When one of the more politically minded folk you know tells you they are seriously considering spoiling their ballot this year, you know that all’s not well in the democratic people’s republic of Waiheke.
Truth be told, amid the exhaustion brought about from a hellish year and the apathy engendered by a campaign that seldom lives up to the grotesque celebrity death match playing out on the other side of the Pacific, it’s no wonder that many people are debating the purpose in playing along with our triennial popularity contest.
In recent weeks respected political commentators – while talking up the importance of a vote at such a pivotal point in our nation’s history – have also run down the process: first Andrea Vance admitted to not voting, albeit that her choice was not down to apathy, rather due to “cynicism [because] choosing between the lesser of two evils isn’t really much of a choice at all”.
And then Alison Mau talked about how the first leaders’ debate had left her in “a fug of bewildered disenchantment”.
Those out reporting on the campaign trails, tagging along behind party leaders desperate to find a happy medium between social distance and voter engagement, tell me that the mood throughout the country is “flat”.
It certainly comes to something when ACT’s David Seymour is hogging the limelight by jumping out of planes and soaring in the polls by somehow seeming to lure voters away from Winston Peters and his enmired New Zealand First. Consider for a second, ACT, the first party to push to raise the pension age, is attracting the traditional voter of NZ First, who have pitched their camp firmly in grey power territory and stymied any chance of a Labour-led Government touching the pension age for the past three years.
You have to wonder in these chaotic times whether voters are more likely to gift their X to plane-jumpers than policy-makers.
But, closer to home, a series of stories are also ruffling more than a few feathers and causing people to pick up the phone and wonder aloud to the Gulf News about whether voting our representatives into power does anything to change the bulldozer of progress.
In two short days this week I had six involved conversations about utterly insular issues which all circled back to the same theme: no matter the popular opinion, somehow a larger entity (either council or business) was riding roughshod over the process.
Now, realistically, few on Waiheke will cast either a party or candidate vote on the back of bus routes, liquor store licences, an impending marina project, taxi ranks, the hulking paperwork underpinning the 30-year Area Plan, or the council’s weedkiller of choice.
But when successive local board resolutions, incessant “have your say” feedback loops, labour-intensive petitions and costly court cases all seem to wash up against an imposing structure spelling the phrase “you shall not pass”, you can’t help but hear these people’s disenchantment with democracy.
Gulf News has covered in depth the rising tide of court costs associated with the Kennedy Point Marina, for instance. Costs which ultimately rebound on the community. When people feel strongly enough to battle against strong business interests and carry with them the apparent blessings of those elected to lead them, you can’t help but wonder whether their constant losses don’t just dent their own faith but also undermine the whole case for popular activism.
The individual who told me they were seriously considering spoiling their vote also told me that when they had worked as a volunteer counter on previous general elections, such spoiled votes had helped keep spirits high among those poring over the ballot papers long into the night.
It seemed the more vulgar the choice phrases used to “spoil” the papers, the more amusing those counters found them.
It’s a nice thought to make someone’s night with a perfectly formed piece of flamboyant bad taste – but, ultimately, this election is too important to waste.
Yes, the campaigning possibly needs a shot in the arm. Yes, 2020 has so overloaded most brains as to drown out the critical thought needed to differentiate between many candidates. And, yes, there is something ultimately dispiriting about watching elected members tie themselves in linguistic knots rather than actively change our island for the better.
But the ability to vote remains one of the most precious rights we have – just short of the freedom to rise up and question those in authority. This election is maybe more important than a simple vote for one party or another; this must be a watershed in how we think about democracy and how we weild the power that ultimately rests in us, the electorate, after the votes have been counted. • James Belfield