“You gotta hand it to ’em” – but not your vote

Talk Wellington admires skill in any job, including local body politicians. Which is why it’s good to use scorecards but also use less game-able, more revealing insights into those who would run our cities

It’s what we do in the shadows

When the glare of the pre-election spotlight fades, and successful candidates – now councillors – start operating in the boring office lighting of day-to-day work…

That’s when they’ll start to wield their power, to shape the places we live – and their decisions will shape our places for decades.

You’ll know this already because we bang on at you ad nauseam to be an informed voter – to read up, to be skeptical, to research.

We start with scorecards, but then take it nek level. Strap in, readers…

Scorecards: powerful

Firstly let us put it out there loud and clear: scorecards, like candidates’ debates, are totally excellent, and a really important ingredient in informed voting.  We recommend them to anyone who gives a monkey’s about the place they live. 

And they take TONS of work, so:

ALL HAIL the excellent people who do scorecard initiatives
and candidates’ debates, for everyone’s benefit!

“You gotta hand it to them”

A clever candidate – and we want clever politicians – will probably look pretty good in scorecards. Unfortunately, “clever” in politicians can often – not always – come with another, darker skill. That’s the skill at saying what each audience wants to hear, in language that’s just vague enough so they can sound like they’re committing to things, but wiggle out of any accusations of contradicting themselves.

And they’re unlikely to get pinged for it through most scorecarding initiatives.

How so? Well, if I, Candidate X, make a nice answer to a scorecard initiative that – when you dig a little – is belied by my track record for the last few years, I’m not sweating too much.

  1. it’s unlikely the scorecard people will find out, cos they don’t usually have the resources to research the back-history of all the candidates
  2. even if they do happen to get tipped off with info that goes beyond my scorecard responses, fairness demands they’d have to gather that extra info for all candidates, and analyse it the same. They’re all invariably do-gooders, committed to fairness and truthfulness. And I can guarantee they won’t have the resources to trawl through all candidates’ histories, so they won’t do it to me.
  3. even if they did uncover something, they’d probably have to write it as a footnote or some fine print which fewer people would read. 

As a candidate I’m pretty safe.   

Why talk about this now?

This has popped into relevance in the recently-released and excellent Generation Zero scorecards: the skilful Mayoral candidates answered well, which justifiably earned them good scores on the terms of the scorecard.

Generation Zero’s scorecards homepage for Wellington (click image to go there)

But when it comes to climate-friendly transport initiatives, two incumbent candidates’ voting record (and, intriguingly, a lot of their social media statements) shows a very different picture. Throughout this whole term they’ve shown pretty consistently shabby positions (Foster) and outright crappy positions (Calvert).  This has especially come through with their Let’s Get Wellington Moving statements.

[NOTE to readers: the Gen Z scorecards have been pretty good for other candidates, it’s just those two mayoral ones that made us go “Eh what?”]

So we can say admiringly of these two politicians “you gotta hand it to them” for being good at the scorecard game.

But this doesn’t mean you should hand them your vote.

So what should a thoughtful voter do?

First off, definitely do use scorecards. They are great for weeding out the worst candidates who nonetheless look nice – the science deniers, the ones who don’t even know the mandate of the council they’re standing for, the single-issue mavens with no other policy.  The ones you shouldn’t even grace with a low-rank STV score in your voting paper.

But for the decent-sounding ones, the middle-and-upper contenders for your ballot paper…

Here are some top tips for squinting at your candidates.

Incumbents re-standing

Look at their voting patterns – and sniff

Really clear previous form is on the record in council voting patterns. 

Sure they might say they’re supportive of climate-sensible transport, but how did they vote when they had an opportunity to show their colours? 

  • Have they voted against initiatives that would help – like bus priority, slower speed limits, more accessible (less car-dependent, or walkable) developments, safer cycling, anything that would be good but would hurt some carparks?
  • Is there a pattern that defies explanations or excuses, like “they do really support [cycling], they’re just a stickler for good engagement processes”, or “they really do support better residential developments, they’re just a stickler for transparency in council” or “they really do support higher density housing walkable to the city, they’re just passionate about Victorian era villas”?

Candidate X can only get away for so long with voting against pragmatic moves in the right directions, before you and I the voters have to start calling bullsh*t on their claims to support good change.   

Mild-mannered economist Shamubeel Eaqub calling bullsh*t

Who tracks this stuff?

We, voters, must rely on people like nerdy commentators, local democracy journalists and other people doing thankless mahi keeping track through the humdrum of council votes.

We’d suggest you find groups whose values align with yours on an issue – like Low Carbon Kāpiti, the Wellington Public Health Association, Millions of Mothers – and see what they say about council votes over the last term.  (Talk Wellington also finds reliable the Island Bay Healthy Streets, Eye of the Fish, TraNZport, and the Upko o te Ika area coverage occasionally guest-posting on Greater Auckland.)

Read press coverage about them.

If you feel like some sleuthing, Google through Dominion Post coverage, and especially Wellington Scoop.  It’s a good source, and Interest.co.nz.  Look up the issue you’re interested in and the candidate’s name.  Don’t just skim the articles (anyone can write anything) but also have a look at the comments.  There’s a pretty robust community of transparency nerds, transport nerds, housing and affordability nerds etc on there who call bullsh*t on articles as well as on each other.

What about new candidates?

They’ve no voting record to show their colours. Here we must rely on  two sources: local experiences and submissions. 

Local experiences of working with them

These are a tricky one, much more personal to who you’re asking, but often valuable. 

One good source is committees. In the candidate debates or the freetext responses to the scorecard surveys, candidates often cite their membership of certain committees to show their credentials for supporting good things.

(Some classic examples are in Porirua City and Regional Council candidates talking up their membership of the Whaitua committee as proof they’re a good choice if you care about water quality and the harbour.)**

So you could have a word to someone else on those committees. 

  • Is the candidate actually a constructive member? 
  • How do they behave when they disagree?
  • Do they consistently care more about doing it their way than about collective progress, or good decisions? 
  • Are they perhaps very smart, but just a total dork to work with, an enervating presence whose overall impact is everyone having less time and fewer resources?

If those committees are supported by officials, you could try to have a chat with one of those officials. 

NOTE public servants are rightly barred from getting involved in politicking, so any conversation like this will have to be completely off the record.
If you don’t know them personally and have their trust, respect that they might not feel safe talking freely in some contexts – including the supermarket carpark. 
So don’t put them in a difficult position: we need good responsible people to stay in the system, not just for their own careers’ or mortgages’ sake but for ours, because councils without good people in officer roles are even worse.

But if you do get to ask and answer, you’ll likely get a very good picture of how those candidates actually are on those committees. You’ll be well positioned to call bullsh*t on any hollow claims of deserving your vote on that issue you care about. Or conversely, you’ll know they really deserve your backing because they’re good constructive operators on complex issues. Hooray!

Their submission history

So Candidate X addressing people from Suburb claims to be “passionate about a better Suburb” and “have always been committed to the community”.  An excellent test is: have they ever bothered to submit on something? Have they – at the very least – been part of an organisation that put in a submission?

Ok Viago, but did you bother to put in a submission?

If not, WTF have they been doing for the last few years? How much can we trust their “commitment to the community” if they have only discovered the concept of submissions in local government when deciding to run for office? (You’d hope they can tell you a good excuse – and Talk Wellington knows plenty of spaced-out, bone-weary new parents who’ve been able to whack in a submission at 2am between feeds.)

If they have been submitting, what did they call for? You’ll get to see their true colours. 

So do look them up – submissions are all on the public record, discoverable through the net. However they can be a bit of a ‘mare to go through , not least because of councils’ deplorable habit of using unsearchable documents like PDFs.

One tip is just to look for the Big Kahuna issues for your town – like the growth strategy, a major development or transport project – and look up candidates’ names there.  (When doing so, remember convention of collective responsibility generally says standing councillors don’t put in submissions).

So we should break out the pre-election bubbly when someone patiently trawls to find out submission records, and writes it all up!

Wellington city voters, pop the cork – Healthy Streets Island Bay have looked at all candidates’ submission records on the two Big Kahuna issues for Wellington City – Planning for Growth, and Te Atakura – First to Zero – and also done that awesome vampire meme. Read, and enjoy.

Aargh I’m too busy to be a sceptical voter!

If all this is sounding too damn hard, take heart: you can do a bit of reading, and with a few chats with friends to check your unconscious bias,** you’ll be roughly right.  The reliable watchdog organisations, like Generation Zero, will be keeping a close eye on politicians and calling out where we need to hold them to account – making it easier for us.

And just being enthused about voting stuff amongst your friends and family is great. Get them reading, or talking, or just enrolled.

You’re making it seem cool(er) to be interested in voting, which gets more people interested and willing to engage with this really important decision.

More citizen engagement, more information,
more betterer democracy! 

WCC candidates’ submission records on two Big Kahuna issues

Common Climate & friends’ scorecards for all the region candidates – climate-centred, produced by a diverse crowd of public-spirited groups

Island Bay Healthy Streets rankings of Wellington City Council candidates according to their support for Healthy Streets

The Spinoff’s climate reporting team scorecards to spot the science deniers

Generation Zero scorecards – pretty reliable but for those two Wellington mayoral ones.

DHBs! Wellington Public Health Association scorecards – essential reading

PLUS Some new council scorecards we’ve been tipped off to: living wage support (Unions Wellington), and walking-first (Living Streets Aotearoa)

*Talk Wellington know people who have views; contact us if you’re curious.

 **Let’s be honest, we all have an unreasonable fondness for some candidate because of that time they rescued a puppy / they have the best teeth / in some undefinable way they remind us of our favourite actor – and these are terrible reasons to give someone our vote.

Image credits:

  • Vote Viago: Island Bay Healthy Streets
  • Grateful cat: Giphy
  • Shamubeel Calls Bullshit – from his short but useful series for The Spinoff

3 comments on ““You gotta hand it to ’em” – but not your vote”

  • Conor Hill says:

    I guess if being able to speak out of both sides of your mouth is skillful. Honestly, the gen zero survey design was atrocious. A simple 3 part survey on runway extension, mt Vic tunnel vs mass transit and planning for growth would have done much better than
    a generic free text survey.
    Also I disagree on the input into council plans. In general that favours old people. Which our local body system already does, so thats a closed loop of negative reinforcement.

    • Isabella Cawthorn says:

      Your questions sound good…

      Survey design is also a science with which I’m not familiar, but I know it’s hard to design questions that are the happy medium of eliciting rich info, and being easy to parse and rate consistently. Have you seen a good candidates survey they could use as a template for next time?

      Not sure about your disagreement comment – what point are you making there?

      • Conor Hill says:

        That participation in local body politics and consultation is limited to a pretty narrow range of people. If you say only people who engage in consultations (generally older and wealthier) should stand, then you are ruling out the kind of people we actually want to engage in local body politics.

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