Posted on June 24, 2015
Wikipedia provides a helpful outline of what an abstention is (in a political context), and what the classic reasons/justifications are for it.
Of course it’s commonly considered a protest vote when a politician doesn’t want to support an issue (a budget say) because of a particular problem they have with it or part of it (eg. the decisions aren’t the ones that were consulted on, or they run counter to the submissions feedback).
But it is also referred to when a politician has a particular view (eg. a new transport rate has not been struck fairly) but that is not the same as a prevailing or “popular” view (eg. all the decisions have been made and we can’t make any changes or we will look like amateurs).
Rather than vote against it, which might be more consistent with their “conscience”, they abstain to avoid (ironically) greater political scrutiny.
Another reason for abstaining is sited when the politician does not know enough about the issue or perhaps has not been part of previous debates on it. This explanation is usually given greater weight when the process has not been well led by the Chairperson/Mayor.
Abstaining is often most justified and indeed expected when a conflict of interest exists on the issue. Although conventional local government practice is to record that you “neither spoke nor voted”. (And issues around the design of a transport rate aren’t usually the basis for a conflict).
I quite like the explanation justifying abstention which is because “voting doesn’t change anything”. Certainly there are a good few of us who are part of Auckland Council that sometimes think that.
Any elected member contemplating abstaining though should also consider another Wikipedia definition, that of a councillor. Apparently one of the skills expected of councillors is to: “executive decision making, political leadership,…and community representation.”
Who could abstain on that?