Bryce Edwards: Diversity problems and solutions in local government

Bryce Edwards: Diversity problems and solutions in local government

“Diversity” is a central theme of the current local government elections – with the common criticism that incumbent politicians are generally too “stale, male, and pale” (or variations on that). Numerous commentators and candidates have lamented the lack of women, ethnic minorities, and youth in local government.

There are signs, however, that the current elections – with voting beginning today – will bring more diversity, with a big push for candidates outside the traditional local government demographics to stand, and for voters not to automatically choose the “stale, male, and pale” options. I’ve covered this in a previous column with regard to generational change – see my roundup: Is a local government “youthquake” happening?

Democracy’s diversity problem

What about other “diversity” demographics? Especially in terms of gender, ethnicity and disability? The best summary of the local government diversity problem is Charlie Mitchell’s must-read analysis of the current demographics of the various elected offices, The white, male, middle-aged face of local government. In this, Mitchell asks the question: “just how unrepresentative are our councils?” The answer: “Probably more than you realised.”

Here’s his summary: “An analysis of nearly 900 elected members, who together represent district, regional and city councils, show they collectively bear little resemblance to the people they represent. Of the 77 local authorities in New Zealand, not one of them demographically reflects their community, and none even come close.”

Only 38 per cent of councillors elected in 2016 are women. And Mitchell points out that there are only three councils in the country where the majority of politicians are women: “Kaipara, Whangarei, and Waipa, each of which has a one woman majority. Another four councils are evenly split, leaving the remaining 91 per cent of councils as majority male”.

The Minister for Women, Julie Anne Genter, also feels strongly about this, giving a speech in July saying “Women are more than 50 per cent of the population, it would make sense if they were around or closer to 50 per cent of the local government representatives” – see Cherie Sivignon’s Half of local government representatives should be women: Julie Anne Genter.

Speaking to a group that was organising to get more women elected, the article reports: “Genter urged the members of the crowd to stand for election or support those who did.” She said other candidates from underrepresented demographics needed support: “It’s not just women, we need all types of diversity… I would like to see more diversity of age, diversity of ethnicity and background… people who are differently able.”

And on this latter point, see Chris Ford’s opinion piece, Local government’s missing voice. He argues that decision-making at the local level is disadvantaged by the lack of councilors with disabilities, and that unfortunately, there “has been the perception that disabled people are not up to the job.”

Similarly, ethnic minorities are underrepresented. Evan Harding reports: “In a nationwide Local Government New Zealand survey of elected members on councils, local boards and community boards in 2016, people identifying as having predominantly European ethnicity accounted for 89.8 per cent of seats, yet that same group makes up only 74 per cent of the general population. Māori sit at 10.1 per cent of local government seats but represent 15 per cent of the population, Pasifika make up just 2.1 per cent of elected members but are 7 per cent of the population while people identifying as Asian ethnicity represent just 1.4 per cent of seats yet make up 12 per cent of the population.”

For more on this, with a special focus on New Zealand’s Southern region, see: Southland’s old pale males feel the pinch. Also, on the representation problem in that region and nationally, see the Southland Times editorial, Local government – enough of the same-old same old.

The newspaper writes: “That our elections reliably deliver something distressingly close to a conveyor belt of older white men doesn’t mean that, whatever our own background, we share a collective contentment that these are the people we need, such is the depth of their skills and the acuity of their social insights.”

What’s behind the lack of diversity?

There’s a host of reasons that local government – like other parts of the political system – has a representation problem. According to Charlie Mitchell, it’s about prejudice. He says voters “can be susceptible to ‘in-group bias’, a psychological phenomenon in which the person shows an unconscious favouritism to those similar to themselves.”

However, a lot of international research on voter behaviour shows that the public are generally willing to vote for under-represented demographics such as women (who actually tend to have a higher chance of being elected than men), and the problem is instead that there are simply many fewer candidates from these demographics.

A lack of choice is raised by Kate Hawkesby in her column, Where are the women in Auckland mayoral race? She says about the Auckland mayoral race: “Well at the risk of sounding like a gender equality preacher – where are the women? Not that a woman would necessarily be any better, but it’d be nice to have some variety in the race. This is 2019, come on.”

Lizzie Marvelly writes about the same contest, asking: “Why are voters not demanding a better selection to choose from?” – see: Vote beyond Goff, Banks, Tamihere for Auckland mayor (paywalled).

Here’s Marvelly’s longer point: “where are the whip-smart, forward-thinking female Māori, Pasifika, Asian, Indian candidates (because you can’t tell me that of the many amazing women of colour in this country there aren’t a few who could stand for mayor)? Where are the LGBTQ+ candidates? And if they’re already putting their hands up, why are they not getting the same traction/support/media attention as Phil Goff, John Banks, John Tamihere and co.?”

Marvelly’s explanation is this: “I would venture that the establishment hasn’t been particularly welcoming to them. Councils have historically been colonial hangovers dominated by land-owning men.”

And could it be that many voters just don’t think women have the leadership skills? For a discussion of this, looking at the case study of Whangārei District Council (where both the mayor and deputy mayor are women), see Denise Piper’s Local body elections: Women still face stereotype they don’t have ‘backbone’ for leadership.

Could changing the electoral system help?

Could the problem relate to the electoral system that is still used in most local government contests? The First-past-the-post system is pinpointed by Julie Anne Genter as the problem, and she argues that the system tended “to discourage a whole range of people from standing”. She told a Nelson meeting she spoke to in July that the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system – which is used in cities like Wellington and Dunedin – is “more democratic and ensures that there’s greater representation of diverse groups and women”.

This system is discussed in more detail by Hayden Donnell in his article, The one, stupidly obvious change that would vastly improve our local elections. According to this, “STV’s ability to better reflect the will of the entire voting population means it’s more likely to produce councils that look like the communities they represent. Research by Hayward and Professor Jack Vowles shows more women were elected under STV voting systems in the 2013 elections.”

The STV voting system’s purported ability to produce diversity will be tested again this year, as it’s been adopted for the elections in New Plymouth, where a typical underrepresentation problem currently exists: “Māori – who make up 15 percent of the population – are not represented at all. Women hold just two seats despite outnumbering in men in the district. Middle-aged Pākehā males fill 12 seats while one councillor has European-Chinese heritage” – see Robin Martin’s New Plymouth District Council seats: ‘We need a good mix to make good decisions’.

Many are sceptical as to whether STV will make a difference. Businesswoman Anneka Carlson (31), who is also the youngest candidate, is reported as saying the STV system is a bigger problem than the lack of diversity, as few understand how it works, herself included.

She’s making a pitch for the diversity vote nonetheless: “You know not just vote for the straight white old males, but be like I’m going to give these young people a shot. I’m going to give Māori, Asian whatever you are gay, straight a shot and see what they’ve got… And then next time around if they did nothing and were useless well you go back to the stale, old, white male.”

The same article cites the former mayor of New Plymouth, Andrew Judd, who is also a campaigner for “set seats” on the council for various demographics, as believing the shift to STV won’t help, as “the tyranny of the majority dominates”.

Reducing barriers via childcare allowances

Could the diversity problem be caused by the way that councils are run, being that meetings and procedures are often said to suit those who are either retired, own their own businesses, or don’t have commitments to young families?

The issue of childcare has been identified as one of the barriers for some candidates stepping forward to be involved in local government. Hence there has been a campaign to establish an allowance in local government for councillors who are also primary caregivers, which would help pay for childcare while on council duties.

The origin of this initiative is covered by Emma Dangerfield in her article, Costs for childcare could be covered for local government representatives. Two councillors, Julia McLean from Hurunui and Matt Lawrey from Nelson campaigned for the establishment of the allowance, which is capped at $6000 a year. According to this article, “Lawrey said a lot of people did not understand how difficult it was financially and logistically for people who were not retired to serve on councils, particularly in the regions.” He is quoted saying, “If adopted, this policy will remove one of those barriers for younger people and women in particular.”

The Remuneration Authority agreed to a request from Local Government New Zealand (the representative body of local politicians), but instead of making the allowance universal they handed the final decision about its introduction to individual councils. A list of some of the councils who have adopted the allowance can be seen in Kiri Gillespie’s article, ‘Selfless’ Western Bay of Plenty council votes for childcare allowance.

Numerous councils have controversially decided against the allowance. For example, “Tauranga mayor Greg Brownless said the city council did not have such an allowance ‘because there was nobody in that position [of needing childcare]’.”

Voting on the issue in councils across the country doesn’t appear to have been along gender lines. For example, when Palmerston North City Council voted against its introduction a few weeks ago, the six votes in favour were three men and three women, and the seven votes against were four men and three women – see Janine Rankin’s Childcare payments for councillors off the table.

For example, the Labour Party’s representative on the council, Lorna Johnson, voted against, saying “I do not think councillors are a special case… We do not pay all our staff a living wage and we are not proposing childcare payment for staff. It’s an issue of fairness.”

Overall it does seem likely that when results come in on 12 October, the 2019 elections will bring a much more representative local government than ever before. This is partly because of the surge of women candidates running – with 73 more standing than in 2016 – but also because of the greater societal awareness about the diversity problem.

Finally, there are also a number of contests in which there are only female candidates running – for example in the mayoral races for both North Canterbury’s Hurunui District Council and Central Hawke’s Bay’s – see Emma Dangerfield’s Women-only mayoral races could signal a new progressive era for local government. Similarly, “Six women at the Central Otago District Council are believed to have scored a New Zealand first by making up the first council to have an all-female executive team” – see Pam Jones’ All-female team thought to be NZ first.