Elizabeth Yates

Tēnā koutou. Last time I spoke a little about the 1893 Electoral Act which saw New Zealand become the first self-governing country in the world in which all women had the right to vote in parliamentary elections. Women were able to vote for the first time in that November's general election. What perhaps is not as well known is that women rate payers had already been able to vote in local body elections and on 29 November, the day after the general election, Elizabeth Yates was elected mayor of the borough of Onehunga – the first woman in the British Empire to hold such an office. Elizabeth’s husband, Captain Michael Yates, had been a member of the Onehunga Borough Council since 1885 and mayor from 1888 to 1892, when ill health forced his retirement. The following year Elizabeth, who was a strong supporter of the women’s suffrage movement, accepted nomination for the office of mayor. After a ‘spirited contest’ she defeated her only opponent, local draper Frederick Court, by 13 votes to become the first ‘lady mayor’ in the British Empire. Her victory was big news in New Zealand and around the empire, and she received congratulations from both Premier Richard Seddon and Queen Victoria. Not everyone was happy: four councillors and the town clerk resigned in protest, others resisted her every move, and council meetings were often unruly. At the next mayoral election, on 28 November 1894, Yates was soundly defeated. She was voted onto the Onehunga Borough Council in September 1899 and served until April 1901.

With the country in the midst of local body elections (a postal ballot for local office runs from 20 September to midday Saturday 12 October 2013) it is worth reflecting on the role women have played in local government since. Women have been elected to the mayoralties of the country's largest centres as well as many other towns and districts. They have also been prominent in the various councils, district health boards hospital boards and the like which are the backbone of local government. It is also worth thinking about what these local elections say about our attitudes to politics in general. Given how hard people fought to obtain the right to vote there has been increasing concern over voter apathy when it comes time to exercising this right. In the 2011 general election just over 74%of eligible voters bothered to exercise thier right, the lowest turnout since 1887. The turnout for local body elections is even lower. In 2010 a little over 47% of eligible voters bothered - although this was up from 44 per cent in 2007. The local body turnout is perhaps more disturbing given the convenience of a postal ballot which means people can vote from the comfort of their own home. As this year's local elections will take place during the school holidays they may well drop off the radar all together as far as some schools and teachers are concerned. My challenge to you is to consider how you might incorporate some discussion and analysis of the local elections into your classrooms. Even if you have no set unit in mind it could still be worth having a broad discussion of how New Zealanders participate (or not) in the political process. Have New Zealanders lost interest in politics? Why do so many not seem to care about who runs our local affairs, or indeed our country?

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