Your vote counts in local elections

Last updated 09:12 30/09/2013

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OPINION: Local councils are our most accessible democratic institutions, writes Dr Jean Drage. So, make sure you vote.

So you won't be voting for the council elections? If so, please read on. I hope I can persuade you to change your mind.

Let's start by acknowledging that elections for our local councils are usually fairly quiet affairs with newspaper coverage being mainly limited to full facial photos of those standing for election, a few words on what candidates intend to do if elected (which tell us little) and the ongoing debate on why so few people bother to vote.

It is only when our councils make controversial (and costly) decisions or we hit those rough times following major events (such as our recent earthquakes), that interest swells.

And this we saw at the last local election for Christchurch city (in 2010) when the voter turnout was 10 per cent higher than the previous election, mainly due to the considerable controversy over council decisions in that term and a strong mayoral contest.

This time round, while the controversy remains, history shows us that this increased voter interest is unlikely to be sustained, mainly due to a more low-key election campaign. So we are back to the debate on why we should vote and in fact, why it even matters.

It is often said that local government is the government we love to hate as its decisions can have an immediate impact on our lives.

Whilst we enjoy regular and largely invisible public services, we sometimes get that parking ticket; those road works make us late for work and those rates bills just keep increasing - all of which is visible and irritating.

An alternative view is that local government is more than just well- run local services.

Local government is the essence of our local democratic system where ideas are debated, policies formed and decisions made and so provides us with the opportunity to participate as elected representatives, as voters and as citizens.

Local councils are also our most accessible democratic institutions. Voting is easy in local elections: remember those voting forms are posted to us.

And as citizens we have the right to be part of planning the future of our communities.

Our local councillors don't always have to toe the party line and we are more likely to find these councillors in the supermarket and hold them to account for decisions made.

The idea behind this type of political system is that people have the opportunity to participate at both levels of government, local and central.

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Having a system of democracy within our local communities ensures that political power is spread and so helps to create a constitutional safeguard.

It also provides us with a wider range of opportunities to participate in expressing our views.

Further, we can argue that local government is more likely to be responsive to local needs, unlike an overarching central government or indeed, a non- elected system of administration.

Today, we think of local government within the ideas of subsidiarity, an idea that political power should be exercised by the smallest unit of government - or that policies and decisions should be made closest to those affected by them.

It's important, I believe, that those who want to be part of this decision making understand all this and are capable of representing us well in the debate on the future of our community.

It is also important that we understand why we should be involved as voters in the October elections.

So my first argument here is the obvious one - we need good decision makers here in Christchurch and we need them to know that they are there at the behest of a majority of the community (as in, they have been voted in by a substantial number of voters and they understand that they are accountable to that community).

With local councils taking on the full responsibility for the rebuilding of the Canterbury community once Cera's role is done, they need to be well ready. So who do you want leading our city and who do you want to manage the huge financial commitments we face today in rebuilding our communities?

We will have a largely new council in Christchurch in the next term (and new senior management).

These people need to be able to hit the ground running. So they must know Christchurch well, know the legislation they will be working within, have very good connections to their communities and be ready and willing to make this a full time job. They also need to be prepared to listen and learn.

The second argument is that we should vote while we can. In Canterbury we are being denied the opportunity to vote for our regional councillors for a second election.

Any debate around the way in which Environment Canterbury delivers services is irrelevant when we cannot participate in choosing those who make the decisions there.

Further, the current appetite for restructuring local government, particularly in the North Island, will ultimately mean fewer councils and councillors in the future (ie, less local democracy).We need to deliver the message that the community is actively involved here in Christchurch.

My third argument is that this can be a positive experience. Think about when you did enjoy participating and the Council's "Share An Idea" campaign in 2011 on the redevelopment of the city comes immediately to mind.

So why was that enjoyable? Was it the opportunity to have a say, to put your ideas out there and to take a moment to consider the future?

Isn't that what local elections do? They give you the same opportunity to think about the future of this city and to choose those who will make decisions on our future whilst also telling them what we think.

Those elected to the council will have a major impact on the future form and direction of this city, so this election is crucial.

Yes, I can hear you. So, how do you know who to vote for? How do you decide who is up to the job?

Well, get along to those election meetings and find out just who is standing.

I have emailed all the candidates in my ward to get the dates for these meetings. I will be asking them to explain how they make decisions, how they intend to be accountable and what experience they bring to this crucial role.

You can also use the Local Elections 2013 website to find out more about them and how to contact them to share your ideas. http://www.vote.co.nz/ 2013/elections/regions/

Have I persuaded you?

Dr Jean Drage is a political scientist with a long-term interest in local government political representation.

- The Press

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