling booths as in the parliamentary elections would help. Electronic voting, including voting by Txt, should also be considered.

Then there are the broader issues such as whether we should move towards greater inter-council co-operation or amalgamation in order to boost region-wide economic development. However, if we are going to go down that path then voters will want some assurance that local community issues will be treated with respect and that grassroots democracy will not suffer further as decision-making moves even further way from some communities.

The creation of Community Boards would be one way of balancing community input with Councils taking a broader strategic view of things. Compared to Christchurch, and even Auckland, Wellington has a poor track record of facilitating Community Boards. Community Boards allow local residents to help make changes in their neighbourhood. Its one of the few areas in the democractic process where some local participation can bring tangible results close to where people live. As such it helps rebuild a sense of community and helps restore some faith in the democractic process. The cost is relatively small. Based on last weekend's results we cannot afford to do nothing. Change is long overdue. It's time the City Council adopted a consistent approach to Community Boards and facilitated their establishment city wide.

Posted by Roger Ellis at 4:22 PM
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