Hollow Auckland

There are at least three good reasons that the restructuring of our largest city will fail.

Listener: 25 July, 2009.

Keywords: Governance;  Growth & Innovation;

Author Bruce Jesson once said New Zealand was a “hollow society”. He meant that although we had a central government and individuals, the social institutions between them lacked independence. The government preceded most settlers, so their social organisations were not able to evolve organically but depended on central government.

There are some exceptions. Iwi were here before Governor Hobson, and have survived as organic institutions, despite having had their resource base stripped away by the settlers. Treaty settlements have recapitalised them, leaving them increasingly strong players in New Zealand social and political life.

Business was dependent on the central government up to the 1980s. The Rogernomics revolution removed state protection and intervention, leaving business largely to fend for itself. Its success has given it a robust independence, which it uses in the political arena to further its objectives.

Apart from a few exceptions, most of our social institutions are still very dependent on central government, not least because they have few independent sources of funding. As a consequence, the political structure of New Zealand is immature, without the checks and balances that come with comprehensive independent social organisations.

This is well illustrated by local government. Central government often treats local authorities with contempt – or at least doesn’t bother with the niceties of consultation. It needs local bodies to do the mundane roading and drains, while you want them to reflect your community, provide wider services and protect you from the excesses of Wellington.

Earlier this year the Government withdrew a local authority petrol tax without consultation; shortly after that it suspended democracy in Auckland overnight. It is now imposing its will on the governance of Auckland without significant consultation. It does not even have the fig-leaf of the royal commission’s soundings to cover it, since its proposals barely connect with the commission’s. Whatever happens, Super-Auckland will not be an organic body of its citizens. (And it will be underfunded, which, no doubt, will result in public assets being privatised.)

One can understand the Auckland business community’s impatience with the existing governance of the city. Take roading. Although the main moan is that the local bodies have been unable to come up with a decent transport network for commuters, central government is also to blame, given the funding problems. Auckland business needs a road network for its trucking – public transport is no solution here – and is fed up with the ongoing failure of the governance to meet its reasonable demands.

With business now one of the powerful organisations in the hollow society, it is no surprise that the structure of Super-Auckland reflects business preferences, especially its strong centre and the weak role of citizens. I don’t recognise any known robust political form in the proposed structure. The closest may be a business, but frankly that is not a very good fit, either. The proposal is an ill-thought-through compromise.

My guess is that ultimately the proposed governance structure will fail for at least three reasons. First, its implementation is too hurried, and there will be unnecessary – and even catastrophic – mistakes. Second, without a proper local mandate, the citizens of Auckland will find the new arrangement alien and will eventually revolt, especially as the mistakes become evident.

Third, central government is setting up a powerful political entity that will ultimate challenge it. Compared with the central government, there appears to be no comparable local body in size and scope anywhere else in the world – capital cities excluded – and the Mayor of Super-Auckland may be said to be elected by more people than the Prime Minister. Central government will limit Auckland’s independence by controlling its funding, and – as Jesson would say – then what?

I am reminded of the health sector re-dis-organisation of the early 1990s. Badly designed, too hurried and imposed without any popular mandate, it damaged the provision of healthcare for the rest of the decade, not to mention prospects of the National Government that tried to implement it. Yet this Government seems determined to ignore the lesson.

It has been said those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat their mistakes; the first time is tragedy, the second time farce. And it will be a melancholy one in the case of Super-Auckland.