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MEDIAWATCH: By Hayden Donnell, RNZ Mediawatch producer

Once again Aotearoa New Zealand’s local elections were plagued by low voter turnout and a lack of engagement. Is the media coverage, or lack thereof, contributing to the problem — and what can it do to help?​

In dozens of campaign trail appearances, new Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown told audiences he planned to get rid of board members on the council-controlled organisations Auckland Transport and Eke Panuku.

But just days after his election victory, employment lawyer Barbara Buckett gave RNZ’s Morning Report what appeared to be surprising news on that repeated promise.

“There are legal processes and procedures that have to be followed [with board members’ employment],” she said.

“While he can influence, he certainly can’t interfere.”

Buckett added that the governing body of Auckland Council would have to consent to any changes to the boards.

Interviewer Guyon Espiner seemed startled.

‘He doesn’t have the power’
“So he doesn’t actually have power to do this?” he laughed. “He’s campaigned on something he can’t do?”

That reaction was understandable.

Despite admirable efforts from Stuff’s Todd Niall, the Herald’s Simon Wilson, The Spinoff and publicly-funded Local Democracy reporters, the promises and policies coming from mayoral candidates hadn’t received quite the same level of scrutiny they would have had if this were a general election.

If tough, fact-checking coverage was in comparatively short supply for the most high-profile mayoral election in the country, it was sometimes non-existent in ward races and less-heralded mayoral contests.

Pippa Coom, who lost her seat in Auckland’s Waitematā ward, told Mediawatch she didn’t see much coverage at all of her tight ward race against Mike Lee.

She said some media outlets didn’t publish their usual rundowns on ward races like hers, and as a result the “void was filled by misinformation and attack ads”.

“As a candidate I have to absolutely take responsibility for my own loss and for not reaching my potential supporters and not getting people out to vote,” she said.

“But the media coverage is such an important part of our democracy and our elections. So if it’s not there, it is going to … have an impact on election turnout and the result.”

Lack of coverage, engagement
The lack of coverage was matched by a lack of engagement from the public.

Turnout in this year’s election was around 40 percent across the country. In Auckland, it only reached 35 percent for the second election running.

Auckland Council carried out research where it quizzed non-voters on why they didn’t cast their ballot back in 2017.

The number one reason given was that they didn’t know anything about the candidates. Number two was that they didn’t know enough about the policies — and number three was that they couldn’t work out who to vote for.

In the weeks before the election, RNZ’s Lucy Xia vox-popped some Auckland students who told her that not only did they not vote, but they didn’t know the identity of the city’s mayor.

“I don’t really have an opinion,” one said. “Maybe for the prime minister next year. But for mayor? I don’t have views.”

The lack of engagement weighed on the mind of fill-in presenter John Campbell during last weekend’s episode of TVNZ’s Q+A.

Poorer suburbs lagged behind
In conversation with reporter Katie Bradford, he pointed to turnout in the poorer suburbs of Auckland, which — as usual — lagged behind richer areas.

“You have to say that a turnout below 20 percent in Ōtara is heartbreaking. It’s not good enough either,” he said.

“This is a dismal fail by someone.”

He went on to list some possible culprits for that — including central government, uninspiring local candidates and the election system itself.

There is some evidence pointing toward all of those.

In a BusinessDesk column, Pattrick Smellie said postal voting favours older homeowners, who are more likely to stick around at an address and to send letters than younger people and renters.

“It’s hardly news that no one under 40 has much experience of actually posting a letter. We’ve known for a while that postal voting skews local body voting to the asset-owning classes,” he wrote.

TVNZ reporter Katie Bradford, current press gallery chair.
TVNZ reporter Katie Bradford, current press gallery chair . . . “It’s almost a chicken and egg situation. How much coverage the media does is so much based on what we think the public wants.” Image: TVNZ/RNZ

‘Boring’ consultation processes
Others criticised local government’s consultation processes, which are often boring and inaccessible for people with busy lives, along with the ratepayer roll which gives homeowners a vote for each property they own in different places.

But in response to Campbell, Bradford honed in on the media’s role in voter disengagement.

“I’m passionate about local government and there are lots of people out there who are. But how do we show people why it matters? It’s a frustration as a journalist,” she said.

Bradford told Mediawatch it was unclear whether the comparative paucity of media coverage on local government reflected a lack of public interest in the topic — or vice versa.

“It’s almost a chicken and egg situation. How much coverage the media does is so much based on what we think the public wants, and if people aren’t picking up the paper, or they’re switching off the radio or the TV when local government stories are on, they’re not going to run them,” Bradford told Mediawatch. 

TV and radio had particular difficulty producing interest stories about local government because council meetings aren’t renowned for creating interesting visuals or soundbites, Bradford said.

She thought it would help if stories explicitly connected council decisions to nationally-significant issues like the housing crisis or Wellington’s ongoing problems with its water and sewage.

‘Maybe media partly to blame’
“All of this stuff is so important and I think people think it’s always central government’s fault. They don’t necessarily think there’s council involvement and maybe the media is partly to blame for not explaining that stuff enough,” she said.

“But it’s not just our job. It’s also the job of Local Government NZ and councils to explain that.”

Bradford backed the idea of giving local government a similar amount of attention as central government, which is covered round-the-clock by teams of press gallery reporters.

But the economics of that move likely wouldn’t stack up for newsrooms, which are already experiencing significant financial constraints, she said.

She thought reporters could help by targeting the broken parts of the electoral system and shining a spotlight on the things that keep people from engaging with councils.

“This election shows that turnout didn’t get any better despite quite extensive coverage, despite a big campaign by LGNZ and others.

“Whatever we have right now is not working,” she said. “Something has to change.”

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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