Local body elections: Boosting the youth vote and a councillor's baptism of fire

6:31 pm on 5 September 2022
Rear View Of Students Walking To High School

Other countries have given 16-year-olds the vote and it has been a success, an expert says. File photo Photo: 123RF

Explainer - Giving 16-year-olds the vote would be an ideal way to create more interest in local body politics and establish a pattern of lifelong voting, Professor Bronwyn Hayward says.

It's local body election time with voting papers arriving in letterboxes in a couple of weeks and postal voting taking place up to 8 October - also the day results will be announced.

Participation has been on a slide for years with just 42 percent bothering to cast votes in 2019.

One simple measure could introduce another 190,000 potential voters to the mix, Prof Hayward from the University of Canterbury says.

Austria saw the sense of allowing 16-year-olds to vote many years ago while Scotland and Wales have recently followed suit.

"The sky doesn't fall in," she says with young people tuned in to the most vital issues of the day that will impact on them for many years citing climate change, education and health.

It makes more sense to include 16-year-olds while they are living at home rather than at 18 when they are likely to move off into tertiary education, first jobs and flats, she says.

"If young people don't vote in their first election they are less likely to vote in their second so it makes political sense."

Teenagers aren't necessarily left leaning either. They can be influenced by families, friends or workmates - just like every other voter, Professor Hayward says.

Bronwyn Hayward

Setting up a pattern of voting early is important, Professor Bronwyn Hayward says. Photo: Supplied

Christchurch city councillor Celeste Donovan has addressed senior students at two of the city's schools recently.

"In some ways they are the most engaged of communities and well informed about what they see as the key issues."

These include housing, mental health, climate change and providing safe spaces for diverse sections of the community, she says.

Meanwhile, Prof Hayward is relieved New Zealand has not gone down the pathway of electronic voting to make it easier for people to take part in local elections. She says international experience shows it is "vulnerable to manipulation".

She is concerned that not enough young people are standing for councils but is pleased that at the next level down - the community boards - there is growing interest and more women too are trying their hand at standing for public office at this level.

Stepping into a heated issue

So what drives a person to risk abuse, a heavy workload and pressures for change from central government?

Donovan who has served one year as a city councillor often works 12-hour days plus weekends and has had to hear criticism for the way the Christchurch City Council has handled the controversial Bromley smell affecting thousands of residents in the east of the city.

After years working behind the scenes trying to help her community with social justice issues plus a stint working for the Greens in Parliament, she decided to take the step up and was voted onto the council in a byelection last October to replace radio host James Daniels.

She says climate action, improving transport options, housing and the use of public spaces are among the issues she had already been involved in and wanted to push round the council table.

In her first term she was also one of just three councillors who voted against borrowing an extra $150 million to pay for building Te Kaha Stadium because she was worried about the council's debt level.

Christchurch City councillor Celeste Donovan, left, with retiring mayor Lianne Dalziel  - at Donovan's swearing-in in October 2021

New councillor Celeste Donovan is sworn in, watched by Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel. Photo: Supplied / Kirk Hargreaves

She has not been put off from standing again as an independent to represent the Coastal ward.

Donovan has been directly involved with the problem of the smell emanating from the city's wastewater plant which has affected residents in her ward - a row that has seen huge criticism directed at the council.

"I am sympathetic to people being upset. I do think council doesn't get everything right all the time," she says.

With any controversial issue trust needs to be rebuilt within communities who feel a council has let them down and Christchurch council must be accountable for any mistakes it has made in handling the wastewater plant smell, she says.

She points to an additional $180,000 fund she helped win approval for (along with councillor Yani Johanson) to assist with the social recovery response in the affected area in addition to $1 million the council had already allocated.

Rehabilitation work underway at the Christchurch wastewater treatment plant. Photo:

Donovan is keen to see diversity in gender, ethnicity and backgrounds in local government.

"If you don't see people like you [serving] you don't think it is about you.

"The more we can engage with diverse communities the more council can evolve in a way that will benefit the whole city."

While vitriol from the public has been blamed for forcing some councillors and mayors in some parts of the country into retirement, she says she has been exposed to a limited amount so far but agrees you can't be "thin-skinned" in the public arena.

Climate change a priority on a crowded agenda

It might be expected that a winter of weather disasters from Northland to Nelson and Marlborough would make people more in tune with the need to plan for climate change, and by default ease the job of our councils, but Professor Hayward says that is not necessarily the case.

While she sees it among local government's most pressing issues, those most affected can feel confused and overwhelmed by what is happening - unsure if what they are enduring is the result of a one-in-100-year event or the result of our changing climate.

Prof Hayward says climate science can now tell us in real time when damaging weather events have been made worse by climate change.

"It's an unfortunate reality" for local government that it will face significant pressures responding to more severe and more frequent disasters from now on, she says.

"We need local government and communities to be planning right now."

She wants to see robust planning laws put in place so that the difficult governance calls can be made to prevent the likes of building houses in areas that will be exposed to dangers within 15 years.

Councillor Donovan says making the right calls on climate change action is so vital she hopes councillors will handle it as a non-partisan issue and not let politics from the left or right sway decisions.

Prof Hayward says local government also faces the challenge of maintaining social cohesion as "the quality divide" deepens between those who can access jobs, decent housing and food and those who can't.

As our cities grow emissions, pollution, mental health problems and other stresses shape as high risks for communities.

"It's not an easy task for local government to manage these conflicting pressures," she says.

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