Pressure for mayoral candidate transparency begins to bear fruit

Transparency International’s Wellington Mayoral candidate forum last week showed contenders promising – and providing – greater transparency and citizen participation, going well beyond what the law requires.

The pressure for more openness, created by many years’ work by civil society groups, was evident at the forum, held at Wellington’s Old Government Buildings on Thursday 26, which heard from six Mayoral candidates.

Even ahead of the forum, some candidates had done sterling work disclosing their campaign donations in real-time, rather than simply doing so after the election, as the law currently requires. Conor Hill, for instance, had declared the total of his crowd-funding campaign, plus a $1000 donation from his mother. Jenny Condie also provided a similar, highly detailed account of her campaign donations, right down to $20 from an unnamed teacher.

At the forum, Justin Lester disclosed that he had one donation over $1500, from the union E Tu. Significantly, Diane Calvert, who had not previously disclosed her donations, said she had received $4000 from a “retired person”, as part of total donations of around $12,000 – but nothing from “big developers… Just normal people”.

Meanwhile, Andy Foster said he had asked his “pretty significant backers”, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, if they would be happy for him to disclose their donation to his campaign ahead of the election – though he was still waiting to hear back from them.

The candidates also discussed existing initiatives to deepen citizens’ participation in politics. Calvert and Foster both praised the plan which Makara residents were drawing up, alongside the council, to adapt to the effects of climate change. Norbert Hausberg made the case for recording more council meetings and putting them up on YouTube, while Lester noted the way that initiatives such as Mayor in the Chair helped get politicians directly in front of residents.

In my role as Commentator for the forum, I noted the new wave of democratic energy that’s sweeping the world and leading to yet more far-reaching, innovative ways of encouraging participation. Accordingly, I asked candidates whether they would implement, or at least consider implementing, two specific deeply democratic processes: citizens’ assemblies, in which a statistically representative group of residents would be brought together to articulate a considered consensus view on an important issue; and participatory budgeting, in which the council would put up a significant proportion of its capital spending budget for residents to decide directly, after deep discussion amongst themselves.

Generally the candidates were enthusiastic – Condie, for instance, had already stressed the importance of a citizens’ assembly and drawing up “a people’s budget” in her opening remarks. Foster declared himself “a fan” of participatory budgeting, while Calvert pointed to existing initiatives such as the Kaka scheme used in Brooklyn. In direct response to my call for citizens’ assemblies and participatory budgeting, Lester said simply: “That’s a ‘yes’ from me, too.” All these commitments, though in some cases relatively general, are extremely welcome – and can be used to hold to account those who are ultimately successful in the elections.

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