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Nats ramp up attacks on local government

Written By: - Date published: 12:19 pm, June 8th, 2012 - 21 comments
Categories: democracy under attack, local government - Tags:

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.

A recipe for local body dictatorship

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.

Another nasty surprise

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.

21 comments on “Nats ramp up attacks on local government”

  1. Carol 1

    Following the experiences of the shift to Auckland supercity, it seems to me that the current shifts are towards a top-down form of organisation of local authorities. NAct seem to organise such things so as to stifle any grassroots input or consultation. They are inherently anti-democratic.

    I also have some concerns about the way that the Whau Board was set up with the supercity, which amounts to gerrymandering. And there was no consultation with people in the area before this was done. This seems to have split off New Lynn from the west – the west was pretty crucial in not supporting a vote for Banks as Mayor.

    New Lynn has continued to be the centre of re-development (begun under the Labour government and Waitakere Council).

    But now the revitalisation is serving to shift the centre of the West from Henderson, to New Lynn, which is now amalgamated with Auckland central city.

    http://www.localcouncils.govt.nz/lgip.nsf/wpg_URL/Profiles-Auckland-Council-Local-Boards-Auckland-Council-Local-Board-Whau?OpenDocument

    http://www.aucklandcouncil.govt.nz/SiteCollectionDocuments/ward_whau.pdf

    • ad 1.1

      Surely it can’t be that hard to find a hard-wrking and recognisable candidate to have a proper crack at Noelene Raffils? The MP has been Labour in New Lynn since it was invented. Surely the left can get their act together in the next local elections?

      • mickysavage 1.1.1

        Ross Clow almost did it last time standing as an independent.  He is in the Labour Party.  He was previously a Waitakere City Councillor and is the chair of the Portage Licensing Trust.  I understand he is keen to stand again.  He would be a great improvement.

        • Carol 1.1.1.1

          Ah, I hope so, Micky.

          I recently had to move, and am in another part of the west, so won’t get to vote in Whau next time. But I still have significant links in the area, and have been watching what’s happening in New Lynn. Also, what happens there will clearly have an impact on the whole of west Auckland.

  2. ianmac 2

    Wonder how that Northern district where they have an $80million sewerage scheme debt, would fare? Perhaps the Government would declare it in need and sack the Council and clear the debt.
    The big question of preserving Democracy as I/S writes, does need eternal vigilance.

    • Dr Terry 2.1

      Too late to “preserve democracy, because there aint none anymore, since the day this country found their new Nero in Key. A case can be made that the country actually opted out of democracy in 2008.
      “Oh, what a fall there was . . . “

  3. True Freedom is Self-Governance 3

    So, they’re up for some good old-fashioned boundary moving, George Double-yah style? If we make sure all the poorest (probably darkest, too) people are within a limited number of electorates then they cant get too many seats. What an underhanded way to make sure that certain people’s votes dont count.

  4. ad 4

    It would be great if this was able to be read generously – as if central government wanted to integrate central and local government together into common accountability platforms that could make the most of every kind of public agency.

    But that hasn’t been the experience. The experience is to completely reverse the grassroots democratisation intent of the 2002 Act, and just corporatise everything into specialist disciplines with very little interaction other than in very formal conduits such as LTP and RLTP.

    Local Government has gone – particularly in the Auckland case – from a participatory to a representative model of democracy, almost overnight.

    Listening recently to really cold people in massively damaged houses in Christchurch shivering after a snowstorm when the whole public sector has left them to the mercy of market forces was pretty stark. It’s the job of the public sector to intervene in a case like that, with all the housing and Public Works powers and facilities it has at its disposal.

    But not according to this merciles Government.

    A Micahel Joseph Savage approach to both the reform (ECAN) and rebuild of Christchurch would look quite different, one suspects.

  5. Horus 5

    It’s not a surprise but it is nasty! In Hawke’s Bay, the Hastings District Council has for years been trying to ‘absorb’ Napier to create a Hawke’s Bay District Council. However, the people of Napier have repeatedly opposed these overtures. Hastings being the larger of the two is highly indebted and has not come up with a prudent way to resolve their debt other than by taking over Napier, who has lucrative assets such as the Napier port and shared airport.

    With the Local Government Act Amendment, the mayor of Hastings can’t wait until he can make his land grab.

  6. Jimmie 6

    There are two things that should require central government approval.

    1 Debt taken on by local councils for capital projects.

    2 General rates increases over/above the rate of inflation

    If each council was forced to justify either of the above to a government minister or board it would help avoid fiscal nightmares (which future rate payers have to deal with) such as happened in Dunedin with their stadium.

    Also why councils think that increasing rates year after year is their God given right is beyond me – often I think councillors simply don’t have the financial acumen to run their councils – and don’t get me started on senior council staff pay rates…..

    • Murray Olsen 6.1

      I can’t see a NAct government thinking that the building of a rugby stadium is ever a bad idea. I can’t see them thinking that the building of safe public housing is ever a good idea. Whatever the problem is with local government, running it from Wellington is not the solution.

    • Colonial Viper 6.2

      Also why councils think that increasing rates year after year is their God given right is beyond me – often I think councillors simply don’t have the financial acumen to run their councils – and don’t get me started on senior council staff pay rates…..

      They’re stuck in a model of unsustainable economic growth.

      And you can solve the problem of excessive pay rates by introducing 49% and 59% income tax brackets.

  7. rosy 7

    The biggest problem with local government is that so many people simply don’t care about the entity that has the single biggest impact on their everyday lives – from whether the rubbish is collected to whether a factory is built next door – and that is allowing the government to simply remove people’s democratic rights with little opposition, it’s despicable that the government is using this to set up mini dictatorships.

    In terms of local government my view is that NZ is too small, population-wise for the number of local councils and elected representatives that we have. I’m all for direct democracy – a council CEO, and an army of technocrats who put together a 5-year plan and signal future concerns; and bureaucrats who deal with the day to day running of a city. Town hall meetings are run to gain approval of council plans.

    Instead of a mayor there is a liaison person to deal with central government and government advocates for the local body areas.

    Planning legislation and environmental legislation to be paid out of central government funds. There is no way that some small councils can adequately fund the planning process or provide the technical expertise for some major developments.

    • Roger 7.1

      Rosy, I disagree with your comment: “I’m all for direct democracy – a council CEO, and an army of technocrats who put together a 5-year plan and signal future concerns; and bureaucrats who deal with the day to day running of a city. Town hall meetings are run to gain approval of council plans.”

      Your “direct democracy” sounds like something modelled on fascism. A better model would be a decentralised community-based participatory model where residents decide on the priorities and elect representatives to ensure they are delivered. Council CEOs already have considerable power we dont’ need to give them more. In fact if you don’t value local democratic input and your goal is efficient delivery of services then you end up abolishing local government all together and handing it all over to central government. Local decisions are best made locally – by those most impacted by them.

      • rosy 7.1.1

        hehe – fair enough it does read a bit like that – unintentional… I truly believe communities should decide how their city should be. Of course community meetings and community decision-making should come first, definitely, then the technocrats make their 5-year plans based on submissions from the community. Conflicting interests are sorted at town hall meetings when the council are in a position to provide information about how the submissions would work in practice – cost, environment, safety – alls those things that the general community should not be expected to have expertise in (although they may).

        The most important thing to me is that people are involved in approving decisions – not some councillors that around 30 percent of people have voted for, because others don’t understand, and are alienated from the process of how their city runs – and they are unaware of the implications.

  8. tsmithfield 8

    If anyone saw Campbell on TV3 tonight, they would realise that the elected numpties who ran the ECANT for 10 years stonewalled the introduction of a super-efficient wood burner that produced virtually no smoke or particulates.

    At least now the commissioners in charge have recognised its value and are pushing to allow suitably efficient wood burners in Christchurch, which at least allow people to stay warm if there is an earthquake or snowstorm that cuts power.

    • Te Reo Putake 8.1

      Yeah, because earthquakes and once in a hundred year snowstorms were so commonplace back when they were making the decision? The numpty is you, TS. Ending the reliance on woodburners was a commonsense response to a significant problem that made the city a smog bound hole every winter. I can’t wait for this dismally average government to be gone from our lives. You’ve just added another reason to wish for an early election.

    • Draco T Bastard 8.2

      What would actually be better would be retrofitting the houses up to reasonable standards and putting some solar panels on the roofs to run the heat pump. Unfortunately, the government (both local and central) are too stuck in their old, cheap and nasty, ways to do that.

      • tsmithfield 8.2.1

        “Ending the reliance on woodburners was a commonsense response to a significant problem that made the city a smog bound hole every winter”

        One point is that the woodburner that was the subject of the Campbell show produces particulates of 0.5 grams for every kilo of wood burnt. That is, virtually nothing. So, if all the inefficient burners were replaced with this one, the smog problem would be solved.

        Another point is that the elected numpties have allowed pellet fires over this period, which, while highly efficient, are not as efficient as the wood burner on TV3 last night. So, the resistance to the burner has been ideological and stupid.

        Finally, moving the city to electricity over wood burners is putting considerable extra load on our power system, pushing up prices. The demand for extra power is not without environmental costs in terms of C02 when coal generators are fired up, or environmental damage when new dams are built.

  9. Max Moss 9

    New Zealand is NOT a democracy. It is a parliamentary dictatorship.

    The next great battle will be for democracy: for the voters to be able to stop actions of parliament (via binding citizen initiated referendums) and for voters to have decision making power over local matters without interference from parliament.

    I predict there will be no support from our Labour MP’s for democratic reforms. I strongly support my local Labour MP, but only because I think he will be a better dictator than a Tory dictator. But what I really want is democracy, not another left wing dictatorship.

  10. captain hook 10

    they about to railroad the Wairarapa shortly and fold it into the wellington patronage machine with no representation.
    democracy it aint.

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