Wellington candidates and the puzzle of political disengagement

Wellington Central candidates address students as part of Victoria University's democracy week. Photo: Supplied

Wellington Central candidates from five parties were all agreed on one thing when they addressed Victoria University students: more people are tuning out from politics, leaving our democracy in need of strengthening. Shane Cowlishaw reports.

Politics may get wall-to-wall media coverage, but a substantial portion of the public pay little heed to what’s happening at the Beehive.

The question of whether that demographic is expanding, whether we are less engaged with the political process, was one of the main topics put to candidates for the Wellington Central seat at a panel discussion at Victoria University, as part of Democracy Week.

The five participants – NZ First’s Andy Foster, Labour’s Grant Robertson, the Green’s James Shaw, TOP’s Geoff Simmons, and National’s Nicola Willis – drew a healthy crowd during lunchtime at the university’s “Hub”.

Lecturer Marc Wilson moderated the discussion, with debating strictly forbidden (as was humour, but try telling that to vote-seeking politicians).

Are we less engaged with politics?

According to all the panellists, yes.

Robertson was the first to get a reaction from the unsurprisingly pro-Labour student crowd.

Riding the yet-to-crest wave of the Jacinda Ardern announcement, he was in his element.

“I think the Labour Party has come up with a particularly unique and innovative way of increasing public engagement in politics in the past 24 hours.”

Following the whoops and cheers, Robertson said people believed politics was something that was done to them, rather than something they were part of, and that needed to change.

He singled out a lack of investment in public broadcasting as something that needed to be addressed.

“It’s not just about Radio New Zealand, it’s got to be about saying as citizens you have a right to commercial-free information that’s provided in commercial-free platforms you can access.”

Foster, who quipped that he was still waiting to find out if he was actually contesting Wellington Central or not, said political parties were too “tribal”.

Parties needed to work together to address longer-term problems such as climate change to boost that engagement, and needed to deliver on promises.

“For crying out loud, when we promise to do something, follow it through.”

Simmons told the crowd TOP had been created to address falling voter participation amongst young people.

Getting interactive with the crowd, he asked them to stand up then sit down if they agreed with a list of statements about housing, child poverty, and dirty rivers.

Simmons point was made when nearly everyone remained standing.

“If you’re still standing, then I’m not going to tell you the Opportunities Party is for you, but we’re on the same page.”

Facing a tough crowd, Willis played up her Victoria connections and the fact Wellington had relative high voter turnout.

“Whatever it is that is stopping young people around the country turning out, it’s going right here.”

An anecdote about her recent doorknocking venture fell flat, however, when students began whooping before the punchline: “He said 'but everyone knows that students vote for National'”.

After the noise had cleared, she said her point was that the problem with politics was too many politicians spending too much time only talking to people who agreed with them.

Sir Geoffrey’s wisdom

In a piece for Newsroom last month, former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer said there were four main reasons voters were switching off.

A lack of information was the first, alongside voters turning away from political parties, a decline of the political media, and the rising influence of money and lobby groups.

During the debate, each candidate was given one of Palmer’s thoughts to answer.

Tackling the media question, Willis asked how many people in the audience read the paper in the morning or watched the 6pm news, live at 6pm.

There were few takers, something she said was synonymous with our changing lives and technology.

“I think political journalists have a responsibility to report on what’s happening but that it’s reaching people in a way that’s meaningful to them, and the only way political journalists can do that is if we, the politicians, are talking about issues that are actually relevant to people’s everyday lives."

Robertson addressed the lack of information by telling students civics needed to be taught in schools properly so people understood the process.

“We don’t do enough by far to help people be good, positive, constructive citizens.”

He floated the idea of making it easier for citizens to give more time to society, such as serving on a Board of Trustees by supporting workplaces to grant time off for such purposes.

Shaw tackled New Zealanders turning away from political parties and said he agreed they were, but said it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The bad thing about politics was entrenched parties, “sort of like the Punch and Judy Show”.

He said there were other ways to be part of the political process, such as being part of advocacy groups such as Generation Zero and JustSpeak.

“I don’t think it’s all bad news, I think the way people are participating in political parties is changing.”

Foster used the classic “sunlight is the best disinfectant” to address his question about money and lobbying.

He said lobby groups were not necessarily a negative, but the fact it was not always clear what money they were donating to political parties was.

Poor Simmons missed out on a question, but was given the chance to raise his own point and did it well.

The public service should serve the public, rather than the interests of ministers, but that line had become blurred.

The Official Information Act had been eroded as had the independence of those working in the public service who were gagged from speaking out.

“Some of our smartest people are inside the public service, they know what’s going on and they can’t say anything.”

Should prisoners be able to vote?

The discussion was an amicable affair, but some heat was generated when a student asked a well-worded question about the rights of prisoners to vote.

There was, she said, a court case making its way through the system to decide on just that; what did the politicians think?

Four out of five said they were uneasy about the current situation, with Shaw telling the crowd he found it “one of the most il-liberal things this Government has done…given the over-representation in our prison system of Maori and Pacific Island prisoners”.

Robertson said he probably had more experience in prisons than most politicians, having regularly visited his father in jail many years ago.

“To me it’s one of the most petty, mean, small-minded things this Government has done.”

Those people who were having their votes taken away would be back in the community, so it did no good to take away their democratic rights, he said.

It was an awkward question for Willis to answer, considering it was her party who had taken the right to vote away from prisoners serving less than three years.

“When we do put people in prison, what we’re saying is you’ve violated the social norms of our community, whether you’ve stolen from people, you’ve violently attacked them, you’ve raped them, you’ve done things we don’t think are acceptable as a community.

“I don’t think anyone up here disagrees that there should be people in prison or not and that being in prison does involve some rights being taken away, so just don’t get too high on that moral high-ground.”