Done and dusted (or maybe just dusted)

Last updated 05:00 14/10/2013

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Meet your new local authorities. Much the same as your old local authorities. The elections proved less of a determined cleanout than an afternoon's dusting, with most of the familiar figures scrutinised, perhaps wiped over, and put back.

Factor in yet another low turnout and it's little wonder that those who were ambitious for sweeping change are feeling that this was yet another opportunity untaken.

But here's where we should be careful not to underestimate the common sense of the voters. The people have spoken - or those who were willing to bestir themselves to do so - and if their scrutiny has delivered more repositionings than dramatic dumpings then we should be open to the possibility that they simply took their own counsel about what mattered to them.

It's hardly the case that Tim Shadbolt has become New Zealand's longest-serving mayor out of sheer unthinking inertia. This is not a man about whom people struggle to muster an opinion one way or another. Much as he's a polarising figure he is one who has reliably come up with majority electoral support, and by large margins at that. It's an impressive achievement.

On the face of it, the election of Gary Tong to the vacant Southland District Council mayoralty could be seen as an upset. Certainly, retiring mayor Frana Cardno's surprise was there for all to see, given that two of her councillors had been seeking the job. And, yes, it's not all that common for a community with the solid, sensible credentials of Southland district to regard the mayoralty as an entry-level position.

But Mr Tong has more than a community board background. He was for two decades one of the district's higher-profile rural police, having then worked at Borland Lodge and as a holiday park owner. He campaigned ardently and with focus and now joins the otherwise seasoned council and administration. Exactly how much of a substantial change this will represent to the operation of the district council is an intriguing question.

For all the contentious decisions of the Invercargill City Council not a single councillor who sought re-election failed to find it. Former Times journalist Karen Arnold was elected with impressive numbers on an emphatic keep-‘em-honest expectation. This she did during her years reporting the council's activities, but her role now will be different; not to issue the journalist's critique but to play her part in coming up with solutions.

Interestingly, the delineation of those sitting councillors who polled highest and lowest bears a striking resemblance to the recommendations Grey Power made to its Invercargill members; essentially putting the inner-city rejuvenation scheme's sceptics atop the supporters. While this didn't cost those supporters their position, it does strengthen the view that the grey vote is collectively a strong one.

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Suspicions certainly arise that the most profound silence across the board was from the younger voters. Online voting must come, and should in part help to redress this, but the strong impression remains that many of our younger citizens need to be convinced that these elections have consequences relevant to their own lives.

Another cautionary tale to emerge from these elections is that of Bluff Community Board. The only surviving member is Graham Laidlaw, himself a relative newcomer who joined the by-then-toxic ranks in a 2012 by-election. The cleanout in Bluff is proof, if proof were needed, that it is indeed impossible for a community gag reflex to kick in.

- The Southland Times

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