Local government needs the right people in communities

Auckland mayoral candidate Efeso Collins with Suveen Walgampola and others (photo provided)

Suveen Sanis Walgampola
Auckland, September 14, 2022

Political engagements are spaces where people in positions of power hear directly from the community. The setting isn’t often in places like my mom’s house.

Often, with political engagements, you would have a designated engagement day and had to go to a community hall at an absurd time when most people with full-time jobs and dependent families couldn’t make it. Discussions take place and decisions are made about this feedback which affects everyone, especially those who cannot attend these meetings.

I’m running for local council in Albert-Eden and I’ve been to a few of those local political engagement meetings. The only observation is always the lack of diversity within these spaces which hold a lot of power.

Refreshing nostalgia

But on a sunny Sunday afternoon, about 50 members of the Sri Lankan community gathered at my mother’s house with fresh Sri Lankan dishes prepared by close family friends.

It was different but familiar as I was surrounded by aunts and uncles who had known me since I could barely walk, causing trouble wherever I went. Now they’re sitting around a potential mayor and me, a candidate for local council, providing their thoughts and feedback on what they want to see.

This is a significant change for several different reasons. Breaking down barriers where candidates can directly engage with the community with candidates consulting in their spaces rather than having them come to their homes. If you’re going to engage with the Sri Lankan community, of course it should be in someone’s house with food, because that’s pretty much what we do every weekend.

Auckland mayoral candidate Efeso Collins with Sri Lankans and other communities (photo provided)

Consultation tent in the park

Another example of this was during a consultation at Windmill Park in Epsom.

Auckland Council set up a consultation tent in the park and around 40 Sri Lankans played a cricket tournament in the oval area. A spectacular site; however, some residents who came to the consultation thought the tennis ball cricket was a safety hazard to their properties, the music was disruptive and no one else could use the park. From their perspective, the cricket ground needed to be abandoned as it essentially attracts undesirables to their community who, and I quote, “don’t live in that area anyway” – not as they requested.

In traditional board consultation, these voices are the loudest and the only ones heard and put into action through board-funded development. But something different happened this time. Luckily, I knew the boys playing cricket and, in our mother tongue, convinced everyone to line up for a facilitated round of consultation. With Council staff receiving their feedback, our community using park services now has a say in its future development. Many of them had families and therefore wanted to have facilities where they could bring their children while they played their cricket tournaments.

Overall, these local elections are not that far away. With voter turnout typically at 30%, we need to do more within our communities to ensure that we actively participate in our democracy. Because, as we see in the two examples above, with the right people connected to the community, you can facilitate engagements that are simply not possible through traditional local council approaches and be able to create better outcomes for all communities that inhabit Aotearoa.

Suveen Sanis Walgampola is a candidate for City Vision for Maungawhau (Albert-Eden)