Crude reminder of royally half-cocked commission
First-past-the-post, 200 years after the first single transferable vote election, deserves to be a very distant memory.
But, thanks to the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance stvsingle-transferable-vote-ignoramuses, the region is about to elect its fourth mayor with the votes of only a fraction of Aucklanders. Len Brown was elected by 25% of registered voters in 2010 and 16.5% in 2013, and Phil Goff by 18% in 2016.
In 2019, either Phil Goff or John Tamihere will be elected by a similarly pitiful percentage, even though one—though not necessarily the one elected—will be preferred by more than 50% of those voted, if it came down to a choice between the two. With crude, old first-past-the-post, unless a person votes for the successful candidate or the runner-up, their vote is wastedwasted, did not effect the outcome, did not help or hinder the successful candidate. To attempt to dignify a wasted vote as anything but a wasted vote is delusional.. Preference systems were conceived to allow voters to indicate who their vote should go to in the event of their first choice proving to be out of contention. On 17 December 1819, the Society for Literary and Scientific Improvement held its inaugural meeting using its member Thomas Wright Hill’s freshly devised single-transferable-vote rules. In fairness to 200 years of returning officers, it wasn’t until a New Zealander, Stephen Todd, cracked the challenge of computerising the counting of transferable votes, in—for the sake of all the nines—1999. Prior to that, although preference voting had its adherents, hand counting proved to be a tedious task, and voters, regardless of the result being patently fairer, were unimpressed at being expected to wait for days or even weeks to learn the outcome of an election.
After the first successful, computer-counted stv electionsof Meek’s method of single-transferable-vote counting in 2004—eight brave local authorities had immediately embraced it, and in 2016 it was still eight, although this year that has improved, to 11Although New Plymouth and Ruapehu district councils, and Tauranga city council are using the single transferable vote system in 2019, which leaves 67 councils not using it!—New Zealanders didn’t deserve to be subjected to treatises on the esoteric distinctions between stvsingle-transferable-vote and fptpfirst-past-the-post elections every three years thereafter. But since democracy degenerated into a poll-driven-leadership-free-zone, those who should be leading, such as royal commissioners and politicians, find it expedient to leave decisions such as the adoption of preference voting to the generally even more poorly informed individual councils. The parallel spectacle of certain Hamilton city councillorsthose cognitively inflexible and living in a parallel, free-from-the-laws-of-atmospheric physics, universe arguing over whether to declare a climate emergency or climate urgency would be hilarious if it wasn’t such a graphic illustration of how ill-prepared civilisation is to save itself or, if it doesn’t care about that, what’s left of the rapidly degraded natural world.
Prior to the election of unpopular popularist Donald Trump and the non-elected elevation of Boris Johnson, the death of democracy might have seemed alarmist. But democracies are proving to be woefully reluctant for fight the thousand-year war required to salvage a survivable climate and what little remains of the natural world. Between 20 September and 8 October, it is entirely possible that fewer than 20% Aucklanders of will successfully elect an unrepentant misogynist populist on a campaign championing car use in the face of the urgent imperative to prioritise roads for battery-extended trolleybuses, service and emergency vehicles and suchlike.
But while the election of a mayor from a crowded field with fptpfirst-past-the-post elections is sufficiently problematic, when electing local board members to the multi-member local board subdivisionsthe execrable term chosen by the royal commission for election precinct or district such as Warkworth, it is positively perverse. In 2019, in the three-seat Warkworth example, people motivated to vote for a young candidate to replace the retiring Tessa Berger may well discover that their second choice has cost their most-favoured candidate, Ayla Walker, her opportunity. Or, in the example of Mahurangi voters wanting to also support ardent Mahurangi Regatta advocate Steven Garner with his bid to rejoin the Rodney Local Board, voters should have the option of ranking Garner and Walker one-two or vice versa. As it stands, without stvsingle-transferable-vote’s facility for nuanced voter choices, neither the voters nor candidates are treated fairly, much less intelligently.
The Royal Commission on Auckland Governance had great expectations for the mayoralty of the new, administratively unified region. But the commissioners thought that all they had to do to attract some mythical leader head and shoulders above any person attracted to such roles in the past was to zhuzh up the status and resources of mayor’s office à la Greater London Authority. But London elected Boris Johnson, which, in turn, gave him the exposure that has handed him the destructive power to crash the United Kingdom out of the European Union, unless the blinder just played by Jeremy Corbyn proves to provide a lifeline to something resembling rationality.
The commissioners had poor regard for democracy generally, anxious as they were for their impeccable masterplan to be implemented unblemished. The three would have been well to reread that report of the Royal Commission on the Electoral System, which while not supporting referendums generally, insisted that the decision as to whether to replace fptpfirst-past-the-post be put to the people. Given the profound restructuring of the region’s governance, not least of all unelected and largely unaccountable council-controlled organisations and the resultant, predictable, festering resentments, Salmon cnzm qc et al were derelict, and suffocatingly pompous, in failing to emulate that example:
The Commission makes no recommendation on [stv], because it was not persuaded that the adoption of this voting system would assist in solving Auckland’s problems.
One council-controlled organisation in particular, Auckland Transport, is, of course, the target of and fall-guy for Phil Goff’s only realistic rival. The irony of John Tamihere declaring he will closely control Auckland Transport is only matched by his hypocrisy in his intention to flog off half of that other massive council-controlled organisation, Watercare. But the unforgivable injustice of the royal commissioners was centralise so much power in the mayoralty without upgrading from the crude fptpfirst-past-the-post system that deprives young candidates—in this election, Jannaha Henry—of many of the first preferences that they would otherwise receive, under a mature, fit-for-purpose, world-first-in-Aotearoa voting system. Under 200-years-past-its-best-by fptpfirst-past-the-post, experienced voters know they need to hold their nose and vote for the lessor-of-two-evils. Sadly, Henry will split the vote of Mayor Tends-Toward-Balanced-Transport Goff, and significantly advantage Mr More-Cars-is-Always-the-Answer TamihereAdd that to Councillor Greg Say-Let’s-Subdivide-More-Elite-Soils Sayers re-elected unopposed….
Climate emergency means that the human proclivity for kicking cans like stv down the road must stop. For the Auckland region to be dragged backwards by a belligerent 60-year-old determined that the automobile age must never end, aided by an infelicitous 21-year-old candidate splitting the vote, would be unconscionable.
This is only possible because the royal commissioners, when respectfully asked to, couldn’t be arsed to learn why preference voting can be the difference between democracy and dysfunction, or inspiration and infelicity.
One, stupidly obvious change is how the Spinoff’s local elections editor, Hayden Donnell, describes stvsingle-transferable-vote’s centrality to improving local democracy. Published 11 days later than the article above, the Mahurangi Magazine blesses the writer and worships the Otago University politics professor, Janine Hayward, he quotes.
Conspiracy or indolence Given that first-past-the-post helps preserve the pale-male-stale monopoly on power, it wouldn’t be a stretch to believe—200 years after its invention, and 15 years after its perfection and first use in Aotearoa—that 67 of 78 councils still cling to fptp is not solely down to a combination of ignorance and indolent if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it-ism. The Mahurangi Magazine would welcome evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, of either option, or combination thereof.