National out to shrink local government, centralise by stealth

Rather than treating councils as a Beehive branch office, the government should pick up the phone and learn from council's local knowledge

The increasingly heated debate over the future direction of local government over the past 18 months has hardly been matched by rising level of interest from the public, whose eyes tend to glaze over at the very mention of those two words.

New Zealanders will get involved in local democracy when faced with direct and tangible impacts – the threatened reduction in services or the loss of open space to private developers, say. When it comes to more opaque questions, however – such as how structural reforms imposed from the top down enhance or imperil the environmental, economic or social wellbeing of communities like theirs – passion is quickly overwhelmed by indifference. This is a shame. Treasury-inspired reforms to the sector, mostly aimed at shrinking the role of local government to fit into a single PowerPoint slide, represent an assault on local democracy that deserve greater resistance.

The 'Better Local Government' reforms introduced by former minister Nick Smith are not all bad, and some were overdue. Communities ought to welcome discussion about what councils should and should not do, as well as about their shape and size. The government, which prides itself on controlling departmental budget growth, expects the same from local government – a reasonable proposition.

However, the ethos that equates councils with government departments – and sees both as mere Beehive branch offices – is misguided and wrong. New Zealand is not a single tier democracy. Councils are held to account directly by the populations they serve and from which they source revenue. While it is proper that legislation constrains the activities of councils to prevent overreach and overlap, this doesn't mean that central government can usurp the democratic function of communities and insert itself as the primary stakeholder.

Make no mistake, this is the ideology at work here: Under the auspices of fiscal rectitude, the government is pursuing a policy of centralisation by stealth.

Even before these latest reforms, it is true that local government has long been treated in New Zealand law as an extension of central government, which empowers it to carry out certain regulatory and infrastructural functions. Recently, some councils have seen themselves as advocates, monitors and occasionally providers of what some might term social or community services (the kind that have so upset this government).

My contention is this; the best way to get effective and strategic decision making by government in New Zealand is to have the two levels working together.

Local government should be seen by central government as a ‘knowing eye and ear’; an extension to enhance government work and spending priorities in communities. One immense frustration for me as Mayor of Porirua is watching millions of dollars of government funding poured into some of our low income areas without the slightest consideration of whether it will improve the lives of our residents. Or whether the groups receiving the money have a positive reputation with their peers. If only central government picked up the phone to the council a bit more often, their spending could be so much better targeted.

For its part, local government must not continue to act out its role as the indolent dog that sits waiting to be either kicked or tickled by its master, depending on their mood. Too often, this has been the mindset of the local government sector.

We don't have a fully formed definition of what we are collectively about. By its very nature, every community has different values and aspirations about the things that are important locally. Therefore so every council is different as it seeks to live up to the wants and needs of residents. The sector finds it hard to articulate for itself in the face of attack, and therefore is an easy target for a government keen on illustrating profligacy and indebtedness in areas where it’s easy to lay blame without taking any responsibility.

The government has successfully vilified poor local government decisions and management such as the V8 race debacle in Hamilton or the 30% rates increase after infrastructure development in Kaipara.

It has said that the purpose statement needed to be narrowed to avoid these kind of disasters happening again. Councils, in other words, need reining in. This is an interesting assertion from a government that has been borrowing a couple of hundred million dollars every week to keep funding its day to day operational costs. Councils, by law, can’t do this; we can mainly only borrow for capital items relating to infrastructure. Our debt levels in most cases are manageable and prudent as defined by the ratios set by the Auditor General’s office.

Local government has proven itself an easy, perhaps irresistible, target. For its part, the Beehive has shown itself willing to use selective data and extreme examples as a pretext for ideologically-driven reforms, endangering an entire tier of democratic governance in the process.