Democracy is just fine in principle

21:23, May 20 2012

"After such knowledge, what forgiveness?" – TS Eliot.

The recent amalgamation proposal and Maori ward debates have featured very strong views about "democracy" in local government. So, what is "democracy"?

One of the principles of "democracy" used by all protagonists in recent debates is: one person, one vote. However, right now, this isn't quite true. True, you get a vote if you are a resident within a particular council boundary. And, you also get a vote in any other council area in which you own property; even for multiple council areas. That's quite a contrast to the general election where you get a single vote, irrespective of property ownership. This practice isn't wrong as such; it just isn't "one person, one vote".

Another principle of "democracy" is that our votes should carry equal weight. The amount of democratic representation (and, therefore, influence) that I get with my vote should be the same as yours. However, and ignoring property ownership voting, right now the number of voters per elected representative varies hugely around the country – from around one elected member per 70,000 voters down to as low as one per 600 voters.

For example, using those current variations, an amalgamated TDC and NCC could have allowed for as few as two councillors for the whole region, or as many as 100! Even within council boundaries there are considerable variations.

TDC wards are a good example. My Lakes-Murchison ward vote gets me roughly 25 per cent more influence at the council table than someone who lives in Moutere-Waimea. But the big TDC "winners" on representation are those of you who live in Golden Bay – your vote gains 75 per cent more influence per capita than someone living in Moutere. Cool, eh?


Mind you, if you live in Moutere you have proportionally less influence with your vote. Again, this isn't "wrong"; it's just how it is.

"Democracy" also depends on elected officials gaining an electoral mandate through a goodly portion of folk actually voting. Yet in council elections around the country the current turnout hovers at about 50 per cent. On that basis, clearly, the democratic majority are certainly not speaking. Such a low turnout also raises some questions as to why that might be.

Anyway, once elected, a council has a legal mandate to make decisions. Most council decisions require a simple majority of the councillors present and voting.

Also worth remembering is that no individual elected member can make any decision on their own – only the council can do that (ie not the mayor, nor any committee chair, nor any individuals). Oh, and chief executives don't get to vote ...

So far, so good. A cornerstone of democracy is that elected officials get held to account for their performance every three years at the ballot box. We, the public, get to hold our elected representatives to account for their decision-making.

Great in theory. But to do that, you'd need to know how individual elected officials voted. Ask yourself this question when next looking at your local body voting papers: how did the current councillors individually vote when making their decisions on particular issues?

Actually, it transpires that you don't/won't/can't know except in respect to the tiniest portion of council decisions. Very, very few people turn up to council meetings. Fewer still ask for, or read, the minutes of meetings. And, even if they did, many councils rarely record how individual councillors vote – let alone publish that.

And, given that, how can you hold them to account when the time comes to vote? For example, let's say a particular councillor repeatedly gets elected on a platform of keeping rates down. This example isn't too far-fetched in almost all councils. Yet, around the country, rates keep going up.

So, is this archetypal anti-rates-rise councillor effective? They probably do speak and vote against every rates rise – and yet the majority decision of council is still that the rates (continually) rise.

OK then, should you continue to support this particular councillor because at least they are a voice for keeping rates down? Or, equally, you might conclude that this particular councillor is completely ineffective at convincing their colleagues to reduce rates and that you'd be much better voting for a different candidate.

Either way, how would you actually know? Tricky stuff And, ultimately, that is the only thing "democracy" is all about – how you choose to exercise your vote.

Keith Marshall resigned last month as chief executive of the Nelson City Council.