Super city debate gets super heated

Aucklanders are giving the government’s super city plan the kind of reception that makes a lead balloon look positively stratospheric. Can Rodney Hide and Steven Joyce pull the Key coalition’s irons out of the fire?

Debate over new legislation normally drops under the radar once it moves into a select committee for a quiet makeover. The government’s grand plan to unite the warring suburbs, cities and districts of Auckland into a united super city is turning into a grand exception.

In one sense, super city bill No. 3 has succeeded. The squabbling councils and community boards are now united. Unfortunately for the government, it is expressed in a near universal distaste for the bill that produce a massive reduction in elected representation across the region and an equally massive transfer of power from elected councils to non-elected, so-called “council controlled organizations”.

The more Aucklanders get to know about the super city plan, the less they like it. In February, the Herald on Sunday published a Buzz Channel poll showing that nearly 57% of respondents wanted to keep their eight local councils, while just 43% favour change. It found 71% think the changes have been rushed, and two-thirds of respondents think Aucklanders have been ignored.

By the time the special parliamentary select committee considering the latest super city bill wrapped up its hearings at the start of this month, it had received a flood of heavily critical submissions from councils and community members and endured the extraordinary experience of having one of its own members – Labour’s Phil Twyford – organize a minor public demonstration against its process.

Even Auckland city mayor John Banks – one of the early champions of change – now proclaims himself “outside the tent” and opposed to Wellington bureaucrats and government ministers telling his people what to do. He is worried that some of that Wellington tarnish is going to rub off on him, as he battles to overtake the early lead taken by Manukau’s Len Brown in the race for the super mayoralty.

No-one is waiting for the select committee to report back to parliament. The gloves are well and truly off in a bare-knuckle series of bouts, mainly through the opinion columns of the Herald.

The local body politicians are focusing most of their spleen on bill’s provisions to empower council controlled organizations [CCOs] and constrain elected representatives rights to influence them other than through a vaguely defined long term “Spatial Plan” for the region and annually negotiated statements of intent.

The cabinet ministers driving the super city reform – Rodney Hide and Stephen Joyce – have started firing back. Their main line of their defensive assault is that if the local politicians had been doing their job, none of this would have been necessary. There, they are on safe ground. However, they wander into a minefield when they go on to assert that there is nothing new about the council-controlled organizations they want to establish – and Auckland already has a heap of them.

Hide and Joyce conveniently forget that the existing council-controlled organizations in New Zealand have been established by the councils that control them and appoint their boards of directors. None of them have the scale and sweep of those planned for the super city. None of them have been specifically established and enshrined in an Act of Parliament that will have to be amended if Auckland’s super council wants to make a change. None of them have boards of directors that have initially been selected and appointed for up to three years by a central government agency. And none of them have limits set by central government on the number of councilors who can sit on their boards. It is a total misnomer to say such organizations will be “council controlled” in the super city.

As the super city bill No.3 stands, the most powerful of these organizations is Auckland Transport – the body that will spend about half the super council’s funds and will plan and deliver everything from roads to byways and footpaths to every form of public transport that runs over them and a couple that don’t [passenger rail and ferry services].

Its non-elected directors have the powers of a regional council. It is not required to implement the “spatial plan” of the super council or the local plans of the local boards. Its objectives and considerations are confined to the provision of an “affordable, integrated, responsive and sustainable land transport system” without consideration of other broader community values. It is only required to conduct its business in public when it is passing by-laws. It even enjoys statutory protection. Councils and local boards are prohibited from assuming any of its functions, without its approval. It is hard to see a shred of “council control” in this recipe.

Auckland local body politicians are successfully converting the non-elected directors of Auckland Transport and its rather similar companions, Auckland Water and Auckland Waterfront Development into the bogey monsters of the super city – before they have even been identified.

Hide and Joyce show signs of quivering. Joyce has promised that Aucklanders will be consulted over the appointment of the CCO directors. Hide has gone further. It remains to be seen how long he stands behind the commitment he made in the following exchange with Mark Sainsbury.


SAINSBURY: “I thought I'd just check this off one more time ... You're saying when the Super Mayor is elected, and we have those elections ... If they don't like the look of the people that you and your mates in the Beehive put there, they can sack them - Day One."

HIDE: “Yes."

SAINSBURY: "Think they will do?"

HIDE: "No, because what we'll be doing is we'll be getting good people in consultation with Auckland. That's why it's going through Cabinet and we want to provide continuity. And so we'll have people that, whoever the mayor is, the council ... they'll actually say that was a damn good choice."

It strains credibility to suggest that the kind of high flying, experienced talents that we are repeatedly told will fill the boards of the super city’s “council controlled” organizations will be attracted to serve if this is the security of tenure they are promised.

It would also be interesting to know how Hide and Joyce proposed to consult the right Aucklanders about any appointments they are about to make. What do they know that we don’t?