The hide of Hide

Local government minister Rodney Hide didn't earn the nickname "Rhino" for nothing. Still trying to ramrod Super-City government into Auckland, he is now taking on the rest of New Zealand

Rodney Hide romped into the tiny studio at Stratos-Triangle Television fresh from  another meeting with the fractious mayors of Auckland. He was cackling over the fact that North Shore mayor Andrew Williams had just called him a liar. He chalked it up as a victory. Williams had lost the sympathy of the audience by going over the top. Well, that was the way Hide saw it—and he is the eternal optimist of New Zealand politics.

We were meeting to record an interview about the storm-clouds gathering over his super-city plan. I'm suggesting that no-one likes the way local government works in Auckland today. The rates seem to rise faster than the traffic moves, and decisions on major infrastructure seem constantly gridlocked. But Hide's plan for change is not winning many champions, beyond the city business community and the ambitious mayor of little Auckland city, John Banks.

Grassroots community groups are lambasting its "big is best" approach to local government. Local body politicians are flailing each other in a preliminary run for the limited number of seats that will be left next year. Maori have jammed the streets in a hikoi protest. Labour paints it as a plan for a "rich prick's" council seeking to profit from a subsequent sale of local government assets.

National's prospects for narrowing the gap in the by-election to fill Helen Clark's Mount Albert seat are being incinerated by a combination of super-city backlash, a fluffed motorway extension announcement, a boring budget, a gaffe-prone candidate, and John Key's embarrassed retreat from his reference to John Banks as the "super-mayor" of Auckland city.

No wonder Hide's plan is such an issue. Look at how it all began. He took just two weeks to rewrite the recommendations of a Royal Commission that had spent 17 months in consulting, investigating, and cost-benefiting its proposals. Out went its plan for a 23 seat super-council with specific provisions for Maori representation, and six subsidiary local councils. In came Hides plan for a 21 seat super-council, no specific provision for Maori representation, no local councils, but 20 to 30 community boards with a very limited, largely advisory role. Then, he tried to sell it as a minor rewrite of the Royal Commission report, only more democratic.

No way, said all the Auckland mayors—except John Banks. Hide did not consult them in preparing his plan. What is more, he had advised his colleagues that there should be no consultation outside the select committee process during the passage of the empowering legislation. Then, he had the first legislation setting up the organisation to manage the transition to super-city governance passed under urgency.

Predictably, the Maori Party members of the coalition government were the first to break ranks. Of course, they want the Royal Commission's plan for specific Maori representation. John Key put the case for change quite nicely: it was a democratic problem to have some super-councilors elected by majority vote and others appointed by minority institutions. John Banks put it more bluntly: it was a kind of apartheid.

As the howls from Auckland grew louder, the National majority sensed the need for damage control in the region that makes or breaks New Zealand governments. Key begins pouring tanker loads of oil on troubled waters.

Using his increasingly familiar mantra—"nothing is cast in stone"—Key opens up consultation with mayors and Maori. His West Auckland social development minister, Paula Bennett, moves ahead with plans for an Auckland social policy forum and presses the case for community involvement in social service delivery - over Hide's objections that it was not core council business. Associate minister of local government John Carter takes the chair of a special select committee to handle the governance reform, and kick-starts community consultation before it has more empowering legislation to review.

It all looks like Hide is being sidelined—or hung out to dry.

Yet here is Rodney Hide, beaming his way onto the studio floor, ready to face the music and dance.

How on earth can his plan be more democratic and representative when it concentrates decision-making in the hands of 20 elected councilors and one mayor, while the Royal Commission would involve more than 100 elected councilors in regional and local decisions?

Hide says the Royal Commission blurred the lines between regional and local responsibility, and did not create enough scope for local community input. He will keep the line clear, and fill the input gap with 20 to 30 community boards.

How do you sell the idea that 20 to 30 community boards have any real influence when their role is advisory and their functions are restricted to heavy duties like bottle store and brothel licensing, dog control and graffiti patrol?

Hide is apologetic about creating that perception. He says sorry. He is now talking about devolving some real decision-making power to local boards, including control over specific amounts of local expenditure. That will be addressed in the next round of legislation, with a select committee review to provide public consultation.

What about Paula Bennett's move to create an Auckland social policy forum?

Hide claims ownership of the idea. He says he suggested it to Paula Bennett. No problem. We will see.

Doesn't he see the danger in shrinking the number of councilors and delivering more power to the new all-encompassing, non-elected bureaucracy?

That's a real danger, Hide admits. It is also why he is now talking about devolving more authority to local boards, defining core council business that can be carried out under their authority, and requiring referenda to endorse the provision of "extras"—like major new projects and social and cultural spending.

And when did he develop these concepts—before or after the backlash?

Hide says soon after his appointment as minister of local government he presented them in a paper to cabinet colleagues advising them of his approach to his portfolio responsibilities. That paper has just been released under the Official Information Act. It is nothing new to him and his cabinet colleagues, even if it is news to you. Hide will be introducing broad empowering legislation for parliamentary consideration and public consultation before the local government elections next year.

Yes, Rodney is ready to rock 'n roll. The only advice I can offer is: look out New Zealand, the Rhino is heading your way too!