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Do we really value our local democracy?


For anyone who even randomly follows the news will know that Hong Kong has been embroiled in demonstrations for months. These sometimes bloody demonstrations initially started as a result of a proposed Extradition Bill whereby there would be special arrangements (and "mutual assistance") for the extradition of fugitives to China. Many in Hong Kong were suspicious, especially how it could be easily misused. As a consequence many in Hong Kong took to the streets to get that Bill to be withdrawn.

There are five demands of the protesters:
1. The withdrawal of the Extradition Bill - finally achieved!
2. Implementation of universal suffrage (one vote, one person) and an independent judiciary
3. An independent probe into the use of force by police
4. Amnesty for arrested protesters
5. Ceasing to call and categorise the protests as riots

I am filled with admiration for these protesters, the millions who come out each and every weekend to send a clear signal to the Hong Kong Government and to China of their demands. I am inspired by their resilience and ability of this leaderless movement that uses the catch-phrase "Be like water". Be like water is precisely what has confounded the authorities as the movement has been able to coalesce, change shape, remould and then disappear as the heavily fortified police appears.

I am humbled at the high value they have placed upon democracy and the desire for inclusive and meaningful participation in decision making in their communities and territory. It is a high reverence indeed when you hear protesters state that without freedom life has little value, and that they would indeed make the ultimate sacrifice for that ideal and that freedom. This is very reminiscent of the sacrifices made in the formation of our democracy that we now take for granted. But on the streets of Hong Kong, in the 21st century, this same cry has gone out again.

And, in New Zealand...
Keeping that thought in mind I turn my attention to the state of our democracy in New Zealand and our less than energised enthusiasm to even participate in our local body elections.

In the interests of transparency, I need to make it clear that I'm standing as a candidate for the Greater Wellington Regional Council. So, I'm probably viewing this from a slightly different perspective than most.

What I see are two ends of the spectrum. A country that has universal suffrage and the ability to shape their lives and their communities, and a territory denied the right to vote and an inability to have full self-determination. When I look at our declining turnout, from 56% in 1989 to 43% in 2016, it leaves me with the question about how much we value our democracy.

Will our apathy towards participation mean that over time our rights will become eroded? And, will that mean that those who are elected by the minority, feel emboldened to pass laws and by-laws that adversely affect the rights and well-being of people and local communities.

Why are we not as engaged with our democracy?
Some would say that politics has been captured by the pale, male and stale brigade. But that is not a satisfactory answer, and in fact is rather a glib and thoughtless response. There is no prohibition on being nominated to run as a candidate - and I recognise that can be a daunting challenge, and something I would have found difficult to do when I was in my 20's.

Others will offer the theory that younger people are just not interested in voting, or know how to vote. While there is some reasonable and anecdotal evidence to support this claim, there is no actual data to validate it. This is because we don't collect that data when people vote. What we do know is that there is a lower rate of enrolment for younger people.

Having said that I do believe that younger people don't vote in the same numbers as older people. I don't necessarily attribute that to there being insufficient younger candidates seeking election (just look at how Bernie Sanders, a 78 year old politician, has inspired great sways of younger people in the United States, showing that it's the message and not the messenger). There is something more.

I think we can attribute the lack of participation in local body politics down to four key points:
1. The message, what people stand for and the channels of communication: Fixing drains and pot-holes are important, but that's not really what inspires people from diverse backgrounds to vote and participate. It's about what candidates stand for, their values and the inclusiveness of their message. The fact that a person is an accountant won't carry the day, it's about how they make decisions, their ability to connect and prioritise people, communities and the environment. Perhaps candidates need to focus upon who they are and their ability to connect and collaborate and bring others into the fold.
2. The distinct lack of interest by the media: It seems that the media displays a real lack of interest in local body elections. The media were once regarded as the fourth estate, but that title is now undeserved. The fourth estate recognised the ability of the media to analyse, advocate, critique and hold to account other aspects of our political system. Now it seems they are the servants of it and their interest is only piqued to highlight the unusual or the exceptional (I do take my hat off to some tenacious journalists who have covered local issues). But the real stories are often to be found in the layers of the mundane and ordinary. My question to the media is this: Where are you in examining and critiquing the candidates and what they stand for? Where are you in explaining the issues to your audience? Is it all just too boring to cover?
3. The lack of education about democracy: Admittedly there is information about our democracy. But, how well does this penetrate into the curriculum of our schools so younger generation of voters can understand how it operates and how they are able to participate and effect change? Further, how accessible is our democracy to those who have migrated to our country and are keen to fully participate and bring their strengths into our communities and democratic institutions?
4. Changes around the structure of society: Our society has radically changed since the early 80's- often not with our consent. Our lives have become increasingly busier and complex with the need to provide for our families becoming our singular concern. In fact, participation in our democratic institutions may be seen a luxury that many cannot afford.
Will we be protesting in years to come for the right to participate?
The more voter turn out drops the more we run the risk of having our councils and the decisions they make being determined by the minority of those who vote. When that happens it will inevitably result in decisions that fail to be made in the interests of people and local communities, and will also fail to reflect the role of Councils and Councillors as stewards of our resources, assets and of the environment.

Our bus network problems were big, as was the consequence of decisions taken that filtered out the needs of people and communities. Problems such as this will pale into insignificance if we allow our participation to decline. We might then have a deeper appreciation why the people in Hong Kong are fighting to be part of the decision making process.

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