Democracy in action, warts and all

“I’ll be back.”  So said Arnie Schwarzenegger in the Terminator movie before he took up politics – the same from me!

It’s been a whirlwind week since getting the phone call last Saturday to say I was in as a councillor on Horizons Regional Council with 7,635 votes.  I can admit a few tears of gratitude and relief may have snuck out of my eyes.

It seems ridiculous that getting elected is about putting up billboards so your giant smiling head is everywhere around town.  And paying, in some cases, very large amounts of money to advertise yourself (although I’m sure our papers appreciated the revenue!).  I found myself interrupting strangers at the river traders’ market on Saturday mornings to say, basically, “please vote for me”.

Some state getting elected is more about who you know than what you know.  Who knows?  Whatever I did, it paid off, and I’m excited about the opportunity to be a strong voice for the environment, community development and sustainability.

I’m also happy to be increasing the number of women on Horizons – we’re going from two to three – and lowering the average age!  Apparently being 43 is “young” in local government in our region – I’ll take it!  Especially as I’m turning a year older next Thursday, which is also the first formal meeting of the council.  I’ve been weirdly wishing that my birthday present would be sitting in a formal meeting all day and it has come true! 

What am I in for?  I will know in a few months’ time.  My background means I’m prepared, having worked in big bureaucracies across government, business and charity.  I’m used to reading technical reports and sitting in meetings and workshops, and appreciate that is the bread and butter of a councillor’s world.  Having experience of the RMA, conservation, road construction and wastewater treatment plants doesn’t hurt either!

One of the things I’m planning is to build connections across all sectors in Whanganui so I have fresh info on what is important to local people.  The most common question I was asked while campaigning is “what does Horizons do?” followed closely by “where does my rates go?” so I’ll be happily sharing that info back in return!

More seriously, it is a concern that the national voter turnout was under 40%.  Whanganui ranked top with 56% of eligible people casting a vote – but is still trending down (it was 58% three years ago). 

What’s happening with people turning off voting?  Is it believing their vote doesn’t make a difference, or not knowing enough about the candidates?  Is it feeling disconnected from the decisions made by councils, or not having enough head space left after juggling bills, children, jobs and family? 

There’s a vicious circle in place – if you don’t vote, then you don’t influence the outcome and are less likely to see the change you want, which perhaps means you are less motivated to vote.  But a non-vote has impact – it tends to support the status quo.

English writer George Moniot recently described our theory of democracy as grounded in the “notion of rational choice”, but flawed in practice.  He said: “This proposes that we make political decisions by seeking information, weighing the evidence and using it to choose good policies, then attempt to elect a government that will champion those policies. In doing so, we compete with other rational voters, and seek to reach the unpersuaded through reasoned debate.”

I too believe the system is flawed, but agree with tv comedy Third Rock from the Sun’s Mary when she explained democracy to alien researcher Dick, distraught in the struggle of how to cast an informed vote: “democracy is the worst form of government there is – except for all the others”.

All I can add is at least we’re not in America at the moment.