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  • Writer's pictureSarah Baker

Local Election Project 2022: Already a different election?

Updated: Sep 2, 2022

Auckland mayoral hopefuls debate the issues at a Stuff-AUT debate. They are (from left): Viv Beck, Wayne Brown, Efeso Collins and Craig Lord. Photo: Alex Cairns.

Author: Dr Sarah Baker

This year the AUT Media Observatory, a part of AUT’s Research Centre for Journalism, Media and Democracy (JMAD), continues its research into local election media representation. There is now a long history of the Media Observatory group examining the elections both national and local in New Zealand.

In 2014, the Observatory examined news, politics, and diversity in the New Zealand general election, where one of the key findings was that the majority of journalists behind the election stories were male, which was interesting considering there are more female journalists in New Zealand than male.

For the 2016 local body elections, we focused on diversity with the understanding that the function of news media in democratic societies is crucial, and the ideal of the inclusive society provided the framework for our analysis. Looking at what topics dominate public debates at election time, we asked big questions, such as how the media engages with key issues such as equality/inequality, inclusivity and marginalisation, and representation of diversity. In 2019, the project team looked at the local body elections again with the focus around environmental citizenship.

The local elections decide representation on city, district, and regional councils. In some parts of New Zealand, elections are held for local and community boards, licensing trusts and some other organisations. It’s important to note these elections are distinct from national elections with an emphasis on local policies like rates, town and city planning and include rubbish collection, parks, and libraries. This year there is a key change – local elections no longer include district health boards which have been replaced by a new body called Health New Zealand. There is, however, a slippage of national issues falling into the local body issues and elections in 2022.

Though it’s early days in the campaign, we are seeing some interesting diversions from previous years’ news coverage; especially a spillover of national issues around Covid-19, highlighted by the anti-vaccination Voices for Freedom (VFF), group’s campaigns impacting the local elections in ways we have not seen through previous coverage.

There has been more typical coverage of issues like mayoral candidate Viv Beck vowing action on crime in Auckland, and an attempt to boost the role of the Mayor and Auckland Council’s efforts to gain a greater share of central government resources. With the crime issue, local government, Beck argues, should be doing more to secure action where central government is perceived as too slow to act.

Personality and notoriety still play a part in election media coverage, with another candidate throwing her hat into the ring for another mayoral bid in Auckland. Hamilton adult worker Lisa Lewis who gained notoriety for streaking in an All Blacks vs Ireland rugby match in 2006. Meanwhile, in August, controversial mayoral candidate Leo Malloy pulled out of the Auckland mayoral race, stating that in third place, he had no chance and pulled out. Wayne Brown, the Far North Mayor from 2007-2013, was running a campaign on frugal spending and low rates.

A shortage of council candidates for many positions has meant that local councils have put a call out for more candidates with Greater Wellington Regional Council and Otago Regional Council, both short of candidates for their constituency. Local Government New Zealand president Stuart Crosby said there were several factors putting candidates off, including the violent and ugly rhetoric directed at elected officials. The money that elected representatives receive is also an issue and puts off young and more diverse candidates.

VFF, which was involved in the three weeks long occupation at Parliament this year, has called on its supporters to take up positions in New Zealand’s local government. What is important is that they have suggested hiding their affiliation to their group in candidate paperwork. Their purpose is for the anti-vax group to make New Zealand ‘ungovernable’. With around 100,000 members, this potentially could have a large impact on elections which normally attracts low voter turnout and is one example of radical groups linked to the sending of false information and violent rhetoric seeking political power.

The Dominion Post has now asked all mayoral candidates in Wellington if they belong to VFF.

Criminologist Jarrod Gilbert suggests that we should learn from the United States (US) and not be surprised that local government elections are attracting many of the conspiracy-minded candidates that were seen in protests and media coverage earlier in the year in New Zealand. He concludes that the concerted strategy of the fringe groups to enter local body elections in New Zealand directly mirrors similar things that have occurred in the US where they have made gains in getting into the control of democratic institutions at local level. With voter turnout historically low in local elections, it leaves these bodies vulnerable to take over by radical groups. With multiple candidates failing to tell voters about their links to disinformation groups, this new trend will start a whole new level of undermining democracy.

The question this raises is whether this is a distraction from ‘real’ local issues or a new trend in local politics. What is clear, is that in this local election the idea of who gets to represent society is playing out on many levels. Efeso Collins, for example, a mayoral candidate for Auckland, has broken down while explaining how much racism he has experienced on the campaign, and this demonstrates there are still major issues around representation and diversity in New Zealand politics at both local and national level. In July, new survey data found that 49.5 % of elected local government members have experienced racism or gender discrimination, with many having received harassment, prejudice, and threatening behavior. Whether the attempt by VFF to infiltrate local elections, it is clear that diversity is still an issue in our local elections.

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