Mike Yardley: Apathy rules in Christchurch elections

Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel.
JOSEPH JOHNSON/FAIRFAX NZ

Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel.

OPINION: With voting papers arriving in the letterbox, the local body elections are dismally lacking in lustre.

Never before has a major New Zealand city seen so many uncontested wards, whereby four incumbent councillors are guaranteed re-election.

In Christchurch, voter turnout in the 2013 elections was a paltry 42.56 per cent. It would be a brave punter who'd bet for an improved participatory performance in 2016.

Christchurch mayoralty candidate John Minto has "failed to attach a price-tag to the extravagance of his big-council ...
JOSEPH JOHNSON/FAIRFAX NZ

Christchurch mayoralty candidate John Minto has "failed to attach a price-tag to the extravagance of his big-council spending promises" write Mike Yardley.

What's behind this state of disengagement, not just with voters but from willing contenders? Is the representation review's gratuitous upsizing of council a voter turn off and competition killer? Or is it the fact that Christchurch's power structure is still so dispersed?

READ MORE:
* Editorial: Don't let apathy win
John Minto: the underdog's tale​
Lianne's last campaign
Editorial: John Minto's Christchurch mayoralty bid injects life into campaign

Is it because there so many cooks in the kitchen, with a club sandwich of appointed boards and government agencies confusing the city's chain of command into a complex cobweb of diluted responsibilities?  I suspect all the above are at play.

Ahead of The Press Mayoral Debate tomorrow night, Lianne Dalziel is facing a Clayton's contest for re-election.

With all due respect to John Minto, his potted garden of policy pledges is pure pixieland. I do not doubt his conviction, nor his ideological authenticity. But can you really imagine him as the pragmatic, compromising team-builder around the council table?

Many of his policies, like swimmable rivers, stray far beyond the council's territorial reach or jurisdiction. Why mislead people?

This will be the inveterate protester's third attempt at winning public office, after being crushed in the last Auckland mayoralty race, while his parliamentary ambitions with the Mana Party went the same way.

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Minto has spectacularly failed to attach a price-tag to the unapologetic extravagance of his big-council spending promises. Pledging to build 1000 affordable houses, provide a "living wage" for thousands of workers, and deliver free public transport hasn't been furnished with any credible financial detail.  

He is not just promising to royally roger the ratepayer to fund free buses, but even more exorbitantly free rail as well, with a network of "comfortable, modern and low-emission trains." 

If this is not financial fairyland, Minto should furnish The Press debate with some clear, credible costings, given his raging anathema to divesting assets. Show us the money tree, John. In fact, many council candidates have been just as cavalier, happy to hitch a feel-good ride on the light-rail bandwagon, without bothering to outline its funding.

How much support does the mayoral underdog have amongst existing councillors? I canvassed the views of The People's Choice councillors. Notably, Jimmy Chen, Phil Clearwater and Yani Johanson all declined to specify Dalziel as their mayoral preference, opting to parrot a group-think declaration about supporting the mayoral candidate who opposes council asset sales and embraces the People's Choice vision.

In contrast, Pauline Cotter didn't hesitate to endorse Dalziel, citing the importance of stability and praising her leadership for "fostering a cohesive and effective council."

Disappointingly, a prevailing current amongst most political aspirants is a fundamental lack of passion for bending the arc on rates rises. Compare that to Auckland, where over 25 council candidates have signed a pledge whereby the total average burden of rates and levies, won't exceed 2 per cent annually.

Even Auckland's mayoral sure-bet, Phil Goff, has pledged to cap rates increases at 2.5 per cent. In Christchurch, Lianne Dalziel intends capping annual rates rises at 5 per cent throughout her second term, which is more than three times the rate of inflation. It's not bold enough. 

A breath of fresh oxygen is Mike Davidson, council candidate for Papanui (and Lianne's step-son) who is pledging to champion curbing annual rates increases below inflation. Davidson believes the axe must be taken to non-core expenditure.

"If that means delaying or scrapping 'nice to haves', so be it. Councillors congratulating each other for a 5 per cent rates increase is not acceptable."

The great elixir to local body election success is unquestionably name recognition. That is graphically illustrated by the health board election, in which have voters have to rank a roll-call of names. 

Recently it was reported how many of the health board candidates chose the "undecided" option when polled on fluoridating Christchurch water. Whether a candidate is for or against the notion, I would far rather they take a position, than plump for the cowardly option, in fear of alienating support. How could you vote for anyone who elects to be indecisive on such a rudimentary issue?

 - Stuff

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