Thursday, May 13, 2010

Time to abolish ratepayer electors

Later this year, New Zealanders will get to vote in local body elections. But there's a dirty secret to our local democracy: some people - those who own property in a region, district or community other than the one they live in - will get to vote more than once.

The reason for this is that the Local Electoral Act creates a special class of ratepayer electors, entitled to vote on the basis that they pay rates to a local authority. There aren't very many of them: 1100 in Auckland, 225 in Wellington, 147 in Manukau and 89 in Palmerston North - so Matt McCarten's fears of absentee landlords dominating elections seems unfounded. But like the monarchy (something else which makes little practical difference) their very existence is offensive and an affront to democracy. Ratepayer electors take the principle "no taxation without representation", once a rallying cry for democracy, and perverts it into a justification for the unequal representation of the rich.

This institution is the last vestige of the Victorian attitude that only the wealthy and those with property deserved the vote. In the democratic era, we recognise that principle is morally repugnant. What matters is not property, but citizenship. Everyone who lives here has an interest in our society, and no-one's interest is more important than anyone else's. Recognition of this fundamental moral equality leads to the idea that we must all have an equal voice - one person, one vote. But the institution of ratepayer electors gives extra weight to the interests of and a louder voice for the non-resident wealthy - for them, its "one property, one vote". And that is simply wrong.

It is time we did away with this undemocratic institution and restored "one person, one vote" in New Zealand. It is time we did away with ratepayer electors.