Low Politics: Local Government and Globalisation

Listener 13 October, 2001.

Keywords Governance, Globalisation & Trade

‘Subsidiarity’ is an ugly word. It comes from Germany where they designed their governmental institutions on the principle that decisions should always be taken at the lowest practical level in the hierarchy. It is now a central principle of the European Union, so that Brussels may not make decisions which can be left to the individual member states, just as the German Federal Republic devolves political power to its constituent Lander (states).

Subsidiarity has a crucial role in the proliferating international agreements of the globalising world, maintaining that multinational agreements should only cover that which is absolutely necessary and so maximizing national autonomy. The principle is not explicitly a part of the international negotiations, but it is there implicitly. Thus the Multilateral Agreement on Investment in part broke down because some big players thought it was unnecessarily intrusive in areas where they felt local discretion was practical and justified. New Zealand is not a big country, but it would be in our interests to combine with other small nations who also get bullied in multilateral negotiations, to promote an ‘International Convention on Subsidiarity’.

To promote ‘subsidiarity’ internationally, we need to practice it nationally. Arguably our national policy framework has been moving in this direction over the last two decades, when many central government decisions were devolved to individuals, who are the lowest level in the political hierarchy. There was a time in which governments of the right and the left accrued an extraordinary range of powers to themselves. But sometime in the post-war era – I identify it with the generation of the 1960s, but of course the movement was not exclusive to a single decade – there developed a scepticism towards (and indeed a fearfulness of) this concentration of political power and its associated conformity. Instead the desire has been to ‘let many flowers bloom’. New Zealand always had a high degree of social heterogeneity, but we pretended the country could be represented by a single simple dominant culture (of rugby, racing and beer). It was not just alternative lifestylers who challenged the hegemony: women did via the feminist revolution, as did Maori, not to mention individuals who desire to be different in what one wore, what one drank, what one listened too … I suspect the ‘Third Way’, stripped of its rhetoric, is more influenced by this 1960s’ favouring of devolution and individual autonomy, than by any other single doctrine.

Sometimes it is not possible to devolve to the individual, but subsidiarity says that collective decisions should be left as low as possible too. Thus the ‘Tomorrows Schools’ reforms aimed to give parents and teachers greater control over the education system, and the Ministry of Education in Wellington less. (It did not quite work out as hoped, but that is another column.) This government has moved on and is now addressing the issue of subsidiarity in local government, although its consultation document “Review of The Local Government Act” does not explicitly use the term. By offering local authorities more autonomy, the proposal makes a major break in the long tradition starting in 1876 of central government bullying local government. (While notions of devolving power are in the political winds, the two key ministers Prime Minister Helen Clark and Local Government Minister Sandra Lee, both come from Auckland City. Any sane national politician would want the Aucklanders to largely sort out their problems themselves.)

To make the local body system work properly we need two further major changes. First, a collective entity (or an individual for that matter) has little autonomy or choice without sufficient income. The question of supplementary funding sources additional to rates has sat in the too-hard basket for years. The gravest weakness in the discussion document is it is hardly addresses funding.

Second, is the election of our representatives. We still use first-past-the-post (FPP) which only makes sense if there are two candidates. Today there are usually many candidates and the electoral outcome is nearly arbitrary. In my city the local mayor is likely to be elected with about one third of the voters, with the remainder scattered among 16 other candidates. (Additionally, the voter turnout is likely to be only about half). It is not fair to a new mayor to take up the position without any genuine moral authority to lead the municipality. Subsidiarity is about effective democracy. So should be local government.

There is a proposal before parliament to allow local authorities to switch from FPP to the proportional representation method of single-transferable-vote. (MMP is usually inappropriate because most local authorities dont have – and perhaps they should not have – well formed parties.) The legislation is a good example of subsidiarity, since it is permissive rather than directive. Local bodies could stay with FPP if their voters wished. Sadly, petty politicking seems to have put the reform on hold.

This week we vote for the politicians who will not only govern our local areas (and hospitals) but who will influence the local government reform, and thus the degree of subsidiarity in New Zealand. Let’s have more of it.