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Creating venal politics

Written By: - Date published: 9:00 am, April 11th, 2009 - 13 comments
Categories: auckland supercity, democracy under attack, local government - Tags: , ,


It appears that John Key and Rodney Hide are participating in an old political action in Auckland – the gerrymander. From a general desire from politically aware Aucklanders to get a more coherent local government for the city, they have constructed a political system for business to completely dominate the city. Democratic and public spirited efforts will be stifled by directing it into ineffectual local boards.

The proposal trumpeted by John and Rodney has all of the hallmarks of a system designed to be a make a virtue of  venality. The question is if this is what is intended?

Forget the local boards. They will have probably less effective power than the current community boards. I’d agree No Right Turn with his eloquent dismissal of “..simply a DHB-style blame sink..”. In other words, they will primarily be there for people to complain to and about for things that they have no real control over.

Funding decisions about where money goes and what it is spent on will be made at the super-city council. The left should simply ignore these local boards as being ineffectual sops to the idea of local engagement. Effort and resources should be concentrated on the council.

The super city council is made up of 12 councilors elected from wards and 8 elected “at large”.

This means that the wards will probably be in the order of 110,000 to 120,000 voters each – far more than double the size of the current national electorates. In Auckland electorate seats are about 50,000 potential voters, usually about 45,000 registered to vote, and usually about 35,000 actually vote (numbers vary between different areas of the city). The electorate seats are formed roughly around coherent communities, and can easily be argued as being too large for the task.

The most compact wards would probably be on the Auckland isthmus. Obviously the wards haven’t been defined yet, but one of these wards by population could largely cover the current Auckland Central, Mount Albert and Mount Roskill electorates. In other words, from the Gulf islands to Avondale and Hillsborough. No ward would have any significant commonality of issues.

It is difficult to see how a single councilor could successfully represent the citizens of such areas. For that matter it is difficult to see how a person could campaign in such an area without having a need for a *lot* of money for their campaign. If you look at the population of cities in NZ, Rodney Hide is expecting each ward councilor to represent a population the size of Dunedin or Tauranga.

The case gets even worse with the at-large councilors. They have to campaign in an electorate of 1.4 million people. The only effective way will be to use mass-media with even higher campaign costs, and presumably without the support and caps of the country-wide campaigns.

It is noticeable that the government’s proposal completely ignores caps on candidate spending and questions on transparency of donations.

However the Royal Commission noted that section 111 of the Local Electoral Act 2001 applied.  This would limit ward councilors to $55,000, and “at large” councilors and the mayor to $70,000.

These limits only relate to advertising and direct promotion during the 3 month election period. For instance they would not cover setting up a phone bank or the volunteers that staff it. Even these limits are ridiculously low. Sending a letter to all constituents would probably blow the limits. However to raise them would make the amounts of money that would have to be raised for campaigns absolutely ridiculous. Either way we get into the old troubled issue of transparency of influence.

Donations aggregating to a person over $1000 must be reported. But donations may be anonymous. Furthermore (and I could be wrong here), my reading of the act seems to say that only donations received in the three months before an election need to be reported. This suggests that it would be convenient to subvert the donation system by either donating prior to the election and/or anonymously to avoid any transparency. You can just imagine the palms being greased to change policy, and absolutely no information about how the decision making process has been affected.

The governments proposals show all of the signs of a classic gerrymander. They will not deliver any effective form of democratic engagement where taxes are raised or disbursed. The decision making will be concentrated in a group of councilors whose defining characteristic is likely to be how much money they can bring to their election campaigns. They will have to raise most of this money every 4 years, which will likely leave them beholden to anonymous large contributors. Presumably businesses looking for their own advantage.

The rate of voter participation in local bodies in Auckland is already about half of that of a general election (and falling). This proposed system looks likely to build a self-perpetuating political ‘elite’ based on a foundation of ‘anonymous’ donations and making decisions for their donors. I’d expect voter participation to keep falling even more rapidly.

Welcome to the ‘democratic’ world the way that NACT wishes it would operate. The world of large anonymous donations running my city – it is venal.

Update: It was pointed out that Matt McCarten had said much the same and more a few weeks ago in “Is there a privatisation strategy to go with super-city plans?

13 comments on “Creating venal politics”

  1. Ron Shaw 1

    Venal and stupid.
    1. The “Super City” will suffer from diseconomies of scale. Up to a point the increasing size of an organisation can deliver economies of scale. Beyond that point the internal transaction costs of a large unwieldy bureaucracy cause costs to soar. We already see diseconomies with the Auckland City bureaucracy – making it bigger will make it worse.
    2. Each vote is less valuable because there are so many voter’s in each ward that a councillor can safely ignore greater proportions of his/her electorate. The same could apply to ‘at large’ councillors as these councillors only need to pander to special interest groups and can ignore others.
    3. The “Super City” bureaucracy will become disproportionately powerful as the power of the ordinary voter to hold them accountable diminishes.
    4. The dilution of the electorate’s power combined with the extra power residing in the employees of the council will kill any participatory democracy.
    The only reasonable conclusion is that the changes are designed to shut up pesky Aucklanders with different points of view to the ruling orthodoxy. As a classical liberal I find this distasteful – we need the contribution of everyone’s ideas, not the sterile mumblings of a few clapped out conservatives.

  2. jono 2

    I reckon the tories have used this opportunity to create a tory dominance in Auckland regardless of who is the national government. It will create a mayor who will have a stronger claim to being ‘democratically legitimate’ than anyone other than the PM, giving the Auckland mayor a very powerful position. It is also likely that the Auckland mayoralty will not be dominated by Waitakere and Manukau voters, but by Auckland central and North Shore voters. So you end up with a consistently tory mayoralty with enough political power to challenge any national government – thereby insulating the Auckland tories from future labour/left wing national governments.

  3. ak 3

    It’s 1989 all over again. “Efficiency” the catch-cry, the transfer of the rating burden to the less well-off (via incremental increases in the UAGC, user charges, privatisation of services) and voter apathy the the aim and inevitable result. Again. The Boards but a farcical sop: able to be ignored, vetoed, and delegated authority withdrawn at the drop of a hat. Local democracy in its long, continuing death throes: dragging local community with it.

  4. Sweetd 4


    A majority of Waitakere voters voted for Paula Bennet, National. Small spanner in your thinking there.

    • lprent 4.1

      You silly bugger – annoyingly incorrect. If you want to make claims please at least be precise.

      If you look at the number of people who were eligible to go on to the roll, I’d take a bet that less than 1 third of those voted for either National or Bennett. Hardly a majority..

      Although I can’t be bothered looking up the results… It is unlikely that even of the people who voted (ignoring the registered non-voters) that a majority voted for either National or Bennett. Typically the high results are about 40-45% for a given party / candidate. You forgot the 3rd parties.

      In the context of a local election most of the time a candidate is doing well to get elected with 15% of the possible vote. The votes tend to divide out amongst too many candidates.

      Maybe you need to learn something about voting..

      • Sweetd 4.1.1

        Yes, Iprent, my bad.

        However, if the local body elections run the same FPP format, then the result would be the same. My point was to Jono, that this is not a contest between team left (west and south) and team blue (north and central). There is much difference in all parts of auckland.

  5. BLiP 5

    The re-writing of the Commission’s recommendations and implementation of the “CEO with Board of Directors” model is essentially the National Party’s wet dream for how it would like to run the whole country. The disenfranchisment of the population, the concentration of power to a reduced and venal elite is nothing other than a set up for the wholesale distribution of infrastructure to John Key’s overseas mates.

    And who on the current council promised to protect the interest of the City’s weakest and most vulnerable – why, its none other than href=http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PA0904/S00152.htm>Double-Dipper Sam Lotu Iiga . And what’s he had to say about the situation: zip.

  6. BLiP 6

    The usurping of the findings and recommendations of the Royal Commission is the National Party’s wet dream for how it would like to run the whole country. The result is a business model complete with CEO and Board of Directors. Just what’s required for the wholesale distribution of the city’s infrastructure and services to John Key’s overseas mates.

    And who on the current council promised to protect the best interests of the region’s weakest and most vulnerable? Why, it was none other than href=http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PA0904/S00152.htm> Double-Dipper Sam “Lotto” Iinga . His parents must be so proud.

  7. John Dalley 7

    Sweetd. Waitakere is not West Auckland an i sure as hell would not have voted for Paula Bennett.
    While i am in favour of a Super City, not one with no teeth to the local representation level.
    I want those community boards to have budgets to allocate within their local areas so that things happen locally.

  8. rave 8

    Let’s see if the NZHerald’s (April 11) proposal wins any ground. A city council elected from the twenty Community Boards, plus 2 Maori members for the region, would preserve the figleaf of democracy. These 22 CBs could be based on existing parliamentary electorates, so that Auckland elections would become a mini-general election. There would also be an argument to apply MMP to the Auckland elections.I bet Rodney will shit all over this, but National might go for it without the MMP. Things have moved right too far for even the NZH it seems. Its one thing to be robbers, but a home invasion in broad daylight is something else.

    • lprent 8.1

      That would be something like what I’d put in place. Just base everything around the existing electorates. Then there will be a close basis for pressure on councilors by board members

      Ummm surprising that the NZH has anything useful to say. Guess I’d better read the site..

  9. ghostwhowalks 9

    deja vue all over again?

    Wasnt the original Auckland Regional Council, as created under the amalgamations of the late 1980s, having directly elected members from each parliamentary electorate , including the Maori electorate. – this was later downgraded ( by national) to the current dozen or so.

  10. ghostwhowalks 10

    here we go again from todays late herald Headline

    Hide rejects accusation he misled John Key over super city

    Mr Key told TV3’s Sunrise programme last Tuesday that “Rodney Hide did a lot of great work in the last sort of week or so, working closely with all the officials and listening to the community, spent time going out and talking to the various Mayors and different people”.

    However, Mr Williams( North Shore mayor) said the only mayor Mr Hide consulted with was Auckland City Mayor John Banks.

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