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Banal business naivete on politics (and the RMA and Councils)

  • February 14th, 2015

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.



  • Roger Strong
  • February 15th, 2015
  • 7:07 pm

Well our council is small and pretty hopeless in so many ways and I guess sometimes people hope that if we joined another small council then we would at least have a chance at getting something better. After reading your article I see that it is a forlorn hope and the resulting council would probably just be as hopeless but just bigger. Our small council is run by the bureaucrats who like to make the elected councillors think that they are in charge whereas they are usually engaged in the latest ten year plan -which no-one reads…
And so it goes. Local government needs radical reform-trouble is I see the problems I just don’t see workable solutions…..

  • Stephen
  • February 16th, 2015
  • 9:05 am


I’m not as pessimistic. I think there are many ways to improve both the satisfaction of service on a council (and thus the willingness of more sensible people to stand). Among others:
1) reducing the useless consultation burden so that Councils can resolve more easily not to waste time on predictable crap they’ve heard a thousand times before, and instead be more inquisitorial so they spend that time hearing expert questioning (their own staff, or hired experts) of submitters to find out things that are not known, or that they want to know. “Hot tubbing” as sometimes occurs in specialist courts, where the contending experts quiz each other, is an example;
2) providing routes to co-option of skill missing after the voters have spoken. For example few sensible directors would be willing to serve on a board that was lacking good accounting or legal skill, or if it had to judge and supervise IT business, or engineering, someone able to detect bullshit from gold in reports to the board on those matters. So Councillor candidates should know that after an election which returns inadequate expertise, the appropriate prof body might be asked to nominate candidates for cooption. Wellington, for example might use the Chamber of Commerce to nominate someone from the film industry, or the IT industry, since they have become so important to Wellington. The welfare industry may have away to nominate one of theirs, since welfare is another great industry in most big cities, and if a council included no one from that sector, it would be deprived.
3) since we now use postal elections, what about using the normal companies law annual rotation, with say one quarter of councillors retiring each year. That would allow citizens to express their view annually, but more importantly, allow parties and sectors and the council itself to do some succession planning. Candidates would be tapped on the shoulder and groomed for slots, because the triennial lotter would go, where there is always a risk that the election might return a council with a predominance of the nuts and passengers.

  • Stephen Todd
  • February 17th, 2015
  • 6:15 pm

Stephen, I wonder if you have thought through your suggestion that “one quarter of councillors [retire] each year.”

Looking at Wellington City, we have 14 councillors. You’re in effect suggesting annual elections whereby (say) four, then three, then another four, then finally another three councillors are successively elected city-wide each year.

So, you want ratepayers to fund the cost of elections not just every three years, but every year, year in, year out, just so the election of more business-oriented candidates would (hopefully) be facilitated?

And how would the election of such candidates be effected? By the quick onset of overwhelming voter-fatigue, leading in short order to a 20% (or less) voter participation rate (even with postal voting), perhaps? With voters who share your view of life being much more likely to be among that 20% (or less) than those who don’t? That seems to me to run counter to your seeming support for “genuine community self determination.”

It would appear that you’re not convinced of the merits of amalgamation. Many people aren’t. But representative democracy is far more than tilting the playing field to better enable “Business” to have free rein to continue feeding its addiction to profit and growth at the expense of the rest of society.

If “parties and sectors” want the make-up of council to be more to their liking, then they just have to stand candidates for election who share their view, and take their chances like everyone else.

The best way to facilitate the election of councillors more to the liking of “parties and sectors” (and no doubt yourself) would be for all 14 Wellington City councillors to be elected city-wide. The quota for election for each successful candidate would be just 6.67% of the total of votes, almost certainly resulting in a fair and proportional number of business-oriented candidates being elected, who could then “put their [business] case” to council and live or die by the democratic process, just like those councillors otherwise-oriented would have to do.

By the same token, should amalgamation eventuate, the 8 Wellington City councillors should be elected at-large (quota 11.11%), rather than from three wards; and the 6 Hutt Valley councillors should be elected together, too (quota 14.29%), as should the 5 Porirua-Tawa/Kapiti Coast councillors (quota 16.67%).

In short, rather than advocates of “Business” getting what they want by nobbling representative democracy, they should be trying to have it enhanced.

  • Daniel McCaffrey
  • August 24th, 2015
  • 9:16 am

Well written clear enunciation of the current state of play. Could you stand the pain and the expense in lost time of standing for council?

  • Ciaran Keogh
  • April 25th, 2016
  • 1:27 pm

Hi Stephen – good post – but the real problem is parliament not in in the council chambers

copy of paper that I gave to 2014 RMLA conference
that you may find interesting

  • Margaret Murray-Benge
  • April 10th, 2021
  • 11:59 am

Having years of experience as a local Councillor and former chairman of a district and United Council,what I appreciate about local government is the fact that if one is any good one reflects the needs and future direction of the community and takes the community with them.
Today we have a Government that has an agenda which seems to me to ignore that community voice which is fundamental to a healthy society. One doesn’t have to be a business person to know how to listen, evaluate the impact and cost of decisions, who pays and how to move a whole community forward openly and honestly.

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