Volting in a Vacuum

Wellington’s disdain for local councils makes the present elections almost meaningless.


Listener: 3 October, 2013.


Keywords: Governance;


The abolition of the provinces in 1876 made New Zealand one of the most centralised states in the world. Not completely, however – a second level of regional, city and district councils exists that we are voting for at present.


But local authorities have little power to act, except at the behest of central government, which frequently overrules them. It is as if they were courts. Any “litigant” who dislikes a local authority decision can appeal to the higher “court” of central government, which will overrule the decision if the appellant – often business interests – puts up a powerful enough case.


Overruling, which can come in the form of a law change, replacement of a council by a commissioner or arbitrary threats and directions, is frequently done with the excess and enthusiasm reminiscent of a bully. For instance, was it necessary to replace the dysfunctional Canterbury Regional Council with a commission that has lasted beyond two elections?

Sometimes the centralist argument is that “our” money is involved. They mean general taxpayers’ money. The money, and the need for urgent co-ordination, might have justified the imposition of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority to deal with the quake mess, but need Wellington dominate the rebuild? Should not the citizens of Christchurch have a greater say?


It is not only money. According to its citizens’ representatives, Auckland faces future transport needs at an infrastructural cost that cannot be afforded from rates. A committee recommended user-pays, including tolling and petrol taxation. Not only would those measures help meet the funding target but, properly applied, they would reduce demand – especially during peaks – and encourage commuters to use public transport.


That sounds right to me, especially as one of the 70% of New Zealanders who live outside Auckland, I am not happy with paying for its infrastructure unless I get to use it. But the Minister of Transport, Gerry Brownlee, vetoed Auckland’s proposals. Hopefully a future minister will show more common sense. But what is instructive, for this column’s purposes, was Brownlee’s instant reaction.


The minister could have said he was glad to see the Auckland Council working through its problems, especially its acceptance of the need for a local initiative with a corresponding willingness to bear the additional cost. He could have worked with it to pass enabling legislation. All Parliament would require would be that Auckland’s actions reflected local wishes and did not compromise the general principles of government, including the needs of other localities.


But oh no, the Wellington control freaks weren’t having any of this local democracy thing, any more than the citizens of Christchurch could be allowed to decide the shape of their own city. Local democracy is verboten unless it does what the centralists want.

I wonder why? The Government’s behaviour typifies the long tradition of bullying locals, for the other side has been no better. The minority parties haven’t shone, either. Libertarian Act was hardly pro-decentralisation when it held the local government portfolio. You might expect the Greens to be, but MMP has given them a direct route into Parliament instead of building a platform in local body politics. In any case they, like the rest, are all too keen to grab power at the top and use it to direct everyone else.


Is there any point voting in local body elections? I shall vote in order to demonstrate to the centralists that I believe in local democracy, even if they don’t. The more people who vote in local body elections, the stronger the message that we want a less-centralised system.

Perhaps one day we will get a central government that listens to, rather than bullies, us. But I vote this month knowing that my real local body election – the one that actually affects my local community – is in a year’s time.