Tripping over each other

Invercargill Mayor Sir Tim Shadbolt. PHOTO: LAURA SMITH
Invercargill Mayor Sir Tim Shadbolt. PHOTO: LAURA SMITH
Something extraordinary could occur in the Invercargill mayoralty race.

Sir Tim Shadbolt, previously a hugely popular and successful mayor, could win for the 10th time despite no longer being capable of leading the city council. This possibility exposes a core weakness in first-past-the-post (FPP) voting.

Sir Tim retained sufficient support three years ago to win comfortably. His 8903 votes put him well ahead of Cr Darren Ludlow on 5878. This was even though it was obvious to many he was already having difficulties.

Sir Tim’s tally was down on his 2016 lead but still a healthy majority. Word had not spread sufficiently. The past three years, however, have made Sir Tim’s issues plain.

The Department of Internal Affairs launched an inquiry in August 2020 following concerns about the Invercargill council. It found Sir Tim’s performance had resulted in a "leadership void".

The consensus was clear: the mayor struggled to fulfil significant mayoral roles.

Basically, the mayor has been side-lined wherever and whenever possible. Nevertheless, Sir Tim continues to brazen it out and is indicating he will stand again. It would be fair to assume a majority in Invercargill are now aware of Sir Tim’s present shortcomings.

These people would likely vote for another candidate. Nonetheless, Sir Tim could win with a smallish minority of votes such are the vagaries of FPP. But some voters will not understand what has been going on.

Sir Tim’s long and previously outstanding record will count for something. As well, voters in local elections often just tick the name they recognise. On that score, Sir Tim wins every time.

At least seven other candidates are standing. Two other strong potential candidates are yet to declare.

Sir Tim was shrewd enough last year to say his path to victory would be made easier in a crowded field. He also advised competitors to take his advice to settle on a single candidate to avoid splitting the vote if they wanted to defeat him.

Experienced Sir Tim is correct in this. The winner could have the backing of, say, just a quarter of voters. And most of the other 75% might actively not want Sir Tim. The will of the people could hardly be said to have been done.

When candidates were asked last week about the hazard of splitting the vote, they all claimed they were not concerned. But what else would they say in their endeavour to project confidence?

Deputy mayor Nobby Clark recognised the crowded field could benefit him because many did not like his style. One candidate standing against him would receive all the votes from those who did not like him.

Dunedin, by contrast, benefits from single-transferable-voting (STV), albeit that system is harder to understand.

Once someone’s first pick drops away, their next choice counts. Iterations continue until one candidate receives more than 50% and is elected. In the end, the winning candidate has support from the majority of voters.

In Dunedin, Lee Vandervis could have been elected mayor under FPP. But, via preferences, Aaron Hawkins prevailed.

The importance of distilling elections to one candidate against one other, is apparent in the election of the British Conservative Party leader. The choice becomes so much clearer. Similarly, the French presidential elections are run in two stages so the final run-off is one against one.

University of Otago politics professor Janine Hayward said FPP was a poor system for the Invercargill mayoralty type of election as it did a "bad job" of translating community preferences. She explained a large group of candidates sharing the same views could win the majority of votes, but a different mayor be elected.

It seems there will be so many candidates in Invercargill that they will be tripping over each other.

That crowded field, thanks to FPP, might just open the door for one more term for Sir Tim.