The neoliberals hate democracy. It tends to get in the way. Especially local government. It’s easier to control a single unicameral Parliament than it is to control 70-odd territorial authorities. National has attacked local government, particularly in Auckland and Canterbury but now they’re going all out with more dictatorships and forced mergers.
I/S at No Right Turn explains two nasty elements of National’s new local government bill.
Two years ago, the Government imposed a dictatorship in Canterbury, suspending elections to Environment Canterbury, removing the elected councillors, and replacing them with a pack of unelected cronies with a mandate to run Canterbury in the interests of Wellington, not local residents. The move went far beyond what was permitted under the Local Government Act, and required special enabling legislation (which was of course rammed through under all-stages urgency). Now the government wants the power to do this to any council, whenever they want.
The new Local Government Act 2002 Amendment Bill introduced to the House yesterday contains exactly that power. Here’s how it works: first, the Minister of Local Government declares that there is a “problem” in a local authority. What’s a “problem”? Pretty much anything they want:
a matter or circumstance relating to the management or governance of the local authority that detracts from, or is likely to detract from, its ability to give effect to the purpose of local government within its district or region
Note that such a “problem” doesn’t actually have to be occurring; a potential problem – something the Minister thinks might happen – is enough.
The next step is to appoint a Crown Review Team. Currently, this requires that there be outright refusal by local government to comply with the law, which is impairing good governance or endangering public health. Now it merely requires the Minister to believe on reasonable grounds that there is a “significant” (meaning: likely to have adverse consequences – note the lack of scale in there) problem that the local authority can’t or won’t solve. Finally, if the Crown Review Team recommends it – and of course if the Minister picks the right crony, they will recommend whatever is desired – the Minister can roll the elected members, suspend elections, and impose a dictatorship (complete with terms of reference requiring them to act against the will of local voters). And this isn’t a short-term, limited power – such a dictatorship can last indefinitely.
Want a concrete example? Consider this: Christchurch has had an earthquake. This is a “problem” in terms of the new amendment. It is struggling to pay to rebuild its infrastructure after said earthquake, and raising rates and borrowing money in the process. This too is a “problem”.
The government thinks Christchurch should pay for that rebuild by selling its local body assets to their cronies, so they can extort monopoly rents from earthquake victims while paying lower rates on their expensive houses in Fendalton and Merivale and Cashmere. The council, responsive to its people, disagrees. At this stage, the government can either appoint a crony to “review” the council and recommend that it be rolled, or it can just declare that the earthquake rebuild is a “significant” problem, that failing to deal with it (e.g. by quickly rebuilding sewers and water infrastructure) endangers public health, that the Christchurch City Council isn’t willing to deal with it properly (because they’re not willing to pillage their city against the will of its people “take the financial steps necessary to ensure a faster rebuild”), et voila! Jenny Shipley gets another crony job, as unelected Mayor of Christchurch.
Don’t think it will happen? Wait and see.
(Interestingly, under the new rules, it will be easier for the government to suspend elections than call new ones. Which is a little odd, when you think about it)
Ministerial intervention powers are necessary when local government fails. But these go well beyond what is necessary, and allow the democratic decisions of local communities to be overturned by a central government which thinks it knows better. That is undemocratic, and it is wrong. These powers should not be enacted.
While we’re on the topic of the government’s new Local Government Act 2002 Amendment Bill, it has another nasty surprise: mergers. Currently, local bodies can only be reorganised (have their boundaries or responsibilities changed, or be merged or split) on application from the local authority, the Minister, or a petition signed by 10% of the electors of that authority. The new rules would abolish the petition requirement and instead allow “any body or group with an interest in the governance of the area or areas that the reorganisation application relates to” to make an application. So your unelected local Chamber of Commerce can force a reorganisation proposal, without any democratic mandate to do so.
It gets worse. Currently if a reorganisation involves a local authority being abolished, merged, or split, it must be put to the voters. In order to pass, it must gain a majority in each district affected. Under the new rules, there’s no requirement to have a vote. If local residents want one, they have to get 10% of eligible voters (which means about 20% of actual local body voters) to sign a petition demanding one. Otherwise, it just happens. How much time do they have to gather those signatures? 40 working days. That’s not a “democratic check”; it’s a bad joke. And even if they gather those signatures to force a poll, it passes or fails on a simple majority. So people elsewhere can vote to abolish your local government, take over your community, and sideline you from control of it.
…which is precisely the point: to let big communities take over and rule smaller ones against their will. Whatever you want to call this, it isn’t democracy.