What's Rodney Hide up to?

With Auckland's governance inquiry drawing to a close soon, we can be pretty sure that our shiny, new, super-slim minister for Local Government is developing a cunning plan

As a general rule, it’s best to believe in cock-ups and coincidence over conspiracy. The reality of many issues is far more mundane than many like to think (note to Ian Wishart – the world isn’t being taken over by socialist-gay-feminist-atheist-fifth-columnists). But the jostling and activity building up behind the scenes of Auckland’s upcoming local body restructuring lends itself to dark thoughts of secret agendas and hidden plans.

It began a month or so ago when the Herald’s estimable Bernard Orsman revealed that the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance was going to recommend a super-city with a super-mayor with super powers. The story was big news. All other media gave it prominent coverage. But one aspect beloved of conspiricists was given little coverage: who was Bernard’s source?

At which point, it’s pleasurable to speculate about a plausible conspiracy playing out around none other than our shiny, new, super-slim minister for Local Government.

But, firstly, why not the Royal Commission itself? Royal Commission’s are very discreet beasts. They don’t tend to leak. They comprise persons of high standing and high ethics. The Herald’s source is unlikely to be from the inquiry team itself.

It’s also unlikely that it was any of the Byzantine, and very leaky, array of Auckland stakeholders – current mayors and councillors, the business community, etc. The Commissioners are smart as well as discreet – smart enough to know that to brief any of them is not the way to keep your report under wraps until completion. A disguised hint dropped to one party would be around the Auckland scene faster than a waspish Michael Cullen wisecrack.

But there is one stakeholder who is likely to have been briefed. Internal Affairs’ local government policy unit will have been working symbiotically with the inquiry, providing research and analysis to assist the Commissioners’ considerations of options. With a shiny, new minister for Local Government – recently warranted and keen to make a mark – it’s highly likely that he got from his officials a detailed briefing on where the Royal Commission is heading (if not a briefing directly from the Commissioners themselves – after all, if they had to trust someone, surely it would be shiny new minister, newly steeped in the Cabinet Manual’s rules, wouldn't it?).

So why would Rodney leak it? He would know, from listening to his mentor, Lord Douglas of Chicago, that if you have a radical solution, you foster a sense of urgency and move fast to get the solution in place before anyone rumbles to just how radical it is. To assist that, it helps to have in place a constituency for change, a climate of opinion supporting a new radical structure. This is happening – there aren’t too many residents of greater Auckland bemoaning the likely extinction of their local councils. Instead of debate about the pros and cons of a new structure, we’re hearing about the political aspirations of no-name actors who aspire to be the next Tim Shadbolt. The mind boggles.

Meanwhile, Hide has already announced that the Royal Commission’s report should be released a few weeks after the government receives it so that ministers have time to formulate a response. What he means by this is that he wants time for Cabinet to approve his response and legislation. In short order (the same day, most like), the report will be released, along with the government’s response, and (surprise!) legislation – which is immediately tabled and quickly passed under urgency.

But what about due process and Parliamentary checks and balances? Hide will argue that extensive consultation has occurred through the Royal Commission process, negating the need for select committee hearings, and, anyway, the legislation must be in place urgently if officials are going to be able to redraw city and ward boundaries in time for local body elections in October 2010. There is no alternative! (Welcome back, TINA).

Hide’s officials are no doubt be preparing legislation now. The danger is that it will be done to his specifications – gerrymandering a city and governance structure most likely to deliver a right-wing-John-Banks electoral outcome. One wouldn’t be surprised if buried in there are clauses paving the way for privatisations of assets, greater user charges for services, and prescriptions limiting the ‘general competence’ of the new structure.

Of course, this might all be fanciful. Maybe Rodney had nothing to do with it... Maybe he’s keen for extensive consultation and full scrutiny of Cabinet’s (his) decisions... And maybe he’s dead keen to see Bob Harvey as Lord Mayor of Greater Waitakere...