Friday 7 October 2022

Information disclosure requirements

I was trying to fill in Wellington election papers. I remain a conscientious non-voter at central government level, but councils are more like local clubs. And Wellington is such a freaking mess. 

In most other areas where people make choices, there are all kinds of government regulations mandating information disclosure - even if there are plenty of easy sources of information.

When we bought our car, there was the compulsory sticker on fuel economy and running costs. But you hardly need that. A quick Google search will give you fuel economy comparisons between cars. 

Food has compulsory nutritional labelling and ingredients listing. 

You can't go out and buy insurance without getting a lengthy and tedious compulsory disclosure statement from your insurance advisor. Piles of compulsory climate disclosures are coming. 

So surely surely it would be dead simple to look up the voting records of incumbents. Wellington uses a ranked voting system. So I wanted to punish everyone who had voted for the convention centre, or the expensive library rebuild, or who had ever voted against housing (whether intensification or expansion), and reward those who'd done the opposite, while sticking new challengers between those. 

And similarly for Greater Wellington Regional Council. Punish everyone who voted for the draft Plan Change 1 on the Regional Spatial Plan that basically bans new subdivisions. 

But while government mandates tons of often-superfluous information disclosure in other sectors, it is impossible to tell how councillors voted on different issues unless you know when the vote happened, in which committee, and are happy to wade through council minutes to find it. 

A snippet from my column in the Herald this week:

But because no voter is particularly likely to change the outcome, few would spend the time and effort that would be required to gather the information needed to cast an informed ballot.

While it would be relatively simple for councils to set up and maintain websites tallying each vote, rather than burying them in impenetrable minutes, it has not happened.

Compulsory information disclosure is most warranted when the public interest in a better-informed decision is high but the private incentive to gather information is low.

Central government believes we need fuel economy stickers on car windows – despite the ease of finding the same information online. The case for requiring councils to provide basic information on councillors' votes is stronger than the case for fuel economy stickers on car windows, and it hasn't happened.

We can't be certain that making it easier for local voters to reward and punish incumbents based on their voting records would substantially improve turnout or improve local government outcomes.

But surely it's worth trying. Democracy depends on voters being able to "throw the bums out" when necessary, but that requires being able to tell who they are.

It should be a lot simpler.

One fun game in ranked-ballots. Clearly unfit people sometimes put their name in the hat. People who, if elected, might result in central government appointing a Commissioner instead. 

If you'd prefer a Commissioner rather than some set of candidates for mayor, ranking the unappointable person ahead of that set of people is basically a game of chicken with Central Government...

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