26 January 2022

Big conversation series: democracy and local governance

With the kaupapa of the Review in mind, we have been exploring some of the 'big conversations' surrounding our mahi, such as democracy and local governance. We invited a group of New Zealand and Australia-based experts to help us take a close look into different methods of decision-making.

Big conversation series: democracy and local governance

In the scheme of things, our system of democracy as we know it is relatively new. And the way democracy works in New Zealand continues to evolve. With the introduction of Māori wards in 2022, and the possible addition of more participative and deliberative approaches, local democracy in Aotearoa is likely to look different in 30 years’ time.

Our ‘big conversations’ are a Panel workshop series, where experts are invited to join us to further our thinking about some of the important issues relating to our mahi.

In November we held our ‘big conversation’ about democracy and local governance. To explore what type of democracy we could have in 2050, we invited international and New Zealand-based experts and discussants to speak with us.

Who joined us

  • Professor Janine Hayward, from the University of Otago, spoke about local government and Māori representation. She explained that the local government electoral system is not as broken as we might think, despite the low voter turnout compared to central government elections. She suggested that the Single Transferrable Vote system could be made mandatory across all councils. She also suggested that youth engagement is a challenge that needs to be addressed, as is building strong relationships between local governments and iwi.
  • Iain Walker is Executive Director of newDemocracy, an Australia-based research organisation focussed on public involvement in political decision-making. He spoke about deliberative democracy – where a sample of the population is selected to learn, deliberate and make recommendations on specific topics, similar to a criminal jury system. This type of democracy, he explained, should complement traditional ways of decision making, rather than replace them. He suggested that this form of decision making can increase trust due to the lack of political agendas of those from the general population, as opposed to Elected Members who may be concerned with re-election.
  • Matheson Russell and Dr Tatjana Buklijas of the University of Auckland joined us as discussants in the question and answer section. They shared their emerging experience with deliberative democracy. Dr Russell has been working on adapting deliberative democratic formats to Aotearoa context. Dr Buklijas is leading a trial with Watercare in Auckland. Her findings from this trial showed that people are keen to be involved in decision making and that this form of democracy cuts through the “rational ignorance” of the population. They considered how we can ensure deliberative democracy is not an additional cost to local authorities and that it is a worthwhile method for decision making in Aotearoa.

Key points from the discussion

  • Deliberative democracy is being introduced across the world, but New Zealand has the unique opportunity to incorporate Te Ao Māori perspectives in to this approach. A system of decision making in other countries might not work quite the same way for Aotearoa and we must consider and look further into this.
  • When using deliberative democracy, we could consider discussing issues that transcend a political term in order to be more effective in maintaining long term decisions.
  • Deliberative democracy should be used to complement traditional representative decision-making methods, rather than replacing them.
  • Young people are increasingly engaged with issues to do with the environment and climate change. In order to boost youth voter turnout and engagement, local government could bring this group in through their enthusiasm for this topic.
  • Representation in our democracy is an important issue. We need to ensure representation is not “tokenistic” and is based on mutual trust, respect and a willingness to make the right decisions for all.
  • There are obvious differences between participation in local and central government elections. The conditions needed for good voter turnout are: a high media profile, leaders to be well known and understood, and limited “hard work” in finding information about candidates and their policies. In central government elections, these conditions are all present, however we lack these in local government elections.
  • An STV (Single Transferrable Vote) system has proven to improve voter turnout and diversity of representation on councils in New Zealand.
  • Councillors balance "doing what they feel is best for their communities" with "the possibility of re-election and popularity". Iain Walker shared a quote by Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, that highlighted this issue: ‘We all know what we need to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected when we’ve done it’.

Please note that the discussions and comments in this conversation are not necessarily the views of the Panel. These conversations are an important part in exploring the topics surrounding the Review but should not be taken as our recommendations or our opinions.

Recommended reading

WHY ELECTIONS ARE BAD FOR DEMOCRACY - YouTube video by David Van Reybrouck

This YouTube video explains how elections do not automatically mean democracy. Sortition – or a lottery – is an ancient way of allowing everyday people to be part of government. In doing so, people trusted the government more, corruption diminished, and it fostered long-term thinking. Elections, however reduced the voice of the people in government.


Using Deliberative Democracy to explore the future of Auckland's water supply - Tatjana Buklijas

Tatjana Buklijas writes about her work using deliberative democracy methods in a New Zealand context in this article.


Democracy - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy organizes scholars from around the world in philosophy and related disciplines to create and maintain an up-to-date reference work. This entry provides a definition of democracy, justifies the value of democracy, outlines the authority of democracy, the demands of participation, representation, and social choice, and discusses who should be the decision makers in democracy.


We Are Our Own Worst Enemy - YouTube video by The Recount

Tom Nichols, contributing writer at The Atlantic, speaks with The Recount Daily Pod host Reena Ninan about how the ways we are living are a danger to our democracy.


Learnings from South Australia's Nuclear Fuel Cycle Jury - newDemocracy Foundation

The newDemocracy Foundation, based in Australia, thinks that democracy needs radical innovation. This report details what they learnt from a randomly selected jury of citizens who together made decisions on the extremely contentious issue of nuclear waste storage in 2016.


Zapatistas: Lessons in community self-organisation in Mexico - openDemocracy

Communities across the globe have long been experimenting with self-organisation. This article looks specifically into the ways Zapatistas, in Mexico, who built a de facto autonomous system of self-governance.


What is democracy's big flaw? - Rational Ignorance - YouTube video by Bite-size Econ

This YouTube video, uploaded by Bite-size Econ, explains the big flaw of democracy - rational ignorance, and how that effects democracy.


The methods of G1000 - G1000

Belgium-based, G1000, an initiative of the Foundation for Future Generations, believes that if the politicians can’t find a solution, let the citizens. In 2012, they gathered 1000 randomly selected citizens to discuss how to deal with labour issues and unemployment. In doing this, they created a model for a new kind of democracy, based on allowing citizens to make decisions.


What if we replaced politicians with randomly selected people? - Brett Henning

Brett Henning of the Sortition Foundation asks: how should we live together, manage common resources, and make rules that govern us?


Getting Beyond Groupthink - YouTube video by GBH Forum Network

Professor Cass Sunstein and co-author Reid Hastie shed light on the specifics of why and how group decisions can go wrong in this YouTube video.


Legal Scholar Cass Sunstein on Internet Echo Chambers & Democracy - YouTube video by David Pakman Show

Author and professor Harvard Law School, Cass Sunstein, talks about how social media has an effect on democracy.


Belgian Sortition Models - The Gov Lab

In Belgium, two regional governments are trialling related, but distinct, models of deliberative democracy based on sortition – the ancient practice of randomly selecting citizens to participate in legislative citizen assemblies. These are the Ostbelgien Model and the Brussels Model.

Share your thoughts

What do you think the future of democracy and local governance could look like? Let us know here.