Push for Electoral Commission to run local elections

Parliament is again calling for the Government to overhaul how local elections are run, Laura Walters reports

A Parliamentary committee has reiterated its calls to align the rules and administration of local body elections with those of general elections.

This comes as part of a push to improve voter turnout and better safeguard elections against undue influence.

The Justice Select Committee has released an interim report on its inquiry into the 2019 elections. The committee didn’t have time to complete a full report before Parliament rose ahead of the election. Instead its key recommendations are outlined in an interim report released on August 10.

This inquiry ran on from a previous, long-running inquiry that the committee conducted on the 2016 local body elections and 2017 general elections.

Many of the same themes were re-examined, including issues regarding donation transparency and rules, and foreign influence and interference.

The latest inquiry also looked at how to improve voter turnout in local body elections

This comes after the 2019 local elections recorded an average turnout of just 42 percent, with lower turnout in cities and higher in rural and provincial areas. 

In contrast, the 2017 general election turnout was 79 percent across all enrolled voters, and cost $35 million for the Electoral Commission to run.

Improving voter turnout is one of a string of reasons behind the Justice Select Committee again recommending all aspects of local elections be run by the Electoral Commission - the same way it runs general elections. Currently, it is up to each individual council to run its own local body elections. 

Committee members also renewed calls for the next government to align the rules for parliamentary and local authority election candidates around donations, advertising, campaigning, pecuniary interests, and complaints.

The committee received 38 submissions on centralisation, with most supporting a move to a centralised system.

Those who supported centralisation said it would improve consistency, and aligning rules and systems with those used for general elections would further safeguard democratic processes.

When the committee previously made these recommendations, the Government responded by saying this would be a fundamental change, which would need to be carefully worked through.

The Government has not yet responded to the committee’s renewed calls. And the final report, which would have to be completed by the committee during the next Parliament, is not due until November.

And while the next local body elections aren't due until 2022, if there are going to be sweeping changes work would need to start immediately.

Foreign influence in local elections

One of the focal points of this inquiry, and the committee’s inquiry into the previous general and local elections, was the ability for foreign actors and governments to influence and interfere with New Zealand’s elections.

In response to these issues - raised during the first election inquiry - Justice Minister Andrew Little sidestepped the usual process and pushed through a change to foreign donation laws. 

The changes to foreign donation thresholds were an effort to make these donations more transparent, and to reduce the amount of foreign interference ahead of this year’s general election.

This issue first went mainstream following the publishing of the paper Magic Weapons, by University of Canterbury China expert professor Anne-Marie Brady.

The problem of foreign donations was again in the headlines in 2018, during the falling out between Jami-Lee Ross, Simon Bridges and the National Party.

Since then, it has continued to bubble away, with the Serious Fraud Office laying charges against Ross and three co-accused who will face trial next year. 

Other electoral donation investigations, into the New Zealand First Foundation, and the Labour Party as well as Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel and Auckland Mayor Phil Goff, have kept the focus on our electoral donation rules and transparency.

Some of those who submitted on the issues of donation transparency and tighter controls - particularly in regard to foreign donations - said the issues were not unique to general elections, and there was a need to tighten the rules in relation to both general and local elections.

And some said advertising rules and the registration and spending of third parties - who are not contesting the election but want to influence the elections - needed to be looked at. Another issue raised was the practice of "astroturfing", when politicians, political parties or those wishing to interfere in elections craft their campaign message to appear as though it originates from, and is supported by, grassroots participants.

While foreign interference has been a key issue again considered as part of this latest inquiry, Local Government New Zealand said it believed there was no evidence foreign donations were an issue in local elections.

LGNZ said the issue arose from a lack of understanding of the rules.

“Our local government electoral governance is out of date and ineffective."

However, University of Canterbury’s Brady pointed to examples of foreign interference in local body elections as part of her submission.

Over the past year, Brady has continuously campaigned for stricter controls, greater transparency, and education and resources for local government.

During a recent submission to the committee, she advocated for local and central government organisations to educate themselves on the Chinese state's United Front work programme. 

She also called on the SIS and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) to screen local government candidates, as well as help educate and support decision-makers at this level.

She said there was currently a lack of understanding and knowledge on the issue at a local government level, which left local and regional councils vulnerable. 

Councils could unknowingly open themselves up to foreign influence and as a result implement local policies which were inconsistent with New Zealand’s foreign policy - similar to what happened in Australia with an Australian state signing up to the country’s Belt and Road initiative.

Brady said it was a pity the committee was unable to fully complete its report into the inquiry.  

But she endorsed the suggestion that the laws for central and local government elections should be the same. 

“Our local government electoral governance is out of date and ineffective,” she said.

The committee met between December 2019 and August 2020. It received 92 submissions, with oral evidence from 32 submitters.

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