The other election: why your ECan vote matters

The last meeting of the elected ECan councillors was big on theatrics.

The last meeting of the elected ECan councillors was big on theatrics.

Every three years it's the same: the local body election arrives and smashes head-first into the brick wall known as voter apathy.

Turnout in Christchurch is tracking lower than it's been in some time. It's a tiny bit better than 2010's election, which was held three weeks after a devastating earthquake.

But something quite exciting is happening in Canterbury this year. For the first time in nearly a decade, you can vote for your regional councillors.

About 2000 protested the sacking of ECan in Christchurch's Cathedral Square.

About 2000 protested the sacking of ECan in Christchurch's Cathedral Square.

Sort of.

In a first for local government in New Zealand, a council will be a mixture of elected councillors and appointed commissioners.

Here's what you need to know about this unique election, and why your vote will matter.

A noisy protest outside The Press building was aimed at disrupting a forum involving Prime Minister John Key.
Don Scott

A noisy protest outside The Press building was aimed at disrupting a forum involving Prime Minister John Key.

*The issues: What do the ECan candidates think?
*Six years later, ECan commissioners' work is mostly complete
*Environment Canterbury commissioners lobbied Government to retain powers
*Full Environment Canterbury democracy 'a step backwards' - Ngai Tahu

Remind me, what was the deal with Environment Canterbury again?

The elected regional council was sacked by the government in 2009. This made many people upset.

ECan commissioner Dame Margaret Bazley is retiring.
Carys Monteath

ECan commissioner Dame Margaret Bazley is retiring.

Democracy was supposed to return in 2013, than 2016, and now 2019, maybe.

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Its absence has since been called "constitutionally repugnant" by a top law academic, "extraordinarily arrogant" by the Christchurch City Council, and an "insult to the people of Canterbury" by the Labour Party.

The government's reasoning was that ECan had made enemies with the region's mayors and Ngai Tahu, which had all jointly told the government that they were struggling to work with the council.

ECan had been throttled by the divide between its rural and urban councillors, who battled over conflicting interests. For a while they had been virtually dead-locked.

Former deputy prime minister Wyatt Creech was called in to investigate, and decided that ECan had not done enough to grow the economy and was too enthusiastic in declining resource consents on environmental grounds.

Creech's report rejected popular claims that ECan was "dysfunctional". 

Instead, he found the primary issue had been a failure to deal with water management and create a water plan, something even ECan's staunchest defenders admitted was a problem.

Take it back a step. What is Environment Canterbury?

As the name suggests, it is responsible for the environment spanning from Kaikoura in the north to just south of Waimate.

A general rule of thumb is that anywhere there's water, ECan is involved somehow.

ECan is also responsible for air quality and — controversially, if you ask some within the Christchurch City Council — the Metro bus service.

So if democracy's back, why are there still commissioners?

The format of the next ECan council has never before existed in local government, outside the district health boards.

Seven elected members and up to six appointed commissioners will run the council together.

The logic behind keeping the commissioners was so that they could help the council ease back into full democracy.

What do you mean by "up to six" commissioners? Who will they be?

The government can choose as many commissioners as they like, as long as it's no more than six. It means the seven elected members will be the majority.

The commissioners will be appointed within 30 days after the election. It gives the government time to look at the make-up of the elected council before deciding who to appoint.

There are currently seven commissioners, two of whom — Dame Margaret Bazley and Rex Williams — are retiring.

The remaining five have all informally suggested they are open for re-appointment.

Will there be a difference between the elected councillors and appointed commissioners?

No. They each have one vote and will be paid the same.

In fact, the Act refers to the appointed commissioners as "councillors," meaning they likely won't even be called commissioners.

At the first meeting, the council will elect the chairperson. It will likely be the first political battle the council has seen in six years, and may dictate the direction the council is headed.

Where do the elected members come from?

Four councillors will be appointed from Christchurch, and one each from north, mid and south Canterbury.

Unlike most other councils, the number of members is not proportional to the population: Christchurch has the equivalent of one representative per 90,000 voters, while south Canterbury has one representative per 60,000 voters.

That's a difference of about 40 per cent. The Local Government Act says the difference should only be 10 per cent, but it's a rule that can be ignored with justification.

What's the justification?

There hasn't been one, really. It was seen as easier to use existing regional boundaries instead of drawing up new ones.

The result is that rural areas have greater representation on the council than urban areas.

Who is running?

North Canterbury (one elected):

Bill Dowle, a rural real estate consultant and farmer.

Claire McKay, a farmer and chairwoman of the Waimakariri Zone Committee. 

Christchurch (four elected):

Rod Cullinane, general manager of North Canterbury Fish & Game. A qualified lawyer and accountant.

Terry Huggins, a 78-year-old who lives in Geraldine, says he has seen first-hand the tragedy of water shortage and pollution.

Drucilla Kingi-Patterson, a strategic planner who does community work in Christchurch.

Steve Lowndes, chair of the Banks Peninsula Zone Committee running with the Labour-aligned People's Choice group.

Craig Pauling, an environmental planner who worked with Ngai Tahu for 15 years and co-chair of Te Ara Käkäriki Greenway Canterbury Trust.

Lan Pham, a freshwater ecologist and director of the Working Waters Trust. Running with the People's Choice.

Dr Cynthia Roberts, an ecologist and business owner running with People's Choice.

Rik Tindall, one of the sacked ECan councillors, now a member of the Spreydon-Heathcote Community Board.

Mid Canterbury (one elected)

John Foster, a semi-retired geologist standing with the United Future party.

Nicky Snoyink, an outdoor adventure guide with a Masters degree in Environmental Policy.

John Sunckell, a third generation farmer from Leeston and chairman of the National Party's Selwyn branch.

South Canterbury (one elected)

Peter Scott, mixed-crop farmer and former chief executive of Opuha Water Ltd. Elected unopposed.

Don't Ngai Tahu have something to do with this?

Yes. The iwi will nominate two of the appointed commissioners.

Ngai Tahu already appoints one commissioner, but this was increased to two in the new Act. The current Ngai Tahu nominee is Elizabeth Cunningham.

When will we have a full council again?

We don't know. The government has said it hopes for a full return in 2019, but it said the same for 2013 and 2016.

If there is a change in government it is almost certain to be 2019, as both Labour and the Green Party vehemently oppose the suspension of democracy.

Why bother voting? 

If you've ever swam in a river, taken a bus, or breathed the air (ie everyone), a decision made by ECan has affected you.

While the return to democracy is only partial, the elected members will be the majority, and for the first time in six years will have a public mandate.

 - Stuff


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