Greetings from Amsterdam. A couple of issues relating to Auckland’s local government elections have exercised my mind of late, specifically:
- Candidates for councillor in the Waitemata ward; and
- Why I voted Chlöe Swarbrick for Mayor of Auckland.
Before I get started, I’d like to make a simple statement about democracy.
The refrain “democracy is not a spectator sport” rings true to me for several reasons. The first is that my grandmother used to regale me with stories about how her grandmother would walk to work past Parliament’s gates, where women protesting for the right to vote would be chained. Every election, my grandmother would then ask me questions about politics, and emphasize the importance of voting. Her favourite line was “I don’t care who you vote for, just so long as you vote.”
The second reason is that I think effective democracy is an important determinant of long-run socio-economic success. You only have to look at the sorts of situations currently playing out in the U.K., U.S., and elsewhere to get a feel for what happens when people don’t pay attention to democracy. In particular, when a large proportion of the electorate is uninformed and/or disengaged and/or disenfranchised, then democracy tends to come back and bite society on its ass.
Now, before I get into the details of who I voted for, I feel compelled to summarize my own values – just so y’all know where I’m coming from. I’m not expecting others to share these values, of course, but it may help you understand some of the driving forces behind my voting decisions. I also think this is useful because my values don’t fit neatly into a left-right spectrum, but are instead something of a hybrid:
- I am socially liberal, insofar as I think people should be free to choose how to live their lives, unless there’s good reasons for society to intervene;
- I am moderately fiscally conservative, because I am aware that debt needs to be re-paid by future generations; the same generations who are facing the twin challenges of an ageing population and climate change. For these reasons, want to ensure we only incur debt to invest in things that will benefit future generations; and
- I have a strongly-honed sense of justice, and want to live in a society where vulnerable people are cared for. That includes future generations.
In terms of local government, my top two priorities – in order of importance – are 1) housing and 2) transport. With regards to the former, I would like to see fewer restrictions on density, so that Auckland can intensify. While I appreciate “quality urban development”, I’m not prepared to sacrifice housing affordability at the altar of aesthetic values. Let’s build a lot of houses and figure out how to do it better as we go. As for transport, I would like to see funding prioritized to projects that are 1) strategic, in the sense they support policy objectives like sustainability and equity and 2) efficient, in the sense their economic benefits exceed their economic costs.
Finally, I should say that this post is not intended to encourage you to vote for anyone in particular, but simply to explain the thought process I myself went through in determining who I would vote for. And to stimulate debate. Onwards.
men people vie for our affections
men people are standing for councillor in Waitemata: Mike Lee, Bill Ralston, and Rob Thomas. I voted for the latter, such that most of what follows should be read as an explanation of “why” Rob appealed compared to the others.
I evaluate Mike positions in some detail, largely because I have voted for him in previous elections. My democratic divorce from Mike has been rather slow, but was nonetheless difficult. Reason being that Mike has achieved a lot of great things, e.g. advocating for investment in rail and changes to PT contracting. Ultimately, however, I’ve become increasingly disatisfied with his positions on housing, which has in turn become a more important driver of my vote – as I now explain.
If you go to Mike’s website and click “What Mike stands for“, then you will find the following bullet points (source):
- Make sure the people of the inner city suburbs and Hauraki Gulf islands have a strong voice at the top table
- Protect our environment and enhance our quality of life
- Invest in the public transport Auckland needs
- Keep Supercity costs and rates under control
- Protect our unique heritage and encourage quality urban development
- Support Auckland’s thriving arts and entertainment scene
No mention is made of “housing”, which I thought was odd (NB: .“… encourage quality urban development” is too vague for my liking, as it puts “quality” ahead of “development” and is not specific about the need for housing in particular). I thought this was odd not just because I think housing is important, but also because other parts of Mike’s web-site mention the “housing crisis”. It seems odd Mike would speak of a housing crisis, yet not identify housing as a key issue under what he stands for.
Turning now to transport, one of Mike’s bullet points does mention “Invest in the public transport Auckland needs“. On the surface, this sounds promising. So I dug a bit further, and did a key word search of Mike’s website by transport mode. First I started with “rail”, which highlighted the following issues (n=47):
- Rail to the airport, where Mike appears to support a heavy rail option; and
- Parnell Station; which Mike wants accelerated.
I support long-term planning for public transport to the airport, even if I don’t feel too strongly about technologies. I also support a station at Parnell, provided it’s 1) in the right location, 2) supported by up-zoning of land use activities; and 3) does not negatively impact on rail operations. While I suspect the issue of Parnell Station is more complicated than Mike makes out, this is only a minor quibble – provided he acknowledges the technical complexities involved. Indeed, train stations, like people, “are complicated creatures full of quirks and secrets“. To borrow a line from the fantastic Mr Dahl.
A key word search for “buses” returned n=6 hits, all of which involved Mike saying buses were horrible compared to trains. This was disappointing given the current and future importance of buses to many people who live in Waitemata, including myself. I personally would like to see a number of small and large bus improvements being accelerated, such as the hours of operation for bus lanes on Mt Eden Road, and was disappointed Mike didn’t advocate for bus improvements more strongly.
A keyword search for “cycling” returned zero hits, while “walking” returned only two hits – both of which involved Mike referring to instances where he was walking, rather than the need for investment in pedestrian facilities per se. Again I was disappointed, because investment in walking and cycling is good in-of-itself, and complements public transport.
Basically, the over-arching impression is that Mike likes trains, and doesn’t have much time or passion for other transport modes. As someone who walks and cycles as a first preference, and who uses public transport in general before thinking about modes in particular, this doesn’t pass grade.
Turning now to Bill Ralston, I searched his website but couldn’t find much mention of housing. That essentially ruled him out of contention for my vote. In his transport policy, Bill argues we need to fix traffic congestion because it costs us $1.8 – 2.0 billion p.a. This figure is bogus: The costs are closer to $500 million p.a., as explained in this NZTA research report by Ian Wallis. To his credit – and in contrast to Mike – Bill does express support for buses and cycling (source):
More bus-ways – the Shore’s Northern Bus-way shows how well that can work, more bus-lanes, phased lights for buses, bike lanes and bike paths and while the CRL is not the silver bullet to solve the city’s transport issues – it will help. Get on with it.
All up I found Bill’s policies too light on detail. And, like Mike Lee, there were a few too many “grumpy man” statements. I don’t have a problem with grumpy old men per se, provided their gruffness is self-effacing and humorously applied. Like these guys.
Finally, we turn to the person who ultimately won my vote: Rob Thomas. Initially I didn’t expect to even consider Rob. I was, however, impressed by Rob’s statement in the candidate booklet, and even more impressed when I went to his website. There, he makes prominent mention of climate change upfront (source):
Climate Change is the biggest issue facing Auckland and our planet today. Temperature increases, sea level rise and the acidification of our oceans are just some of the issues that will impact Auckland over the next 50-100 years.
I agree. And while I’d like to see more central government leadership on the issue of climate change, I think it’s important that its strategic significance is also embodied in policies at the local government level.
In terms of housing, Rob was – from what I could tell – the only candidate to state explicitly on their website the need to “Build more homes in Auckland“. While light on details, the high-level sentiment is at least there – and that won him bonus points, especially when compared to the other candidates. On the transport side, Rob’s website mentioned the need for better public transport and cycling.
In a nutshell, I voted for Rob because his priorities aligned most closely with my own. If I hadn’t voted for Rob, then Mike would have been in second-place, and Bill in third.
Chlöe for Mayor
I voted for Chlöe for Mayor for two reasons. One is that she is passionate about democracy itself, which is extremely important to me. And I don’t mean “passion for democracy” in an airy-fairy, hand-wavy sense; I mean Chlöe seems keen to engage people with the nitty-gritty, gnarly issues that frequently arise in local government, and which ultimately have a significant influence on our quality of life, as discussed in this video.
The second reason I voted for Chlöe was because of her policies. The preamble to her housing policy, for example, reads as follows (source):
Auckland is in the midst of a housing crisis. The median property price is now ten times the median income. So too are rents rising, and our population of homeless and rough sleepers increasing. Reports of families sleeping in cars or garages are not uncommon, and have broken international news. Young families are unlikely to be able to realistically aspire to own a home in this market.
In this TVNZ interview, Chlöe makes it clear that she’s talking about bringing down property prices, which she considers to be a point of distinction from the other candidates, and something that is important to me. I’d like to see a 20-30% decline in property prices over the next 10 years, which basically means holding them constant in nominal terms and letting inflation eat away at the real value. Achieving such an outcome will require that we change expectations about future capital gains, which is where explicit statements – like Chlöe’s – about the need to reduce property values can be rather useful.
The preamble to Chlöe’s transport policy is similarly direct (source):
There is a lot of money ($1.4billion in 2015 alone) spent on transport in Auckland. But we’re not seeing that cost reflected in choice.
Choice is the freedom to choose how you, as the people of Auckland, navigate our city. Currently, many parts of our city are automobile-dependent, because the alternative options (public transport, cycling, or walking) are impracticable or inaccessible.
This lack of choice forces more people onto our roads at an exponential rate, as 800 new cars are registered for Auckland roads each week. More blind investment in roading projects at the expense of alternative transport results only in more cars to fill up those new, wider, shiny roads. This is why, in our 2013 Census, we saw that 74% of Auckland drove to work in their own private cars (70% driving by themselves).
To see our roads function properly, we need to invest in projects to get people – especially those people who don’t actually want to be there – off of those roads.
As your Mayor, I will advocate for a bold shift in focus: I will see that Auckland’s public transport system is a real, viable, and efficient option to get where you’re going. I will see Auckland thrive by becoming walkable, and cycleable.
Righto. If you read further down the page then you’ll find some explicit mention of the sorts of public transport (rail and bus) and walking/cycling improvements that Chlöe would like to prioritize. Generally mode-neutral, and focused on improving the effectiveness of our transport spend, rather than just increasing the spend itself. This subtle emphasis is important to me.
If you don’t know who Chlöe is and what she’s about in general, then I’d also suggest watching this video, which I think gives good insight into where she’s coming from and also some inner mettle.
Some of you may be wondering why I didn’t vote for Phil Goff. I must say that Phil ran a very close second. I thought Phil had excellent policies on housing affordability, for example, and his transport policies were also nicely balanced. Phil even mentions GPS-based road pricing, which many of you will know is close to my heart. If we had an STV voting system, then Phil Goff would have received my second ranking.
The main reason I didn’t vote for Phil Goff is simply because when I am relatively indifferent between two candidates, then I tend to vote for the candidate that brings more diversity to the table. In this case, Chlöe wins out. Notwithstanding my own vote for Chlöe, I wouldn’t be disappointed if Phil was to win.
There you have it. Even if you don’t agree, please just take the time to vote. And encourage your friends and family to do the same. I suspect low voter turn-out in local government elections is something that can only be addressed through a combination of electoral reform (online voting, ditching FPP for STV) and cultural change. Addressing the latter really begins by acknowledging that we have a problem, and starting a conversation about how it might be fixed.
Finally, some of you may be wondering what I do when I’m not pondering how to exercise my democratic right. The answer, my friends, is that I’m cycling around Amsterdam. Safely. And with an emergency potato in my pants. Tot ziens.