Opinion: Politics on your doorstep daily

Katie Milne: "Local government is vitally important."
Katie Milne: "Local government is vitally important." Photo credit: Newshub

By Federated Farmers president and local government spokesperson Katie Milne

OPINION: Most people think the only politics that matter are from the Beehive and play out on nationwide television broadcasts or the front pages of daily papers  it's not. The politics that really touch everyone, no matter where they are from, are much closer to home. Local district and regional councils are where the action is. 

How much you pay in rates, the services you get in return and just how much money will be pumped into glory projects for the politicians of the day are all decisions made around ratepayer-funded council tables.

This year is an election year. In October, New Zealanders will be voting in local authority elections. These elections will shape the leadership of councils for the following three years.

Local government is vitally important. It is about much more than potholes. It provides for democratic decision-making within local communities and touches most aspects of people's lives. Councils provide a diverse range of goods and services, including crucial infrastructure and services such as roading and transport, water supply, wastewater, stormwater and rubbish collection. Councils provide parks and recreational facilities, museums, libraries and art galleries. Councils also undertake extensive regulatory functions, often at the behest of central government, and the regulatory burden falls particularly heavily on farmers.

Collectively, the sector's operating expenditure exceeds $10 billion per annum, it employs around 32,000 people, and its assets are worth around $113 billion, partially offset by around $15 billion in debt.  It is also getting bigger and since 2000, its operating spending has tripled, its employee numbers are up 42 percent, and its debt is up by a factor of more than five.

Yet for such a large and important institution, local government is not well regarded. 

Local Government New Zealand's three-yearly reputation surveys have shown consistently poor results, with 2017's having an overall score of 28 out of 100. 

Meanwhile, interest in local elections is weak with falling voter turnouts. 2016's turnout was only 42 percent, barely half of the 2017 general election's turnout of 80 percent. Far too often, there is little or no choice in council elections.

Low and declining engagement is alarming and if it is allowed to continue, it will be a threat to our democracy and to well-functioning local public services. It is crucial that people, especially those that pay the bills, get involved and hold their councils to account. At the very least, this must involve voting in local elections, but it also needs genuine competition for voters so we encourage good keen people to stand.  

Closer to the elections Federated Farmers will be producing a manifesto for aspiring council candidates, as we did in 2010, 2013 and 2016.  We will also be encouraging people to vote at the elections.  As the old adage goes, "If you don't vote, don't complain - and you may end up with no choice but to fill in your own potholes."

 Katie Milne is president of Federated Farmers and local government spokesperson.