This morning I sat down at my kitchen table, ballpoint pen in hand, and cast my votes in the local elections. Not an easy task when there are 5 different elections going on at the same time. Some of the candidates I know, others I don’t. And 200 words in a booklet isn’t really enough to get an idea of a prospective councillor’s priorities.
But it got me thinking deeper about what it means to participate in a democracy. Casting our vote every 3 years is important, but full participation in democracy means using the opportunities between those times to be involved in decisions which affect us. One of the advantages of living in Buller is that because of our smaller population we are more likely to know our councillors personally and to be able to speak to them about issues which affect us. Of course we can also write submissions, sign petitions, and write letters to the newspaper. But face to face communication with our elected representatives is more important than we realise.
Kate Sheppard is rightly regarded as a heroine of our nation in securing women the vote in 1893. She was motivated largely by her Christian faith, and the principle of equality for all. In championing women’s suffrage she spoke up for the 50% of the population who previously had little or no voice. 125 years later, the sad reality is that in our local elections, whilst all enrolled adults have the right to vote, roughly 50% choose not to use it.
So back to my kitchen table and ballpoint pen. How did I go about casting my votes? One key consideration was how well each candidate would listen to the voices of others. Are they already imbedded in our community and showing a capacity for listening and collaboration? I also used the time sitting at my kitchen table to pray. To pray for the candidates, certainly. But also to pray for our region and our district. And to pray for the way I use my voice in our democracy. None of the candidates are perfect, nor is any governance system. But we can use our voice to help make it the best it can be.
NZ Maori identify themselves by their local mountain and river, but I grew up in the south of England where the land is flat, and our local river - the Blackwater - lived up to its name as being one of the most polluted streams in the UK. So now I'm claiming the Buller River, or in te reo Maori the Kawatiri, as my own.