Civic connection

If ever the voter "turnout" at local government elections is going to be high, it should be this year.

In Dunedin, the stadium controversy has stirred passions well beyond the usual concerns of rates, sewage, roads and other issues.

Either councillors were progressive and looking to the future over the stadium and other projects and spending, or they were irresponsibly spendthrift and driving up costs, rates and building a mountain of crippling debt.

The stadium is now a fait accompli and Dunedin must make the most of it, but the underlying matter of council attitudes to city facilities and services and spending remains.

In either case, if residents and ratepayers have praised and been pleased or they have moaned and groaned, then they have no excuses if they do not vote.

As many residents as possible need to choose the "best" mayoral candidate, and they need to take the trouble to work out which councillors will "best" serve Dunedin.

The majority of Dunedin residents this election have a broader selection across the central ward.

They have the chance to vote for a full 11 councillors rather than only a few in a constrained ward.

At the same time, they have the opportunity to leave off, or demote through preferences, a much wider range of candidates than in the past.

That choice, in some ways, is more important than the mayoralty contest. When push comes to vote at council meetings, the mayor has only one vote, just like the other 14 councillors, although under council standing orders the mayor also has a casting ballot.

The mayor, as well, has a key role in selecting the important committee chairmen.

There are significant mayoral contests this year in each Otago district, which should add to interest.

Generally, the larger the population the greater the apathy, and the response to elections remains especially impressive in well-settled areas like Clutha, Waitaki and Central Otago.

Not only are more residents involved in the issues, but it is likely a far higher proportion will know far more about individual candidates.

That is, simply, the nature of smaller places.

Dunedin is big enough so that just being a recognised and reasonably respected name can be enough to garner support.

The same tendency applies even more to the regional council and district health board where it can be hard for voters to know much about candidates.

Turnout jumped with the novelty and ease of postal voting when it was introduced in 1989.

These days, the voting papers are likely to sit around and, often despite good intentions, the deadline for posting them passes without action.

University of Otago political scientist Dr Jacky Zvulun has sensibly suggested a ballot box day at the end of the posting period.

That could make the process seem more real and intentional: a physical turnout.

It could provide a focus and a backstop, and it fosters a sense of community occasion.

Its biggest drawback would be not inconsiderable additional costs.

The slipping participation is Dunedin is alarming.

The turnout in 1998 was 65.4%; in 2001, 56%; in 2004, 54.7%; and in 2007, 47.4%.

The national turnout three years ago was a woeful 44%.

According to one survey, about half of that 44% was aged over 55.

Part, but not all, of the explanation for falling numbers in Dunedin lies in the growing proportion of students.

Most come from beyond the city and most will leave in a few years.

Many vote for candidates for their "home" councils.

But it appears interest in voting has fallen, reflecting local, national and international trends to lesser civic connection and involvement.

Those who read newspaper editorials are, on the whole, likely to be among those who take the trouble to vote.

They will know that, while the past cannot be changed, we look to those we elect to play a role in shaping the future.

We must, therefore, ensure we do post our votes, and we must also encourage family and friends to vote.

Because local government's role in our lives and in the outlook of our districts and cities is so significant, broad civic engagement and good voting turnouts are vitally important.


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