Thursday, 6 October 2011

Politicians are not robots

Earlier this week Auckland Council's Governing Body (the mayor plus 20 elected ward councillors) voted at an Extraordinary Business Meeting to approve additional ratepayer funds for the Rugby World Cup.  The vote was incredibly close, and not without controversy.  The mayor had to use his casting vote to pass the funding. 

Why am I writing about this on a feminist blog?  Is my concern that (yet more) public money is being spent on rugby-related expenses that would never even be considered for a women's sports tournament?  Did all the men vote for it and the women against? 

While the former is true, the latter is not.  And neither are what this post is about.

This post is about some very awful sexism that Councillor Cathy Casey (Albert Eden Roskill ward) has faced because she had to leave before the vote was taken. 

Now for a bit more context.  Cathy Casey is a friend of mine; I wouldn't say a close mate or anything, but we did run on the same ticket and she is one of the two councillors for the ward I represent at Local Board level.*  We agree about a lot, politically, and she is a staunch feminist too, as her presence at Auckland's SlutWalk this year attests to.  Cathy and I have had disagreements too, not least when we were both very involved in the Alliance party and wanted that organisation to go in different political directions.  We haven't discussed this privately at all, although I have expressed some of the sentiments in this post on Facebook, including on her public page there. 

Casey has spoken of her opposition to extra local government money for the Rugby World Cup passionately, publicly, and repeatedly, including stating on her (public) Facebook page "I think enough ratepayers' money has been spent on this rugby tournament."

The Herald article reports on the vote split and notes Casey as the only councillor absent.  Actually two other councillors were absent - Michael Goudie (Albany ward) and Penny Webster (Rodney ward) who are both overseas at a planning conference I believe.  I suspect both of them would have voted against.  Of the centre-right contingent on the Governing Body, predominantly represented by Citizens & Ratepayers, one of their number, Noelene Raffills (Whau ward), voted for the funding. 

Yet all the heat is on Casey, for leaving before the vote.  Her integrity has been repeatedly questioned, with the implication that she left early to avoid voting against her centre-left colleagues who were supporting the funding. 

Comments have been made, on the Facebook page of Councillor Cameron Brewer (Orakei ward) (also public), such as:

"Casey needs a kick in the arse for that 'performance' what a pathetic cop out"
"...the dissenter (Cr CASEY) had to leave (convenient), instead of speaking up and having the guts to go against her political allies to vote according to her conviction on this issue. Paid to vote and take a stand!"

"if you are being paid to be a councillor of NZ's biggest city should be at every damn thing !"
"Ah. So the democratic decision-making process for a big decision with public interest for New Zealand's biggest city is not as important as getting on time for a step-daughter's birthday party."
There was a letter similar to the last comment above in the Herald today, although by a different person.  And I'm having a wee Facebook scrap with someone who started out by stating
"$1.5M dinner!"

Yes, Casey had to leave to attend her step-daughter's birthday.  The meeting was called very last minute, for 5pm on a Tuesday.  Casey stayed as long as she could, until 6.30pm, but eventually had to go rather than let her family down entirely.  She was supposed to be cooking her step-daughter's favourite meal for dinner, instead she missed the mains entirely and they had to have something else.  She clearly communicated
her time constraints to the Mayor, Deputy Mayor and Auckland Council's CEO beforehand.  Casey has made all this public, via her Facebook page, and not hidden a skerrick.

Going to the meeting at all was a significant compromise on her part, in my opinion.    That the vote was taken after she had to leave is not Casey's fault.  In fact she could not have known how close the vote would be when she left; they continued debating for another hour before voting.

Of the five comments I've mentioned above, at least two come from members of Citizens & Ratepayers
(the centre-right ticket).  One comes from a fellow member of mine on the Puketapapa Local Board.  Their extreme scrutiny of Councillor Casey is not only unreasonable, it's also hypocritical given they seem to be failing to make any criticism of their C&R colleague who voted for the funding.  Plus Casey has one of the highest attendance and voting records on Auckland Council. 

Politicians are not robots.  We are people, human beings, and sometimes, just sometimes, we might take a holiday, or get sick, or attend a family event.  Sometimes the commitments we have as elected members clash, so while we may not be at meeting X it's because we're off at meeting Y instead.  I recall Mike Lee saying earlier this year that he had been booked to attend three meetings simultaneously - in Henderson, the CBD and on Waiheke.  Can't be in two (or three) places at the same time.  Family time is important too, yet the dismissive comments imply that a step-daughter's birthday just wasn't important enough. 

I think Cathy made the correct choice, as hard as it might have been for her both then and since.  Women so often seem to be in lose-lose situations when it comes to holding positions of power; stay at work and disappoint your family, go home and disappoint others.  

What does it say about Auckland Council as an organisation that elected members and staff are being asked to make these choices?  It's not family-friendly, and more than that, it's not actually people-friendly, at all.  i look forward to working to change that.

*   Puketapapa is part of the Albert-Eden-Roskill ward.


Hugh said...

I'm surprised councilors have to be physically present to vote. Can't they give their vote to somebody else, as is the practice in Parliament?

katy said...

I think the balancing of work with other aspects of life is something that workers everywhere struggle with. The public scrutiny might be what is different for people who work in roles with a high level of public visibility.

Julie said...

@Hugh - under the local govt legislation elected members must come to the vote with an open mind. This means there cannot be a proxy system because then you would have made a decision before hearing the debate. It's a really weird situation in which some of the legal advice we get insists that we not take public positions before a vote at all, because that would mean we weren't coming to it with an open mind (this is referred to as "a conflict of interest", just to confuse things). So if for example I stood on a platform saying "won't sell the airport shares" if we had a vote on selling the airport shares and I voted against it then I might be open to challenge on the basis of a conflict of interest. Frankly I find it anti-democratic.

@katy - excellent point. I guess one of the things that disturbs me, and I think I'll write another post about this, is how some people think because they don't get work-life balance others shouldn't either - which doesn't improve anyone's life and indeed makes it harder for work-life balance to become the norm.

katy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
katy said...

Lots of things affect work-life balance but the issue around working unsociable hours is I think a particularly tricky one due to the very way that a lot of work is structured now, a lot of our social norms are based on the idea that evenings and weekends are non-work time but the reality is that so many people are working "unsociable" hours (including elected officials) and this is kind of invisible. Unfortunately the answer isn't just moving this work so that it happens between 9-5 as a lot of what is needed to keep things functioning happens outside these hours.

I have a lot of friends who are shiftworkers and they have said that some things make a difference to the impact that this has on life and health such as fixed rather than rotating rosters, working 4 days on then 4 days off to give your body time to recover etc. I know from friends who are shiftworkers that there tends to be quite a bit of camaraderie around people who work nights wanting to swap shifts, take leave etc so they can get to family events and obviously taking leave was an option available to Cathy Casey (as it should be), I thought what seemed to be stink was the fact that the decision was treated as public property.

Hugh said...

Yea, Julie, that sounds ridiculous and, as you say, anti-democratic. If members are supposed to be a blank slate before every vote, then how are voters supposed to know whom to vote for? On the quality of their decision-making skills, I guess... still seems like a rather foolish state of affairs. Open-mindedness might be admirable but you can't legislate it into being.

Jelna said...

Im not a politician. I have a job working for a cleaning company. If my boss tells me to do a double shift, I dont have the luxury of saying no. If I say no, the roster maanger will stop giving me shifts. I need all the shifts I can get. I have no money savings. This is what its like. People ARE like robots. Thats our life. Nobody will ask me if its my daughters birthday they dont care about it.

Julie said...

@katy "I thought what seemed to be stink was the fact that the decision was treated as public property." Can you explain this a bit more please? Ta.

@Jelna That sucks. I've worked in jobs like that too, and sadly I think a lot of businesses (and other organisations) are structured in a way that denies workers' humanity. It seems very wrong to me that the jobs in which we are required to work really hard, with little power, are often also the ones in which we aren't compensated for those losses financially or with better conditions.

I guess the question is how do we make that better? Is it better to have everyone be treated like robots, so at least we're all in an equally bad situation (and possibly more likely to band together to reject it?), or is it better to have some who aren't, and try to get us all to that position?