Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A conspiracy against democracy

What is it with local chambers of commerce hating democracy? First, we had the Auckland business community pushing for at-large election in the Auckland SuperCity to ensure that the right sort of people were elected and the voices of the poor were shut out. And now, the Manawatu Chamber of Commerce is pushing for the same in Palmerston North, claiming that the ward system is a "handbrake" on growth and that at-large election would lead to "a better calibre of councillor" (you can hear their snobbery from here).

Oddly, the plan has the full backing of the Australian-owned Manawatu Standard, which on Saturday gave us a front-page editorial (not online) claiming that the ward system was "ludicrous" and that

Democratic processes should be as inclusive and accessible as possible, but that must be balanced with the need for strong, effective governance.
No, it doesn't. Democracy is not intended to produce "good" decisions (by whoever's criteria), but our decisions. A city council consisting entirely of dead white males from Victoria Avenue elected by dint of a narrow plurality in a gerrymandered system is neither representative nor democratic. We have enough problems with that already by using the undemocratic block vote system within wards; we do not need to magnify those problems by expanding it to the city as a whole.

Unfortunately, the councillors - who can see the advantage to incumbents in such a system - look likely to support it, at least to the level of providing for a non-binding referendum on the issue. Oddly, they're not willing to grant one on STV, though. That might be democratic.

Meanwhile, both the council and Chamber of Commerce seem to have very short memories. PNCC pushed this sort of undemocratic electoral arrangement on us back in 2006 - and was over-ruled by the Local Government Commission. Their decision [PDF] makes interesting reading; it found that there are definite communities of interest within Palmerston North, that wards ensured representation regardless of socioeconomic disparities, and that disputes within the council were the problem of the mayor and councillors, not the electoral system. The arguments for and against at-large voting have not changed since that decision was made, and it is difficult to see the LGC changing their mind.