An Anarchist approach to local body elections in Aotearoa/New Zealand.
The local government elections will be in October. These often raise little interest. So, what is the point of writing about the local elections?
Elections are an excellent time for Anarchists to tell others what Anarchism means. We are not about mindless opposition to things for the sake of it. It’s a dynamic political theory whose advocates argue society is better off without the state and other forms of undemocratic, hierarchical institutions. We don’t vote in elections, and this comes from a principled, foundational point of not wanting to give the state the oxygen it needs to sustain itself.
What is the state made up of? To greatly simplify, we often think of ‘the State’ in terms of the Cabinet appointed by the Prime Minister and Parliament drawing up the laws that are used to keep powerful elites in control at the expense of everyone else. The courts that interpret the laws (in a way that almost always favour the elites) are also part of it and the police (and occasionally the military) who enforce those laws. That’s fair enough so far as it goes. It overlooks the local level that the state operates on. Some wrongly believe that local organisations like councils and community boards aren’t really part of the State apparatus somehow. Perhaps because it’s a scale of power that is obviously weaker or seems less impactful or maybe because it is seen as boring?
Within the last forty years, the responsibility of implementing the laws imposed by the central government has been falling onto local councils. This includes alcohol licensing laws, resource management laws and prostitution laws to name but three. The growing amount of responsibility being taken on by councils has resulted in councillors not only getting salaries that are attractive to careerist politicians but it’s also attracting the same folks who blight central government. There is a long list of former Members of Parliament, Parliamentary staffers and political party hacks who’ve decided to run for a local council. And let’s not forget all the failed wannabe politicians who couldn’t get into Parliament who see local government as an alternative. A quick look into the backgrounds of any of the current local candidates in your area will show this to be the case.
As stated, many local councils have community boards which are elected at the same time. It’s tempting to believe that just because the community boards have very little actual power it’s acceptable to run for them. It’s an appealing argument on the surface. What harm can it do to run for a nearly powerless community board elected by locals and made up of local people?
Community boards are rarely genuinely grassroots organisations run by, and for, the locals. They are made up of the same property-owning, predominantly white, largely middle-aged or elderly elites who run for city, district, and regional councils and for Parliament. The names of powerful and influential families and individuals repeatedly appear in local government elections as in Parliamentary ones. It’s often forgotten how many politicians launched their political careers running for councils or moved into local government politics when their Parliamentary careers faded. Examples include Steve Chadwick, Phil Goff, Peter Tapsell (whose niece is now running for Mayor of Rotorua), Sandra Lee… the list goes on.
I compare being a community board member with being an election scrutineer. While neither has any real power they are still an integral part of the State apparatus. The State doesn’t just need thugs in uniforms and parasites in suits to function. It also requires its number crunchers and minions at flax works level.
So few people are running for local councils that government agencies like Local Government New Zealand are expressing concerns. So, too, are various news sites. An August 8th, 2022, The Spinoff article ‘Uncontested: Not enough people are standing in local elections‘ says:
“New Zealand’s local body elections aren’t just afflicted by low voter turnout – there’s a low turnout of people standing as candidates too. Local elections are a glorious gala of democracy: hundreds of elections taking place around the country. A shockingly high number of those, however, aren’t really elections at all. They’re races with a field of one. Unloseable. Across 572 elections three years ago, 101 were uncontested. That saw 235 candidates elected unopposed. The overall number of nominations relative to total available seats was the lowest on record. This time around, it could be worse still.” What uncontested means is that many councillors will be appointed to their jobs."
So why are so few people running for council?
Much of the media blames apathy for the low number of candidates running. There is something in that. People just instinctively realise the whole exercise is not something they can relate to. That’s a potentially positive thing for those of us who don’t support the current political system. The key difference is that Anarchists have an active and positive alternative to offer rather than simply being passive and apathetic.
Another reason why so few people are running for local councils is because of the cost involved with running even a low-key campaign. It requires both money and time to run an election campaign. There’s the cost of making and erecting billboards, printing leaflets, running adverts in various media, organising volunteers to deliver leaflets and organise the campaign, attending meet-the-candidate events and paying the fee just to get your name on the ballot form. None of these things guarantees that you’ll get elected. Real democracy would not have such a barrier attached to participation. Again, ordinary folks realise that even local politics as it currently operates is for the class with pre-existing power, connections, and money.
Another factor in not running is the toxic political environment being created by the Internet. Social media has created echo chambers. Viewpoints not advocated by the person creating content, are all but eliminated. This slides people into becoming more twisted because there’s no one to counter their views. Pre-Internet you had to physically go out and advocate your beliefs to people who were often indifferent or hostile. This forced you to sharpen your debating skills and refine points of argument.
According to the NZ Herald article “The slings, arrows and death threats aimed at our politicians” (August 17th, 2022) six Members of Parliament were physically assaulted and other Members received death threats. This was before the occupation of Parliament grounds by anti-vaxxers earlier this year. The number of banners there demanding the execution of politicians and journalists, or portraying Prime Minister Ardern as a Nazi or Communist revealed how clueless these protesters were about these ideologies.
And it’s not just politicians in Parliament receiving threats. It’s also been reported that it’s been happening in local council elections as well. A Stuff article headed “’ Menace I the air’: Abuse of politicians rising, ‘toxic’ trolls on block list” (August 15th, 2022) highlights how many candidates are hiring security guards to protect them.
Why should we be concerned about such threats? Well, let’s be clear- we don’t have a love for the state at any level. Let’s also acknowledge that there is a lot of understandable and justified frustration out there. However, threatening minor power holders on a personal level is not what we are about. We seek a wide-scale replacement of the structures of rule that exist. It isn’t about individuals. It will require a huge amount of positive educational effort to arrive at a point where we can collectively challenge this system. The idiots currently threatening politicians are motivated by individualistic ideologies based on religious bigotry, conspiracy theories, racism, and misogyny. They have nothing to offer as a genuine alternative to the status quo.
The Stuff article stated:
“Abuse towards politicians is ramping up as local elections loom, with one would-be city councillor talking of needing security for events and another of a list of toxic people to block being shared around.”
Aggression towards politicians prompted the Government in June to remove a requirement that council candidates publicly list their addresses.”
Conspiracy theorists from groups like Voices for Freedom currently seek to impose their garbage upon local councils. Candidates with sympathy for this group are being encouraged not to reveal their true beliefs to voters. In an August 9 email seen by the Otago Daily Times, Voices for Freedom (VFF) co-founder Claire Deeks encouraged candidates not to disclose their affiliation with the group.
Does anyone really want people who deliberately withhold their affiliations with far-Right conspiracy theorists in local government? At least the party hacks, business leaders and other parasites in Parliament and local councils don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are. For those foolish enough to vote for the latter, well you at least know what you’re getting. You, therefore, have no right to complain if you get shafted by them, irrespective of whatever banner they campaign under. However, you maybe do have a point if you are lied to by candidates who don’t inform you they’re involved in groups that peddle far-Right extremist propaganda. Any system dependent on hierarchical, institutionalised power is open to manipulation of this sort.
Of course, It would be naive to suggest that political party candidates should be completely honest. Honesty and mainstream politics are a bit like sand in an ice-cream. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter how honest somebody is, if a person runs for a community board, a local or regional Council or for Parliament…they will become part of the State apparatus. All these organisations expose those who join them to something far more influential – and destructive – than any illicit drug. That something is called power and you only need a small amount of it to get addicted. True, some positive things get done even under the system we currently have. But even an honest candidate is part of a system that is hard to break into, that elevates a small segment of the population above others, lacks true, substantive democracy and a lot of people already seem to correctly realise it doesn’t represent them.
Anarchists don’t hold all the answers as to what a substitute may be, but we are exploring possibilities. We believe that genuine flaxworks democracy is desirable. This is one where decisions are made collectively (perhaps by voting, maybe by consensus after multiple small-scale hui/meetings or both) without political party machines, where nobody is allowed to stay in any position for too long, and where anyone tasked to fulfil a role is instantly recallable if they mess up, where wealth disparity won’t be a barrier to entry of participation and inherited social power won’t be a factor.
There’s a lot more to it, but those are some of the foundational stones of a genuine alternative. It’s an option that can only be created in full once the economic system we live under, and its supporting political structures are overturned. That won’t be done by individual acts of violence towards specific politicians. It won’t be done by secretly taking positions inside the current system through deception. Part of it will be done by refusing to vote in local and other elections (something many already do). That’s just the start. We need to start a korero/conversation by simultaneously building links collectively with others in our communities. Over time this will lead to realising our own power without professional politicians, leading to new methods and organisations and unleashing our social creativity.