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By Dr Andrew Cardow
Later this year there will be a local government election. You will be asked to vote for the people you want to represent you in council, local boards, district health boards (DHB) and, where they exist, licensing trusts. It would be easy to tick the box against the names you recognise – but that might be a mistake.
Unlike central government MPs, your local government representatives do not, on the whole, feel they need to have transparent and accessible offices in the local area they represent. Without looking on the internet, try and name your local MP, even if he or she is not your first choice. Now try and do the same thing for your local ward, local board, DHB, or licensing trust representative.
On average about 40 to 50 per cent of eligible voters actually vote so it’s not surprising that most people can’t name their local representatives. Yet, these are the people who ask for your vote every three years and have a great deal more influence on your day-to-day existence than your local MP – and yet for 2.75 years in every three, they are all but invisible.
I can feel the indignation of such elected politicians already because, after all, they consider themselves very “available”. Here is an example of how the MP is available, yet the elected councillor is missing in action. In a location I know well, the MP is very visible. He (for it is a he) has billboards going down the length of a local main arterial route asking for comments on how to fix the road. Never mind that the statement is ambiguous and does not say how the road is broken, or why it needs fixing. The point is, he is involving himself in local issues that are really the domain of the local politicians.
Another issue, again a very local issue, in the same neighbourhood – developers are attempting to undermine the zoning restrictions. Our local MP turned up to the public meeting aimed at stopping such action. Neither of the ward councillors showed up – one of whom is the chair of the planning committee.
What this highlights is that local politicians, in this location at least, are more interested in supporting the council viewpoint than from hearing from their constituents – the very people who voted for them in the first place. Whereas the MP – and, for the record, I did not vote for him – is at least showing he is interested in local concerns, not just local events.
Politicians holding themselves up for local election need to continually, visibly and transparently hold themselves accountable by having a clinic or office, even if it is just in a corner of the library on a Saturday morning. Those who don’t are showing a cynical approach to the electorate.
If we are to increase participation in local government elections, we need to see visible participation by the politicians in the local environment, otherwise known as political engagement. It should be acknowledged that council workers go to great lengths to ensure their councils are engaging with their communities. They organise games in parks, open-air film screenings, erect playgrounds and picnic sites. This, however, is not political engagement.
Fortunately, there is a solution. Each council has a budget line for “democracy services”. Mostly this is used to publicise events and investigate ways in which the council can be more engaging. The answer is simple: ensure politicians are visible and accessible.
It’s also important to remember mayors are essentially first amongst equals. Although mayors are voted for directly, they can’t really promise their policies will become council policy; they don’t have that sort of power.
So, when you are talking to a would-be local government politician asking for your vote, ask them how and what way they are going to ensure they represent your interests. Ask them where their fortnightly clinic will be held, ask them how they expect to deliver on their promises. Then vote for the one that gives you the best answer, not the one you recognise.
Dr Andrew Cardow is a senior lecturer with Massey University’s School of Management.
Created: 25/06/2019 | Last updated: 26/06/2019
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