Wellington Scoop

Centralism vs localism

by Felicity Wong
The Wellington City Council is consulting on its plan for “status quo plus one:” retaining its current electoral system and introducing a new Māori ward. The system of electing ward councillors is important because of the tension between centralism and localism.

With nationalisation of three-waters proposed, top-down planning with the National Policy Statement on Urban Development, and transport decisions driven by Transport Agency funding, there’s already plenty of centralist influence in local affairs.

Centralism is also evident with political parties actively campaigning in local body elections, and issuing public statements about the way affiliated councillors should vote on controversial issues (e.g. the Spatial Plan).

We need to value localism, with quality local candidates seeking election in local wards and being free to exercise their judgement in the best interests of the city, according to the oath of office they take.

We need them to be held accountable to local communities at the next election. As Unions Wellington stated “[t]he 2022 local elections gives every Wellingtonian an opportunity to pass their judgement on the record of the current council, and if they are unsatisfied with the direction, gives them an opportunity to seek new representation.” – (Unions Wellington Local Government Statement, February 2021.)

It is welcome that councillors rejected a series of complicated options for changing the electoral ward system in Wellington, and favoured the status quo for local wards for now.

Options proposed by council staff included reducing the number of wards, introducing new “at large” (city-wide) councillors while reducing the number of ward councillors to accommodate them, and significant changes to ward boundaries.

Such options risk enhancing the influence of political parties via city-wide party campaigns, or city-wide platforms for party candidates climbing the greasy poles (of party politics).

We need to focus the priority on introducing the Māori Ward. Further changes are better considered in the context of wider local government reform, which the Government has signalled is coming.

Councillors acknowledge that there has been a lot of recent change – a lot of (seemingly pointless) consultation on major issues – and that confidence in the Council is very low. Electoral change would not be a timely addition to the mix.

Changing the ward boundaries was also not favoured although there are too many electors in the southern ward (for the existing two councillors) and too few in eastern (for its three councillors).

Councillors declined to adjust the boundary since the suburb of Southgate has previously opposed being shifted from southern to eastern. As the variances from the average representation ratio of electors to councillors are relatively small, (+12% and -15%), the Local Government Commission is not expected to take exception to the current boundaries.

Most councillors voted to recommend the introduction of the Māori ward via the “status quo plus one” proposal. Three Councillors voted against that option. Councillors Matthews, O’Neil and Condie preferred the option of introducing two new “at large” (city-wide) councillors in addition to the Māori ward. The “at large” option involves reducing the Eastern, Lambton and Onslow wards from three councillors each to two, in order to accommodate the new “at large” councillors, and would entail complex boundary changes.

Councillor Matthews described herself as “a Turkey voting for Christmas” in supporting a reduction in Onslow councillors from three to two, (in favour of new “at large” roles). She was acknowledging her vulnerability as the third ranking Onslow councillor at the last election.

Councillor Paul, third ranking in the Lambton Ward, also wanted to vote for new “at large” (city-wide) councillor roles (and reduce Lambton ward from three to two), but would not vote against the proposal on the table for a new Māori ward.

Were councillors looking for an “at large” parachute? Christmas is surely coming regardless of their views on changes to wards.

The Representation Review Initial Proposal is open for public submissions from Saturday 4 September – Monday 4 October. The consultation document can be found at:


(The Local Electoral Act 2001 requires councils to review their electoral arrangements at least every six years. Wellington City last reviewed its arrangements in 2018 but its decision to establish a Māori ward gave rise to the need for an earlier review. The outcome of the current review will apply to next year’s elections.)


  1. TrevorH, 9. September 2021, 15:59

    Great column Felicity. The past two years have afforded ample evidence of the negative impact of party politics in Wellington’s affairs. If people want their city back they should avoid supporting candidates affiliated to national political parties. The proposed expropriation of our community-owned 3 waters infrastructure is deeply disturbing. When will Wellingtonians get to have their say on this?

  2. Claire1, 9. September 2021, 16:27

    Top down directives from larger political parties served Wellingtonians very poorly with the retrograde DSP. Considering the majority of submissions did not want the DSP in a raw form, but wanted community-led alternatives, careful design and integration of new housing.
    This was ignored and derided. Councillors at large would be a mouthpiece for a repeat.
    I vote for good representation of the community.

  3. Concerned Wellingtonian, 9. September 2021, 16:31

    If, as Felicity Wong suggests, “we . . . focus the priority on introducing the Māori Ward,” it is possible that the Maori electors will get in behind those who are trying to protect Shelly Bay. Their representative on the Council will then be able to tell the other councillors why they were wrong to sell the land to a developer “for the Maori”.

  4. Greenwelly, 9. September 2021, 16:32

    As the variances from the average representation ratio of electors to councillors are relatively small, (+12% and -15%) … That’s not strictly true. The average general representation ratio is 1 councillor per 14,771 voters, (the +12 and -15% range applies to this). The proposed Maori Ward would have a representation ratio of 1 councillor per 9,410 voters, a variance of -35%. To maintain the same overall ratio as the Maori ward would require expanding the council to 22 general councillors.

  5. Matt, 9. September 2021, 16:48

    Clearly this has been a good decision from the councillors. What we need to see next time is some pre-election coalescing between candidates to form an electable majority with a platform. That will introduce some real accountability. Why would you ever vote for someone who wasn’t part of such a group!

  6. Concerned Wellingtonian, 9. September 2021, 17:48

    Greenwelly, there are only about 5,500 on the Maori electoral roll.

  7. Conor, 9. September 2021, 18:30

    The focus should be on turnout. Local body needs a huge overhaul as it can barely be called democratic when a large majority of people don’t vote.

  8. Henry Filth, 10. September 2021, 5:10

    So how do we know whether these proposals are successful?

    What metrics do the proponents advance?

  9. Yimby, 10. September 2021, 8:30

    Conor is correct – there needs to be a drive to encourage local body elections and also the importance of submitting on local issues such as the DSP etc. The current model is at risk of being hijacked by special interest groups who represent a small portion of the population but are active and vocal.

  10. Claire1, 10. September 2021, 9:26

    Yimby: special interest groups want development at all costs. Maybe they don’t realise the money driven destruction that too much zone change can cause. It was seen in the eighties and nineties. One of the reasons the previous 1930 protections were put in place. Having said that, we need more homes but we need to be careful how to go about that.

  11. Greenwelly, 10. September 2021, 9:41

    Concerned Wellingtonian, which roll??

  12. Marilyn, 10. September 2021, 10:38

    An easily accessed list, at election time, of how each councillor voted on every issue would inform voters of councillors’ true colours. Councillor Paul has done “bait and switch” – she would not have been elected if she had been open about her agenda.
    Political parties should not fund candidates and no political party branding should be permitted in relation to candidates and councillors.

    At-large candidate positions appeal to career activists who do not share local residents’ interests.

  13. Concerned Wellingtonian, 10. September 2021, 11:22

    Greenwelly, sorry! When I said “the Maori electoral roll” I should have said “the Maori electoral roll for Wellington”.

  14. Ray Chung, 10. September 2021, 19:59

    The WCC are stating that there are 9,410 on the Maori roll.

  15. Ray Chung, 10. September 2021, 20:16

    Excellent article thanks Felicity. I absolutely agree that central party politics should be kept out of Local Body politics. It seems very clear that having “Councillors at large” would only benefit the large political parties with their large budgets and volunteers to help deliver fliers and campaign.
    Conor: do you think that our dysfunctional council will encourage more voters to come out, or will they be disillusioned and stay away in droves?
    Matt: Do you think we need a group that’s not a central political party with their particular ideology but something like the Citizens Party of some years ago?

  16. Meredith, 10. September 2021, 22:52

    Members of Citizens were usually (some were not) aligned with the National Party and mayors Fowler and Prendergast were members.

  17. Ann Mallinson, 10. September 2021, 23:42

    Such a good article, Felicity. The Wellington City Council is to be congratulated on their sensible decision to keep the status quo, with the addition of one Maori councillor.

  18. Concerned Wellingtonian, 11. September 2021, 15:45

    To Ray Chung: I’m afraid that the facts matter. Please re-examine your statement that “WCC are stating that there are 9,410 on the Maori roll.” And please publish what you find.

  19. Ray Chung, 11. September 2021, 22:36

    Hi Concerned Wellingtonian, if you look at the brochure that the WCC sent out, on page 10, paragraph 63, you’ll see all the ward numbers and median for these wards. They state there are 9,410 on the Maori roll so is this incorrect?

  20. Concerned Wellingtonian, 12. September 2021, 7:23

    Ray, my copy of the consultation document shows the figure 9,410 under the heading: “Population”. This is quite different from the electoral roll. This is because a high proportion of Maori are children and therefore do not have a vote (as yet). They qualify as “population” but not “voters”.

  21. D'Esterre, 12. September 2021, 16:43

    Ray, what brochure is this? I assume that you received it in the mail. We’ve had nothing at all here. I wonder how many others have missed out. Perhaps the same information is available somewhere on the WCC’s labyrinthine website?

  22. Conor, 12. September 2021, 17:51

    Ray – local body turnout is not a Wellington specific problem. It’s a big issue everywhere, but specifically our cities with some councils having turnout below 30%. Personally I think the electoral commission should run council elections nationwide, and that voting should be as simple as in national elections.

  23. TrevorH, 12. September 2021, 19:30

    We must have online voting, who can find or be bothered with a postbox these days?

  24. Ray Chung, 12. September 2021, 21:51

    Concerned Wellingtonian: the WCC document “Representation Review Report” states on page 10, paragraph 63 that the number of people on the Maori roll is 9,410 so I’d presume that all these would be eligible to vote for a candidate in the Maori ward. So are you saying that this is including children? So the number eligible to vote will be lower?

    D’Esterre: I received the document from the WCC when I said I’d like to make a submission. If you can’t get it, I’ll be happy to send it to you.

    Conor: I thought the Electoral Commission ran the Local Body elections already? Personally, I don’t think the STV system is very fair and indicative of who voters want. I think if a ward has three positions, then each voter should be allowed to tick the box for the three candidates that they like, not give each a ranking of 1, 2 or 3 as in STV.

  25. Julienz, 12. September 2021, 22:36

    Electorates for the general election (and presumably for local elections) are calculated on the total population including children and others ineligible to vote) not the number registered on the electoral roll.

  26. Meredith, 13. September 2021, 9:02

    I think we should have polling booths and one polling day … and a celebration of democracy on that day. Online is fraught and postal voting is a problem when the youth of today have no idea what to do with an envelope or what a postbox is, and the rest of the population don’t know where the postboxes are! Nothing seems to have improved local body election turnout enough for decades.

  27. Claire, 13. September 2021, 10:22

    The electoral commission and the council should advertise the issues of the day before an election. Get it in all the media, demand a turnout.

  28. Helen Ritchie, 13. September 2021, 12:17

    Marilyn, I like your idea of a list of how each councillor has voted. Otherwise, unless there are political parties with a comprehensive manifesto that they keep to, how do you know what you are voting for? A vacuous billboard with a touched up face and a ridiculous slogan is all you will get! Plus 140 letter tweets?? Facebook posts? Leaflet? Wellington.Scoop contributions?

    It will be a challenge to decide which Council topics to focus on, and to then research the voting. Democratic services should help. This is an important but complex research project for someone, unless democratic services or an Official Information request can do it for you.

  29. Conor, 13. September 2021, 14:57

    Meredith – the youth of today also shift yearly, so their postal address is out of date come local election time.
    Ray – two private companies run most local body elections in NZ. Electionz.com is the one WCC use. The chief electoral officer doubles as business development lead, which seems a clash. If you have any issues with anything they do, you cannot raise the issue to any other power, they decide if they did anything wrong. Electionz.com is provider and auditor.
    Helene – WCC are introducing such a list. Was a recommendation of the Mander review, and also lobbied for by Regan Dooley amongst others.

  30. Mike Mellor, 13. September 2021, 15:58

    The proposal document is linked here.

    Ray C, the Electoral Commission has no involvement in local elections – they are entirely the responsibility of the respective local body. Conor’s suggestion that the commission should run all elections is worth looking at, but it’s at least arguable that the 1,2,3 etc local STV voting system is no less simple than the two-tick parliamentary MPP one.

  31. Concerned Wellingtonian, 13. September 2021, 17:01

    Ray, Mike Mellor has referred to some very useful documents but they do not include “Representation Review Report” …. page 10, paragraph 63. Can you give us the reference to that?

  32. Ray Chung, 13. September 2021, 21:13

    Concerned Wellingtonian: the WCC sent me that document, you should be able to get it from them. Here is paragraph 63:

    63. This system results in three wards (Motukairangi/Eastern Ward, Paekawakawa/Southern Ward, and Takapū/Northern Ward) being non-compliant with the 10% rule. Ward Members Population Pop. Per Member 14,771 Variance:
    * Takapū/Northern Ward 3 48,800 16,267 +10.1%
    * Wharangi/Onslow Western Ward 3 43,300 14,433 -2.3%
    * Pukehīnau/Lambton Ward 3 44,100 14,700 -0.5%
    * Motukairangi/Eastern Ward 3 37,500 12,500 -15.4%
    * Paekawakawa/Southern Ward 2 33,100 16,500 +12.0%
    * Te Whanganui-a-Tara Ward 1 9,410 9,410 -63%

    General ward total 14 members 206,800 14,771 per member
    Te Whanganui-a-Tara Ward 1 member 9,410 9,410 per member
    Mayor 1 member
    Total 16 216,210* *population totals may vary slightly between options due to the rounding methodology used by Stats NZ.
    64. The 10% rule is applied once and so regardless of whether one ward is non-compliant or three wards are non-compliant, the proposal would have to be referred to the Commission.

    So to be clear, the numbers given by the WCC here are the numbers of voters from the Electoral rolls, that’s my understanding. After all, what’s the point of listing non-eligible people like children?

    Conor: sorry, I thought the elections were run by the Electoral Commission. I don’t think the low turnout of voters is only complacency. I think more people would vote if it was a simple, tick the person you want for a councillor in your ward. If there are three positions, then tick three names. If there are two, then you tick two.

  33. D'Esterre, 13. September 2021, 23:17

    Many thanks, Ray. I’ll approach WCC for the brochure.

    I agree with you. I’m not a fan of the STV system, either. I’ve begun to wonder if it’s one of the reasons for dropping voter turnout. I’d greatly prefer to use a system such as that you describe.

  34. bssmith, 14. September 2021, 10:14

    Interestingly voter turnout is always solely blamed on voter apathy. I would suggest that if the right candidates were focused on WCC’s problems/ratepayers, (and not their own political ambitions), then a far higher turnout would be guaranteed.

  35. Mike Mellor, 14. September 2021, 11:39

    It appears that the document that Ray C is using was included in the agenda for the 26 August Council meeting rather than the one online open for public consultation that I linked to above, but I suspect that the content is the same.

    I’m not sure where “the numbers given by the WCC here are the numbers of voters from the Electoral rolls” comes from. As linked to by Julienz a couple of days ago, the populations Stats NZ calculates for parliamentary electorates are total ones, not just adults, and it appears that the calculations for city wards are on the same basis. That would be the normal usage of the word “population”, too. The point here may be that councillors (and MPs) represent the whole population, not just adults – people below the age of 18 have distinct needs and interests that need to be taken into account.

  36. Barbara McKenzie, 18. September 2021, 13:57

    With regard to the lower turnout:

    Maybe if candidates were honest about their policies, more people would turn out to vote for and against them. Looking at the potted biographies of the last lot of successful candidates, we now know that such policies as “cycling”; “infrastructure’ “keeping rate increases to 3%” and “community” actually mean:
    – rate increases of 13%,
    – moving towards 50% partnership with iwi with no consultation;
    – erasing traditional property rights via the SNA policy,
    – being as divisive as possible by weaponising everything from biodivsersity to age to race to property ownership to gender orientation,and
    – remaking Wellington from a beautiful city of leafy, colourful suburbs to one of apartments against a background of monochrome green.
    I suspect that “a warm dry home for everyone”; “sustainability” and “resilience” actually mean replacing solid housing stock with leaky homes and jerry-built tower blocks which will be down in the first major earthquake (like the Library and the BNZ building on the quay). All the fittings, of course, will be lucky to last 5 years, if my experience of rebuilding is anything to go by.

  37. Ray Chung, 18. September 2021, 19:51

    Barbara, yes, I agree with you but how do we hold councillors to their election promises? The councillor who stated that if elected she would hold rate increases to 3% is one of biggest spenders introducing her expensive ideology to the council. I read in the Council Code of Conduct that everything councillors do must be for all Wellingtonians, not any group or individual. Yet this is exactly what they do, so what can be done about this? Obviously one action is to vote them out next year!

  38. TrevorH, 18. September 2021, 20:51

    Barbara McKenzie: excellent post. You have exposed the doublespeak very well.

  39. Concerned Wellingtonian, 19. September 2021, 7:55

    Ray, you have now given the material which answers your own questions “…this is including children? So the number eligible to vote will be lower?” The answer to both questions is “Yes.”

  40. Toni, 19. September 2021, 10:15

    Absolutely agree Barbara, and the councillors wonder why we no longer believe or trust them. They have become a law unto themselves following political party and personal agendas while sidelining their constituents – the people who voted them in!

  41. Ray Chung, 21. September 2021, 18:59

    Concerned Wellingtonian: thanks for this but why is the total population relevant here? Surely it should just include the potential voters?

  42. Mike Mellor, 22. September 2021, 10:07

    Ray C: “Surely it should just include the potential voters?” Why? Don’t the people under 18 matter? Don’t they use council facilities?