Opinion: Disconnect between communities and their councils 'bedding in'

  • Opinion
  • 21/10/2019

By Katie Milne, President Federated Farmers of NZ

OPINION: The recent local elections produced big changes in council leadership around the country. I welcome all the newbies to the precarious world of local politics.

Farming got a big look-in with some solid Federated Farmers leaders elected in a number of jurisdictions. This is sorely needed for a rural community increasingly under pressure to save the world and perhaps even turn into trees.

Our congratulations to among others Allan Baird, elected to Southland Regional Council, Sandra Faulkner and Kerry Worsnop, who won seats on the Gisborne District Council, Lynda Murchison in at the Hurunui District, Will Foley to Hawke's Bay Regional Council and Donald McIntyre's return to Taranaki Regional Council.

The election of Ian Mackenzie and Megan Hands to Environment Canterbury is also good news, Western Bay John Scrimgeour's return to that council, and Westport dairy farmer Jamie Cleine's new challenge as Mayor of Westport.

That all said the overall voter turnout was barely half that of the 2017 General Election and came in at a sad 41.4 percent, down on 2016's 42.0 percent and around the same as 2013's 41.3 percent.

This suggests a powerful disconnect between communities and their councils is bedding in.

One can be cynical about this - that old saying that if voting made a difference they wouldn't let us do it, might underlie the low participation but we at Federated Farmers think differently. Down the years we have seen councillors from the farming sector bring much needed common sense to local decision making, through hard work on planning and financial committees and the full council table.

What can't be changed, the system of property value rates for example, can still be made more equitable if the right policies are applied.

In terms of voter turnout that system has a lot to answer for, with ratepayers taking a much greater interest as they are the ones that get invoiced. Many candidates' flyers are addressed directly to ratepayers, as those who rent or lease have little idea of the cost of council services, and by dint of human nature take less of interest.

The statistics also suggest farmers turning out in more solid numbers than the cities, with the turnout for rural districts at 56.8 percent, well up on the national average. Rates and regulation have a lot to do with this.

We need to do more work regarding the online voting option, to get it secure, but the method of voting isn't the deal-breaker some make it out to be.  More fundamental reform is needed if councils are to gain more legitimacy at the ballot box.

Katie Milne is President of Federated Farmers of NZ