Saturday, September 17, 2016

Partisan independents

A weird minor issue has popped up in this year’s local elections in Auckland: Can a person be associated with a political party and an independent at the same time? To some, it may seem counter-intuitive, but, yes, people associated with a political party can indeed be independent, and there’s nothing new about that.

The question has come up repeatedly, as for example late last month when Dr Andy Asquith, a senior lecturer at Massey University, criticised people with known political party affiliations running as independents. I don’t think his criticism is valid.

Asquith, who was educated in the UK and arrived at Massey in 2005, specifically attacked Labour Party MP Phil Goff running for Mayor of Auckland as an independent, saying, "If Phil Goff becomes mayor, is he going to ditch all his centre-left baggage and become independent? "It's a nonsense, it's dishonest, it takes us all for mugs."

What’s a nonsense is Asquith’s position: Of course politicians associated with party affiliations can be independent, and for a very good reason: A city like Auckland, home to a quarter of New Zealand’s entire population, needs a mayor who can work with all parties.

In fact, Goff addressed this very point last April when he and two other party-affiliated candidates were challenged about running as independents: I'm a person who has Labour values, I've had them all my life and I inherited them from my grandmother,” he said at the time. "I'm running as an independent because on council you're dealing with a cross-section of people of all political persuasions, and whoever is mayor has got to get that group working as a team."

So, the party affiliations of a candidate can help us understand who they are and what they’re about, but to be Mayor they must transcend party politics. It’s been this way for decades, and is nothing new at all.

One of the reasons for this is that we want our politicians to be independent of Wellington, and they always are. Goff’s long career in Parliament, both as a government minister and a member of the opposition, prepare him for working well with whoever leads the nation’s government. It seems to me that this should be seen as an asset, not a liability.

Candidates for Councillor on the Auckland Council Governing Board, or as a member of their Local Board, also avoid political party identification. In fact, they’re irrelevant in much of Auckland, though certainly not the entire city: In parts of the city, candidates do run aligned to the Labour Party in particular. However, until this year the National Party has never promoted candidates directly. This year, there’s a National party offshoot called Auckland Future running candidates throughout the city—but not for mayor.

Here on the North Shore, it’s been a common and well-established practice for politicians to run as independents, or as local tickets independent of any major party. Indeed, if anything, they’re usually cross party.

So, established practice within Auckland is for most politicians to run as independents or local tickets of candidates, and not as affiliates of any major party.

Asquith seems not to understand this long-standing practice, nor how common it is for local elections generally. In the area where I grew up, for example, all local politicians did the same thing. It happens even in Chicago, where the entire City Council is officially non-partisan (in that particular case, however, it’s unlikely they actually are either non-partisan or independent).

There are plenty of things to criticise our local politicians for, but this is not one of them. When candidates for local office have an identified party affiliation, it helps us know who they are, what they’re about, and what their values are. That’s a good thing because the more we know about them and their attitudes and values, the better. But we also want them to represent us all, not just their party. In Auckland’s experience, that’s exactly what happens.

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