There was something ponderous and rather disturbing about the pre-election charm offensive by Auckland Council when it exhorted citizens to vote in this month’s local government election.
We were even invited to admire its perspicacity in hiring a young woman who had experience of empowering elections in democracy-starved Africa to up our monolithic city’s voting statistics.
Long-time Auckland local government politician Mike Lee bowed out this week, narrowly beaten for his Waitemata and and Gulf ward council seat by inner city board chair and City Vision candidate Pippa Coom in a 6581-6262 result.
Mr Lee acknowledges “a certain inevitability” about the election outcome.
The sequence began in 2018 when the council’s political working party led by Labour veteran and Waitematā Local Board member Richard Northey radically redrew the boundaries (but, oddly, not those of the Waitematā local board itself).
Council said the ward contained “too many people” – 119,000 was the figure used – for one councillor to represent, disregarding the fact that its territory contained the CBD where a very high number of residents are international students or on temporary work permits and only 51 percent of the population were electors – far fewer than in Auckland and New Zealand as a whole where 68 percent of citizens are electors.
Lee challenged the decision, including in the media (it can be found summarised in Ponsonby News October 2018), but to no avail.
Voter-rich Parnell, Newmarket and Grafton, containing 16,000 electors, were transferred to the Orakei ward, which now extends from the Tamaki Estuary to Symonds Street.
“It is clear the real objective was to remove the ostensibly ‘blue’ areas; a political gerrymander to make Waitematā and Gulf more City Vision-friendly,” says Mr Lee.
In the event, the 2018 census figures finally released last week showed only 102,000 people live in the former Waitematā and Gulf Ward – 17,000 fewer than the council had claimed. The change significantly lowered both the votes cast and the voter turnout percentage, with only 44 percent of the population in the ward now on the roll.
On the hustings, Lee was up against the Labour Party and the Greens (City Vision) on one side and National-backed C&R on the other, as well as an array of interlinked “progressive” groups and media commentators making considerable efforts to get rid of him.
He was also up against the mayor and the Super City/CCO establishment.
“The removal of a long-standing incumbent from office by a ‘fresh voice progressive’ candidate is not a new story in politics,” he says ruefully, contemplating the paradox of the outsider who, after nine years on the local board, was in fact the insider, the establishment favourite, strongly supported by Mayor Goff and politically aligned with council and Auckland Transport management.
“It was the political veteran – me – who was the outsider; the anti-establishment candidate leading an insurgency campaign which despite the odds, was supported by just under half the voters,” he says.
There was also a dismal 35 percent voter turnout, in part a reflection of public disillusionment with the Super City and its corporate culture.
“Rather than accept these implications, the council decided to get actively involved in the election to boost the turnout,” he says.
“In the last days a small army of council officers hit the streets armed with cardboard ‘ballot boxes’ and piles of special voting forms. Voting ‘pop-ups’, ‘one-stop-shops’ and ‘voting events’ were held, where people were enrolled and encouraged to vote. “Unconventional, and on the face of it laudable, except that at ‘World Homeless Day’ where street people were fed, entertained, and enrolled there were speeches from Phil Goff and sign-waving City Vision candidates in close proximity to ‘voting booths’.
“Similarly, Auckland University’s ‘Want Dumplings with your Democracy?’ enrolling and voting events for students (sponsored by ‘progressive’ on-line media outlet The Spinoff working closely with the council) featured City Vision but no other candidates,” he says.
“Social voting”, as it was described by The Spinoff, was highly questionable under the Electoral Act and, unsurprisingly, special votes showed a disproportionate spike for City Vision, Mr Lee says, pointing to a worrying precedent with Auckland Council officers not only involved in physically obtaining votes but evidently working with one political group while they were at it.
For Waiheke, and all better-informed communities, none of this is reassuring going into a new term when Waiheke, Auckland and the Hauraki Gulf most need an inclusive and genuinely agile approach to citizen wellbeing and a wholesome future.