Voters should be given extra option

Sir Gil Simpson proposes a change to how council elections are run, to put more choice into local democracy.

We have a local body election for our new Christchurch City Council, with postal votes closing at the end of this week.

It is full of promise of a new beginning.

These new and re-elected politicians promise that this will be a new-style council.

Not divisive, inclusive, transparent in its decisions and providing the bold leadership necessary for a revitalised rebuilt city.

We can only be impressed by these intentions.

But what if it doesn't turn out that way? What happens if they let us down? What happens if we think that the present council was better? What is our democratic choice?

Following the world financial crisis there has been evidence come to light of endemic wide spread economic problems caused by generations of politicians elected by the democratic process.

What the financial crisis uncovered was the incredible debts that politicians had created through social programmes which made them electable, but created an obligation for a future generation which in mild terms is unbearable.

These politicians were "uncovered" because the financial crisis meant they were no longer able to borrow money to fund their programmes.

Further loans to allow their communities to survive and for example to buy drugs and pay their teachers were simply not available any more.

The lenders of last resort to governments are the IMF and in the case of Europe the European Central Bank (ECB).

These organisations, effectively underwritten by the taxpayers of less- distressed nations, demanded evidence of a responsible government.

They wanted persons to be appointed to key roles so that they felt comfortable that there was a plan to eventually pay the money back.

The term technocrat emerged for people appointed to these various roles from prime ministers to finance ministers.

They are in fact persons who may never have been in politics, but met the requirements of forming a responsible government.

In reality because of the failure of their politicians other countries insisted that commissioners be appointed to carry out key roles in government.

Citizens of these distressed states had known all along the weaknesses of their political class but had no effective way to address it.

When we see evidence of "no one fit to govern" we need to find a democratic way of telling our politicians exactly that. Low voter turn out is viewed (secretly) by some politicians as a good indicator that they will be re-elected - not as voters dissatisfied with the choice.

Starting with local body elections we could make a change that would enable voters to demand better performance from our politicians.

In Canterbury we have some experience of this by commissioners being appointed to ECan. At the time there was a protest campaign to describe this as the government taking away our democracy.

Why should the government do this? Perhaps we should have the democratic right to ask the government to appoint commissioners?

I suggest that on every local body ballot paper an additional candidate is created which says "Appoint commissioners". The local citizens would be democratically choosing, if in sufficient numbers, an action for the government to take.

If "appoint commissioners" were added to the next ballot for Ecan then the voters view would be made clear.

If, say, 50 per cent voted for this then the government could appoint half of Ecan's council members from the best-polling candidates and half from suitable technocrats.

If we look forward to the Christchurch City Council elections in 2016 and "appoint commissioners" was going to be a choice on the ballot paper.

Aware of this, the elected members of our 2013 council would be suitably encouraged to act responsibly so that the voters will retain or regain confidence in them.

Even if a threshold of appointing commissioners is not reached but if, say, more than 15 per cent of those who voted said appoint commissioners, then it would be a very foolhardy politician who ignored the clear message of dissatisfaction from the voters. When commissioners are appointed no seat is "safe".

There is a very low voter turnout to local elections (less than 50 per cent).

Is this the result of voters not being interested or is it a protest about not being happy with the performance of local body politicians?

It would be extraordinary indeed if voter turnout increased as a result of allowing the choice of commissioners.

Perhaps the voice of democracy does need another choice.

Sir Gil Simpson founded the Aoraki Corporation, developer of the LINC and Jade programming languages, and Jade Software Corporation. He was also instrumental in the creation of Christchurch's Technology Park. In 2006, he launched Jolly Good Software Pty Ltd.

The Press