Olivia O’Malley is a former press secretary to New Zealand’s Leader of the Opposition and longtime Conservative staffer. She currently works in public affairs.
It is probably true that New Zealand has too many politicians. Five million people, 78 councils – one for every 65,000 people – and a local election every three years. Add to that 120 MPs for a country one-thirteenth of the size of the UK and it would be easy for voters to feel they were awash with representatives. Yet New Zealanders seem unfazed by this.
So unfazed, that two weeks into the voting period for the latest local elections, turnout in Auckland has not yet passed 20 per cent.
Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city, with just over a third of New Zealanders calling it home. The choice of Mayor of Auckland is hugely consequential, in the same way Sadiq Khan’s political decisions have a real impact on the lives of Londoners.
It’s a story that is repeated up and down New Zealand. Rates – the equivalent of council tax – are high and rising, roads are potholed and controversial government reforms to the management of water are in the works. None of which sounds entirely dissimilar to the issues facing local government in the UK.
But as the voting period draws to a close this Saturday, politicians at all levels have started talking about low voter turnout.
The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has said she “has concerns” that people aren’t exercising their right to vote, saying a conversation is needed around the way people vote in local elections, while Auckland mayoral candidates Wayne Brown and Efeso Collins have called for online voting. Chris Luxon, the Opposition leader, has been less vocal – most likely because the National Party does not put forward candidates in local elections. Instead, centre-right candidates tend to join groupings of like-minded councillors or stand as independents.
It is important to underline just how easy it is to vote in New Zealand. Unlike the UK, where voting takes place near universally on a Thursday, both local and general elections offer voters the chance to cast their vote up to three weeks in advance. Local elections are conducted by postal vote, so a trip to a polling booth isn’t even required. Elections are always held on a Saturday.
Short of introducing online voting, there are few things to make the process more convenient.
But does it even matter?
Politicians love to talk about voter turnout because higher turnout, coupled with a higher share of the vote, lends itself to greater public legitimacy. Such arguments were proffered in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, with some ardent Remainers rushing to point out that just 37 per cent of those eligible voted to leave the EU (conveniently ignoring that even fewer voted to remain).
Declining voter turnouts have been a feature of Western democracies for decades, and few countries have consistently arrested the decline. Only Australia, where voting is compulsory, has maintained turnout rates above 90 per cent.
Low voter turnout is not, in itself, a bad thing.
For pundits in Westminster and in Wellington, politics is what makes the world go round. It’s hard for those in the bubble to imagine life without it.
But for most people, that simply isn’t the case. Though it’s natural to assume that if people aren’t voting, it’s an indicator something is wrong, the primary reason people choose not to vote is that it is simply not a priority.
This ability to put politics aside and deprioritise it is fundamentally good. Not caring about politics is a luxury usually reserved for people in well-run democracies.
If the National Party were to stand candidates in local elections, it is possible there would be higher engagement. Local races could serve as a proxy for national politics, in the same way that races between the Conservatives and Labour in the UK are often seen as signs of the way the wind is blowing. Unless and until that happens, however, it is likely that local politics will remain as it currently is: working well enough that few are exercised enough to vote.
None of this is to say local government is not important. But for voters in New Zealand, between local and general elections going to the polls two years out of every three, the fact that the vast majority of people do not feel they need to vote their local politicians out is probably a positive.