Comment

Comment: Our landed Parliament

Our electoral laws are stacked against renters and our Parliament is stacked with owners - Thomas Coughlan argues why this is a problem. 

In 1647, a rebel army descended upon the village of Putney. They had come to discuss what the future constitution of England should look like, once they had eventually wrested power from the King — still some time away.

The key fault-line of what came to be called the Putney Debates was over who had the right to vote. At the time, voting rights were limited to male landowners. To most — well, to most landowners — this made perfect sense. 

Taxes were levied on property (income tax was still more than a century away) and property owners felt they had the right to decide how that money was spent. 

It’s a faintly disgusting proposition — all the more so when one considers property and income qualifications were not repealed until 1919 in England. Many of the millions of men who died in the trenches had not had a say in electing the Government that sent them to fight. Only 60 percent of men over the age of 21 could vote at the time. 

New Zealand inherited these laws. In the 19th century landowners were allowed to vote in every electorate where they owned property. As elections lasted several days, landowners could tour their properties casting ballots to inflate the power of their vote.

This sort of thing should be consigned to the dustbin of history, and for general elections that is the case. There is a recognition that everyone, no matter who they are, has an equal stake at the ballot box. 

But a whiff of the stacked franchise still exists. The Local Electoral Act 2001 stipulates that every voter in local body elections has one vote, but people who own property in multiple local authorities are allowed to vote wherever they pay rates. 

A raw Thiel deal

Though you can only cast one vote in each territorial authority (a local or district council), someone who owned property in all 61 territorial authorities could theoretically cast 61 votes.

The issue is deeply pressing for people living in resort towns like Queenstown where the number of absentee homeowners is high in relation to the number of residents. 

Seventeen percent of the people who voted in the 2016 elections for the Tekapo community board were non-ratepayers. In the Coromandel, a Community Board registered a non-resident voting rate of 14 percent, while a Queenstown election posted non-resident voting rates of three percent.

Overall, 24,098 ratepayer ballots were cast in the 2016 local body elections.

This can have a harmful effect on the politics of a local area. 

People who own holiday homes are less likely to want development near them and its not inconceivable to think they would be less than happy to stump a prospective rate hike to pay for services like public transport they’re unlikely to use.

It would come as no surprise then that the Mackenzie District, home to a large number of non-resident buyers charges the lowest rates in the country — an average of $1,637 per year, well short of the $3,134 charged in Auckland, according to the Ratepayers Alliance 2017 report.

It seems especially odious that one need only be a ratepayer, not a citizen, to vote in local body elections, meaning the wealthy international elite like billionaire Peter Thiel, who now own large tracts of land around Queenstown, have a say in its local body politics, while people pushed out of the city because of high rents do not. 

The issue is less pronounced in cities, where most elections post non-resident voting rates of below 1 percent, but it could get worse as the country’s rate of home ownership decreases, particularly in small towns where cash-strapped Aucklanders are starting to look to purchase a first home. 

Our landed Parliament 

Poor representation of the un-landed extends right to Parliament. The current crop of MPs collectively own 302 properties, roughly 2.6 each. Just seven of the 120 MPs in Parliament do not own a property. 

This equates to just 6 percent of the House, compared to the 48 percent of households that currently live in rented accommodation. 

The trend is getting worse. In 2008, 26 MPs did not own their own homes. If the representation of women had declined at the same rate, there would be just 11 in Parliament instead of 40.

What faith can non-home owners have in a political system that seems so stacked against their interests?

Nationals’ Housing Spokesperson Judith Collins said New Zealand had a planning problem — but she was cautious about calling out NIMBYs ('Not in my backyard' proponents) as its cause.

“It’s easy to say someone’s a NIMBY because they don’t want me to be able to do what I want to do,” Collins said. 

“Sometimes people have bought a property or bought into an area knowing there’s certain zoning for a certain character and it’s got certain rules around it,” she said. 

But she said that a greater emphasis on the rights of people to develop property against the rights of their neighbours who might object, would help ease the crisis. 

“The rights of people who own a property have to come before those ahead of people who haven’t paid a thing for the property or its upkeep and want to have a say about what happens next door to them,” Collins said. 

Green co-leader Marama Davidson is one of the seven MPs who don’t own their own homes. She was concerned that the number of MPs who did not own homes was so low, but also that owners of investment properties were over-represented. 

One person’s red tape is another’s environmental safeguard 

Both Collins and Davidson acknowledged there was no easy solution to the vexed issue of planning rules. 

The same red tape that holds up an essential housing development, might also be an essential environmental protection that prevents a green belt turning into suburban sprawl. 

Collins said that while we need to move to “a more permissive attitude of allowing people to develop properties they have bought and paid for” she acknowledged “there are certain heritage areas and certain other issues that people have rightly thought of when they’ve bought into a property”.

And Davidson believed it was possible to develop in a way that protects the environment. She said she wanted to see mixed-density development that made better use of existing infrastructure.

Fixing the housing crisis

But fixing New Zealand’s broken planning laws at central Government level is only part of the problem. Most developments are stifled by district plans which the RMA empowers councils to draw up.

Councillors spoken to by Newsroom have expressed concern even with existing planning laws, arguing they should be strengthened to stop further development, for example allowing neighbours to object to property owners splitting their homes into a duplex. 

Change will need to come from a greater pro-development voice on councils — and that needs to come from reforming New Zealand’s feudal franchise. 

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