Bulls: North Island town elects councillors unopposed amid 15 percent voter turnout

11:15 am on 8 September 2022
State Highway 3 intersects with SH1 in the town of about 2000 people.

State Highway 3 intersects with SH1 in Bulls, the town of about 2000 people. Photo: RNZ / Jimmy Ellingham

The North Island town of Bulls is the epitome of local government apathy - its district councillors have been elected unopposed and turnout in a recent by-election was barely over 15 percent.

The town is between Palmerston North and Whanganui on a busy junction, where two state highways meet.

It is home to about 2000 people and its shops are well-known for putting bull puns in their names. Over the years it has had Antiques and Collecta-bulls and a sign at the police station reads Consta-bull.

But the low level of interest in the upcoming local body election is no joke.

Despite that most locals RNZ spoke to did not think that was much of a problem, and many said they intended to vote in the upcoming election.

Although the district mayoralty was up for grabs, there was no need for a councillor contest.

The Rangitīkei District Council's southern ward, centred on Bulls, has two spots, and with only two candidates standing, and they've been filled.

Two council Māori wards will also be filled with unopposed councillors.

Bulls makes a virtue of its name, but its local government woes are no laughing matter.

Bulls makes a virtue of its name, but its local government woes are no laughing matter. Photo: RNZ / Jimmy Ellingham

Council newcomer Jarrod Calkin will be one of the southern ward councillors.

He said he was surprised only two people stood, meaning locals did not get to pick their candidates.

"Being able to vote is one of the ways to be able to have your voice heard.

"It's a really unusual one. I wonder if it speaks a lot to disengagement with politics overall?"

Rangitīkei District Council group manager for democracy and planning Carol Gordon admitted last year's by-election turnout was poor, but said there were reasons for that, including a lack of high-profile candidates.

She said the council wasn't worried about its uncontested seats.

"We're not concerned because at the end of the day it's up to local people to stand if they want to, and that's personally their decision."

Overall, the council was trying to get people more interested in, and make them more aware of, what a council did to increase engagement and voting.

"It's really important that people get out and vote and I would encourage everybody to do that, but people need and understanding of who they are voting for and what [the] council is and what is means.

"We're trying to increase the knowledge and make people more of aware of the work that [the] council's actually doing."

About 47 percent of people voted in the Rangitīkei District in 2019, above the 42 percent nationwide turnout.

But by early 2021, when a by-election was held for a spot on its southern ward, only 15.1 percent of voters - 447 people - cast a vote.

That came after a period of intense debate about a new community centre in Bulls.

Councillor Brian Carter, pictured at his workshop, says online trolling could be putting people off standing for the council.

Councillor Brian Carter, pictured at his workshop, says online trolling could be putting people off standing for the council. Photo: RNZ / Jimmy Ellingham

Returning southern ward councillor Brian Carter suspects such contention, and online abuse, could be putting people off standing.

"There're all sorts of different things out there that could be contributing to the fact that no one's bothering [to stand for the council], and the best one's Facebook, where people just have their say - keyboard warriors."

Local government academic Dr Andy Asquith, who is now based in Australia, said problems with local democracy were nationwide.

"It's reflective of local democracy, full stop," he said of the Bulls situation.

"Local government is in crisis, not just in Rangitīkei, but within New Zealand, I would say."

Asquith suggests high-profile promotion of the local body elections from the likes of the prime minister or All Blacks could help.

"They should be shown filling in their voting papers, explaining what they're doing and why it's important, not saying who they're voting for, because that's irrelevant here.

"You have to have a concerted, ongoing process."

Candidates aligning with political parties was also a way to get people voting, as they knew what they were getting, rather than relying on vaguely worded candidates' statements, Asquith said.

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