Few business people are good at democratic politics. They expect what works in business to work in democracy. They’re frustrated by the messy necessity to maintain a working consensus, by multiple conflicting objectives, and by the unreliability of delegates.
They think that if only the right people were in charge, the best structures and systems would be like those in business, where everyone accepts single prevailing decisions from nominated rulers, and he who pays, rules.
Business people who get embroiled in politics commonly hate it so much they eject before they flame out. Those who survive and learn may be small in number but they are among the best we have, and we owe them a lot for their patience.
Many good business people are equally hopeless in assessing policy. I could not count the number of times I’ve heard the idiocy that the RMA is a good law, with nothing seriously wrong with it except how it is administered by council people who are stupid or wrongly motivated. These business defenders have no idea that they’ve just explained exactly why the RMA is so badly conceived and written as to besmirch the rule of law.
They’re misled by objectives. In business, if you can get your objectives clear, and set them out for your staff, much of the work is done. But the promoters of all law recite noble objectives, usually purposes we can all agree on. The key problem in both policy and law-making is the unintended, often the application of law for purposes never thought about.
What distinguishes bad law from good law is simple. Well designed and drafted law works whether or not ‘idiots’ are in charge. It is predictable because it limits what rulers can do. It is very carefully designed knowing that people of malign intent will try to misuse any law. Frequently they will have power. Good law is drafted by wise sceptics about human nature. It remains predictable in effect despite attempts to distort it.
The RMA is set up instead to reflect the shifting fashions of ruling sentiment from time to time. It is therefore specially handy for those who like to claim they are acting in the interests of others, a common excuse for calculated abuses of power.
In many respect the RMA does not qualify as part of the rule of law. It enables decision-makers to dress up their aesthetic, spiritual, class, social and economic prejudices in complicated processes. They look legal, but they demean the reputation of law. If you can’t generally decipher in advance from a provision what you can and can’t do and how the rights of others will affect your plans, it is not law, it is just an instrument delegating decree powers.
Those who framed the RMA deliberately excluded normal rule of law certainty and predictability. It has taken 20 years for business people to learn that it must be judged on how it works, not on its claims to noble purpose.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m watching similar business naivete on super-city amalgamations. Here in Wellington the Chamber of Commerce and the Property Council have not bothered to offer their members any analysis, reasoning, or even debate, before joining the ’bigger is better’ campaign. Perhaps it is natural for business people to favour bigness – after all most probably regard growing bigger as the measure of success.
But I’m not aware of any evidence that small councils are comfortable berths for more stupidity than bigger ones. When I was in the Office of the Ombudsman many years ago experience often suggested the opposite. Counties and country areas seemed better run, on average, than their bigger neighbours.
That is not research evidence, but it is puzzling that business has not watched the Canterbury experience, and the extent to which Canterbury has been saved from presenting unrelieved incompetence by the safety valve councils of Selwyn and Waimakariri. You’d think they might have asked Hugh Pavletich to come up and report. Christchurch has been hostile to business ever since Christchurch City was jammed together as a prototypy ‘super-city’ two decades ago.
Many Wellington business reps have an intuitive faith in ’bigger is better’ territorial government. I say ‘territorial’ because it would be a lie to call Uber-City Wellington and Super-City Auckland “local government”. Two councils governing half the population of New Zealand may be government, but it is certainly not ’local’ government, on any measure.
This faith based policy development by business reminds me of the business elite of Britain on the Euro.
Twelve years ago Britain was consumed in deciding whether to adopt the EU common currency. Gordon Brown decided not to join, against the wishes of his PM, Tony Blair, and much of the UK elite, including the Confederation of British Industry and other business leaders. This Guardian article talks of the snobbery that divided the two sides. On the anti side with Brown were a comparatively few hard-nosed experts who demanded analysis. They pointed out that most Euro support was hope – a half-baked conviction that it was safer to be with the big battalions, whether or not they were right. Brown had Treasury support, but more importantly he had on his side the mass of his electors, though much of the TUC and Labour leadership was on the other side. Ordinary people had an intuitive suspicion the euro would not end well, to their cost. And so it has proved for the poor in many countries whose leaders fell in with the elite Project. The Euro was sold on a combination of ”bigger is better” fear, and the elite’s faith in their superior purposes, not careful calculation.
Four years ago, after the Project collapsed into the current morass, it became hard to find those who’d supported the Euro.
Here in Wellington are strong signs of the same wilful refusal to think. Those bent on a Uber-Council for the whole Wellington region are not worried that it will replace genuine community self determination. Perhaps they feel it goes without saying the peasantry would be better off ruled from afar by their betters. The LGC claim that Wairarapa is not viable is breathtakingly patronising. They don’t quite say that it will always need Wellington office tower subsidies but there is no other implication.
Why has that not signalled “Caution!” to the Property Council? They feel no need for research evidence that scale efficiencies are common in local government, or that they outweigh the inefficiencies of larger bureacracy and more distant representation.
To amalgamators it seems to be enough to believe there is widespread incompetence in local government and lost opportunities for ‘growth’. Even if that is right, how size solves it is not explained. Size would put more eggs in the same basket. How will it make the basket less dodgy? From experience it could mask even greater incompetence, or deter more able candidates. It is especially odd that business is not interested apparently in more pay on local politicians, not less.
I know many amalgamators. They are good people, and many have lead good businesses. But few understood politics when I was an MP. Things have not changed. Councils must preserve and respect and continually learn from dissension. Businesses are ruined by it.