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Freedom fighter – behind the scenes with Marguerite Delbet

Published: 12 August 2019

If you want to help shape decisions that will make our city even better than it already is, you need to participate, either by standing as a candidate in the upcoming local elections or by voting.

If anyone knows the importance of democratic rights, it’s Marguerite Delbet, and it's her job to get Aucklanders involved in upcoming elections.

The former United Nations volunteer, now Auckland Council’s General Manager Democracy Services, was on the ground for some of the biggest general election breakthroughs in history – from Cambodia’s first free and fair elections after 25 years of war, to Nelson Mandela’s rise to become president of South Africa.

Now she’s using her passion for democracy to help break down barriers and increase participation this September when voting papers for the local body elections will be mailed out.

In 2010, when eight councils joined to form Auckland Council, the ensuing public interest in what the Herald called “the biggest and most complex merger in New Zealand’s local government and corporate history” led to a relatively high voter turnout of 51 per cent. This was up from 38 per cent in 2007. But in 2013, the trend of declining voter turnout – in this country and around the world – continued and it dropped to 35.4 per cent. In the last election, in 2016, it was still only 38.5 per cent.

Delbet, whose role includes organising and promoting the elections, is doing all she can to increase participation.

“It’s a privilege and duty for us to vote, and a choice many people died trying to get,” she says.

And she doesn’t want Aucklanders to take that right for granted. Born in France, Delbet says the history of the French Revolution was very much ingrained in her as a child, and triggered her passion for democracy. When she left Paris at 24 to volunteer with the UN in Cambodia as a district supervisor for the 1993 general elections, she and 20,000 others walked into a war-ravaged country with no infrastructure.

Deployed in Toul Kork, a district in Phnom Penh, she set up an electoral office with local staff and assisted in delivering a free and fair voting system that included registration, campaign monitoring, and manning frantically busy polling stations. With the help of interpreters, she trained her team to make registration cards with inked fingerprints for people who couldn’t sign their name, which were then laminated.

“We even had a little Polaroid camera to take the person’s photo. People became very attached to their cards because, for most, it was their only form of ID.”

A part of history

During her time in Cambodia, Delbet travelled to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, for a few months to volunteer as an international observer for the republic’s first general multi-racial elections, in 1994.

“We saw old people walk from all over the countryside to go to polling stations, and young children pushing their grandmother in a wheelbarrow,” she says.

“When Mandela was elected, the national outcry of joy was absolutely incredible. We were really a part of history in action.”

After that, elections were in her DNA. “Having witnessed the yearning people had for a democratic regime – where they could be free of fear, have a chance to succeed and just be happy – it made me realise how fundamental it is to us.”

Delbet moved to Wellington in 1995 and held senior leadership roles at the State Services Commission and Ministry of Justice, before starting with Auckland Council six years ago.

Informed choices

The city is one of the most culturally diverse centres in the world, so a big part of her job is supporting the use of multi-lingual voting information and working with engagement partners for the Chinese, Indian, Pacific and youth populations to ensure these groups get the facts needed to allow them to put their names forward as candidates or to make an informed choice when voting.

“Our politicians make billions of dollars of investments for Auckland that are going to shape the way our city works,” she says.

“Having seen what a non-democratic country looks like and what it means for people on an everyday basis, voting is absolutely core for me."

Local election nominations close on 16 August

Don’t wait until the last minute to submit your election nomination forms.

Nomination forms are available via voteauckland.co.nz, along with other useful resources such as the pre-election report. There’s also information about how to campaign, skill requirements, and the roles and responsibilities of elected members.

Visit voteauckland.co.nz for more information.

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