Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns


Labour & Local Government

26/10/2004


The Labour Party I once belonged to had a long history of involvement in local government. Savage, Fraser, Kirk and nearly half of the Labour caucus I joined in 1972 had all been councillors or mayors. Every Labour Minister of Local Government until now had council experience. Local decisions really matter to ordinary people, and local government has been a good training ground for central decision-making. Not surprisingly, we spent a lot of energy trying to improve democracy at the local level. We fought for a standard system of enrolment at the central and local levels instead of maintaining local rolls where many names were duplicated and others were missing altogether. We fought for a ward system so that locals were guaranteed involvement in decision-making that affected them. And, when voter turnout to polling booths dipped below 10% in some areas by the early 1980s, we introduced postal voting. Participation rates leapt, then subsided to levels that are still many times higher than in the old days. Labour's goal always was to make the system as simple and local as possible to encourage people to participate in civic affairs.

What on earth decided the present Labour government to play games with these basic principles in the recent elections? Which politician thought that the interests of the public would be served by running different voting systems at the same election? Who dreamt up the flawed vote counting procedure for STV, certified the expensive machines, then assured the public the elections would be "a successful partnership" between central and local government? When I saw huge numbers of blank and invalid ballot papers while scrutineering, I knew something was wrong. Stories of soft-ware glitches and late results for seven local authorities and eighteen district health boards confirmed my suspicion.

Much of the blame must fall on the Government for foolishly thinking there was merit in STV, then making it mandatory in the DHB elections. If the hapless ministers concerned had checked carefully with officials they would have realised that their chosen STV experiment, much loved by computer geeks and mathematicians, is flawed. The version we used seems to have been designed to provide an advantage for minority views over mainstream opinion. The fact that it was being pushed so enthusiastically by the Greens should have rung alarm bells.

Any system that tries "scientifically" to play about with votes should always be given a wide berth. In the STV counting system used this time, surplus votes of winners were scaled down proportionately so that their second and third preferences counted for less than one whole vote apiece when redistributed. However, as the lowest polling candidates' votes were also redistributed in later counting, those votes were transferred at the equivalent of one full vote apiece. In other words, those who initially chose the least popular candidates had their preferences count for more. Moreover, for some unknown reason, we have never been shown all candidates' first preferences. Why?

Any voting system has to be simple and transparent if democracy is to retain its universal reputation. STV introduced an unintelligible lingo with terms like "quota at first iteration" and "final keep value". Most STV results listed in the press are unfathomable. Let's leave aside the politically correct parlance where candidates are declared to be "excluded" rather than "unsuccessful". Results where STV was used are gobbledegook. In Thames-Coromandel, for instance, the final shows two candidates with identical quotas down to a fine decimal point. One is declared "elected", the other "excluded". How come? In another case, several people with lower quotas in one community board area are elected while those with higher quotas are "excluded". Same in Papakura, Kaipara and the Auckland DHB. Of course the geeks will have an explanation. But to ordinary mortals such results are confusing. They hide the figures we want to see, and leave the impression something rotten is occurring.

It looks to me as if the Greens, themselves the beneficiaries of a piece of electoral engineering called MMP, have been indulged by the Labour Government with a system that is little more than jiggery-pokery. The early Labour Party experimented with proportional voting at local elections, then reeled back when they saw the results. The Prime Minister would do us a service if she announced that this is the first and last time that STV will be used. Then perhaps we could return to the laudable principles that used to underpin Labour's approach to local government.