It’s election time for local government and we all struggle to sort out who to vote for our local councils and boards. And we complain about how it’s hard to know who to vote for and it’s all a superficial photo contest. And then we go ahead and vote anyway, ignorantly and superficially. Then, when it’s all over, the elected go ahead and do all sorts of things we disagree with and didn’t expect. And who do we blame? The politicians of course. They can’t be trusted and they got elected on false pretenses and they have no integrity and so on. It’s all their fault.
“Tosh!” I say. And “rubbish” as well. There is a saying “we get the government we deserve” and I agree. We need to accept responsibility for the ignorant and superficial election process and our willing participation in it. How many of us go to candidates meetings? How many of us eye-ball them and ask them questions? How many of us have any idea what the people we vote for will actually do when they get let loose?
We get given a whole lot of votes and somehow we like to use them all. How are we deciding? Definitely photos – for a start. Some photos make people look weird or bad or mad. Or too old or too young. Or too business-like. Or too casual. And then there’s the 150-word statements in the booklets. How could you not want to elect everyone. They are all in favour of all sorts of admirable things. Transparency here and integrity there. Here an honesty, there a listener, everywhere goodness and earnestness. They’re just all so darned decent. So we try to vote for them all – it’s hard not to.
And lots of them get elected, and soon enough set about looting and pillaging the council services and assets and setting rates at levels that water the eyes of the poor. They disembowel social services and cut maintenance of anything vaguely non-essential (as defined by them). They claim a mandate for this because they were voted in by us to lead decisively and determinedly. To an extent they are right, but mostly it doesn’t matter. They are there, and secure for the next three years. And we did put them there.
Much as we malign politicians, and some are well-deserving of maligning, it is mostly our fault. For a brief moment we had the power, our votes. And we voted ignorantly and superficially. Blaming them misses the point, and fails to learn the lessons.
I am a bit bitter about all this in case you haven’t noticed. Years ago I was part of Labour Party local government activities in Dunedin. We’d have earnest meetings and developed local government policies. In 1989 we had a whole local manifesto. We went to great lengths to let voters know what we stood for, and what we’d do if elected. Fat chance! We got decimated at the ballot boxes by almost universal disinterest. We mostly got beaten by the pillars of the community who didn’t need to explain exactly what they stood for because they were community pillara.
We also got beaten by the ODT (Otago Daily Times), our local daily newspaper. The paper campaigned openly particularly at election time against political party involvement in local government. There was widespread involvement by political parties across the spectrum, but only the left-wing parties had the integrity and naivety to do it openly and honestly. The other lot have always been more cunning, and ran groups with names like Citizens for Goodness or Independents for Motherhood – you know what I mean. Most definitely wolves in sheep’s clothing. Or cunning old foxes dressed up as lambs. And most people fell for it, and them, and we all know what the wolves did to the sheep.
Local government is important, and affects more of our lives than national government probably. It is more immediate, and more of the things that affect us each and every day. It is naive to think that discussions about these daily services and activities are not philosophical and political. Debates like whether councils should own public assets and infrastructure for the good or all? Philosophical and political. Whether rates should be mostly the same for everyone or reflect peoples ability to pay? Philosophical and political. Whether libraries and public transport should be paid by users, or costs would be better spread across the community? Philosophical and political. And on and on.
Like it or not ODT, local government decisions are political and philosophical. It matters which side of the political fence candidates are on because that’s how they’ll act when we vote them in. It’s not a perfect predictor, but it would be a lot more reliable than 150 weasel words and a smiley photo. The trouble is, their politics is a secret, the elephant in the room. Because of the success of the generally right-wing news media propaganda about the evils of political parties being involved in local government, even the Labour Party went underground and maybe it’s given up by now? There’s only so much head-butting of brick walls a sensible sensitive candidate can bear.
I see on my voting papers that there are a few candidates claiming affiliation with the Green Party. They will get my first votes. If they are successful, I think I’m unlikely to be surprised by how they act. I’m not a member of the Green Party (or any party these days), but I like their honesty and naivety. All the candidates who claim to be Independent I will eliminate on principle. If they truly have no political or philosophical agenda either way they are presumably either boring and a waste of space or keener on personal prestige than achieving anything worthwhile. Or both.
People have been cautioning for centuries that we get the governments we deserve. If we keep on blaming the politicians we miss the point. It’s time to learn to make better use of elections. It’s the one moment we have the power and it’s about time we started making the most of it.