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Monday, October 14, 2013

Board gaming: drawing a line on local electioneering

The Belgians went without a government for over a year with few problems.  The American government is currently working through a Congressional budget crisis which has seen their federal level shut down for the last fortnight (with a debt default deadline looming in a few days which could be big trouble if their Congressmen keep playing chicken).  It does not seem necessary for a government - the Cabinet or the political leaders - to be in charge 100% of the time, or for a full term, for a democratic state to function.  As long as the money is voted (or even in the case of the US when it has expired) there is a period when things will tick along as normal. 

The concept and expectation of political oversight in the system is crucial, but there are times and situations when there are only minor consequences of power and decision-making not being exercised by the Executive or the Legislature (and of course some would say there is great deal to be gained by any sort of limitation or exclusion of politicians altogether!)  I state all this to demonstrate the difference between the central and local government rules around elections in NZ.

Parliamentary elections are full of jargon: writ days, returns, quotients, proportionality, electoral officers etc., but the idea is that when an election is called the parliament concludes several weeks beforehand and the election period begins wherein MPs cannot spend on parliamentary services.  The MPs and Ministers continue to hold office in the election period, but are limited in their activities.  The reason for these rules is simple: the incumbency advantage of using those parliamentary resources - and the free publicity - is unfair on the other candidates.  The local body elections, though, appear to be conducted with quite a different understanding - a misunderstanding.

The local body politician has enough tricks up their sleeve already without having to game the election.  For example you can't help but notice all the high-profile public works (the pointless cosmetics of re-sealing a perfectly good main road again, the maintenance and cleaning of the local shopping centre etc.) will coincide with the start of the election period to give the impression the incumbents have achieved something tangible. This delivery roll-out is totally political - and also unavoidable.  I accept these things will happen and there is very little that can be done - or even that should be done about this. 

What I do object to however is attempting to run local councils right through the election period as if it was business as usual.  It is far from usual and the necessity of a local body (and all their committees) having to meet in the middle of an election is non-existent.  What possible urgency is there that committees are meeting up to two days before the election date - and almost three weeks after electors have their ballots?  Any meeting is basically going to be unfocussed anyway with such a huge distraction as an election with a propensity to descend into politics and electioneering. How can it not? It is all highly suspect. Crazy wrong.

If it is good enough for parliament to close for a month or two then it should be more than acceptable and reasonable for a local council to close up shop in plenty of time for the elections.  It is not right that the people already in office get to set and use the meetings schedule as part of their hustings.  Setting a hard date for the dissolution of the council and its boards - like 40, 50 or 60 days before the election - would be a welcome improvement to the situation.  Here's hoping this issue will garner some attention in the review parliament normally conducts after each local body election.



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