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Sort out the accidents of local democracy before (or with) amalgamation

  • June 29th, 2013

Wellingtonians are getting the hard sell. A shrewd Regional Council Chair leads  a well organised campaign to merge our 8 city and district councils  and the regional council into one super council. The campaigners are driven men and women. They fear the truth of John Key’s verdict that Wellington is dying, however fiercely they deny it in public. In private they urge that change is essential because of dysfunction and incompetence in local government.

So far so good – they exaggerate, but that is permissible  in conversation. And  council waste, incompetence and lost opportunities are widely condemned. The figures alone tell the story. With wide variations (Hutt City is among the best performers in the country) our local councils are as guilty as councils across the country of blocking initiative, driving housing prices out of reach of young people and average earners (without wealthy parents) letting  indebtedness  rocket, and pushing up rates far above inflation..

Across the country sound local government has become a matter of luck. Well run councils become dysfunctional on the loss of a good mayor or CEO, or when a few councillors are replaced by people who know only how to play the political game. Canterbury and Christchurch City are notorious for electing bad local government. Auckland Council is now lead by a presidential mayor but  extra powers have not produced common sense on the white elephant train set and tunnels he promised himself and he's shown the country that central government will compete for votes with a presidential mayor (in the Auckland seats anyway) with our money.

So you’d expect our Wellington-based reformers to focus on what might be making our local democracy sick. You’d think they’d want to upgrade the average quality of candidates, to ensure that councils had at least the range of skills and experience expected on an average company board.

No – they’ve nothing to say on such issues. They just want to put more centralised power over a whole region in the hands of the accidental results of the same democratic lottery.  They want more eggs in one basket, in the hope that voters will realise that basket is more precious than before and so take their voting job more seriously.

They also deny that incompetent decision makers could be even more overwhelmed and out of their depth with greater power and more responsibility. Instead they claim that greater size will cost less, give us a “stronger voice” nationally and internationally, “integrate” our economic development, with “scale” (meaning size) they will  “reduce red tape”, “have one single simple smart and sensible plan that covers everything we do” and have “more consistency, more focus,…more money accountability that enables residents to influence decisions that affect their neighbourhood…”.

Those flyer claims are so fantastical I thought at first that the flyer was a spoof, a tactic to make the amalgamators seem  ridiculous. But the good people driving the campaign are sincere. They just believe those magical things could happen, though size in local government often achieves  the opposite. Theoretical efficiencies of scale might work in say a water or transport network business. But even there  research suggests there can be diseconomies of scale over a certain size. I'm aware of no research or other reason to think that we will be more free or prosperous under “one…plan that covers everything we do”, let alone that it will be “simple, smart and sensible”.

Auckland’s vast unitary plan has united the city into universal nimbyism. Every neighbourhood has woken up to the fact that the RMA means that what home seekers and landowners might choose if they had the right, is nearly irrelevant. Development now happens only when, where and how politicians decide.  So every corner of the super-city is demanding politicians who will vow to allow no real change to their local status quo. It could take central government decrees to prick safety vents in the suffocating plan. Relieved Auckland Councillors will then be able to scream about dictatorship while secretly embarrassed at the sympathy they have to pretend to those who will end up in central government’s arbitrary intensification zones. At least they can pretend to be still in control, unlike the sacked ECan councillors of Canterbury.

So what kinds of change should the reformers be pushing for, before centralising more power with the accidents of democratic process?

Auckland Council is a constitutional experiment. It has procedures that no other council has. Our Wellington reformers could press for the right to pioneer on a pilot basis with some other democratic experimental upgrades. For example we might:

  1. Vote for one third (or one quarter) of the Council each year. Adopting  the standard company system would improve continuity, enhance elector ability to send messages about their preferences, and aid in succession planning for good combinations on the council. At the moment we get accidental spills of good councillors without voters having much ability to know what kind of council they are putting together;
  2. Cut the number of Councillors so that there is a better prospect of enough media coverage of the performance of each for us to know who are the passengers, who do the heavy lifting, and who have not been taking their pills;
  3. Engage professional independent recruitment agencies to prepare objective profile assessments of candidates, to be circulated with the voting papers. That way we might have at least the resume accuracy and reliability available to an average employer . Few of us would now even know most of the names on our ballot paper, let alone have information on their capacities. I recognise the power this would place in the hands of the resume writer. But it could scarcely be more unfair than the unfairness inherent in the current accidents of notoriety or name recognition. Soon it may be almost essential for a candidate to have been a media personality, or criminal or wacky enough to have had media coverage for something remote from the boring acheivements of running a good business, or doing another job well;
  4. Restore the protections against majoritarian abuses of power that were lost when councils were given powers of general competence in 2002 (by restricting what they can spend our money on);
  5. Appoint a general economic regulator with power to force councils to measure and publish the true economic costs of what they are doing, and perhaps to ensure that disguised subsidies are exposed. We need much more to protect voters from unwittingly voting into power people who will promise to transfer other people’s money  in the absence of genuine public good according to standard economic principles;
  6. As recently suggested by Keith Marshall, the former CEO of Nelson City Council, ensure that  expert members are co-opted onto councils to fill skill gaps.  Have a contracted independent agency exercise  the  power  if councils find it too hard.. Not many company directors want to be on a board without at least one accountant and lawyer, to help all feel less anxious that they might be  missing important technicalities.
  7. Protect councillors from being mislead, and honest council officers from abuse of disciplinary processes, by extending the  State Services Commission code to  local government officials. They should be protected if they respond honestly and objectively to questions from Councillors. With the coming 'presidential mayoralty' model, if they have a legal duty to councillors I have not been able to identify it, and currently their sole duty is to their CEO.
  8. Lift most of the burden of “participatory democracy”. It allows unrepresentative bullying by people who have the passion and the time to engage in ‘consultation’ at the expense of ordinary people who have better things to do with their time. In 2002 consultation substituted for statutory  limits on the purposes for which local power can be used. Enduring parades of  depressing people whinging and haranguing councillors steers good people away from local government.
  9. Require expert and councillor certification of the honesty (absence of misleading or deceptive material) in public consultation documents. Directors of companies have to do that with prospectuses. How much more necessary it is with the often dysfunctional people drawn to politics. We need to reinforce honesty because the pointlessness of many consultation processses undermines honesty and morale.  Participants become cynical about empty process. At risk of having courts and lawyers oblige them to start again, they have to pretend to have open minds, even if they've been specifically elected to achieve the matters under "consultation". They have to stay bland  (so as to avoid looking as if they have 'pre-judged') in the face of predictable ranting and special pleading from busybodies whose greatest satisfaction comes securing rules to boss their fellow citizens around.

Lifting the consultation burden, and restoring more representative democracy (let them rule but make sure we can throw them out) would also relieve the constructive citizens and businesses forced to put their time into the same hearings, just to ensure that there is some common sense on the record. We need to restore willingness to serve on councils from a more representative group of community leaders who do not want it as a full time job.

Democracy is great for one thing – getting rid of rulers who are no longer trusted by those they rule. It is terrible at many other things. Among its modern perversities is that people can be elected and stay in power by pandering to the swing voters. Elected leaders who do not recognise that will fail at elections.  So all other voters' interests are subordinate to those of the swing voters. And many swing voters are the least informed. They are the ones most likely to be uninterested in politics and to vote (in local authority elections) mainly  for names they can recognise. Why they recognise them becomes immaterial. I do not know how to mitigate this flaw. I suspect it is becoming more material as we become collectively more frivolous, with shorter attention spans for things deemed boring, and no longer united by the shared experience of dominant local news-paper readership, or dominant MSM news channels.

[This post first appeared as commentary in the new Wellington monthly magazine “Capital”. The next edition will be for sale next week.]



  • paul scott
  • June 30th, 2013
  • 10:07 pm

Stephen says:

Wellingtonians are getting the hard sell. A shrewd Regional Council Chair leads a well organised campaign to merge our 8 city and district councils and the regional council into one super council. ”

Read NZ Nat Government program Stephen. discussion is long over, you really need to catch up

  • AngryTory
  • July 1st, 2013
  • 10:09 pm

Here’s a much simpler proposal: amalgamate all the council functions into a single city corporation. It’s just a corporation, so it automatically “inherits” all of the disciplines of corporate law. Single share held by the minister of local government, corporate board appointed by shareholder as with other SOEs. I guess the city corporation still needs powers to make by-laws, so it would needs it’s on enabling legislation. But I don’t think we need any more than that!

  • Colin
  • July 2nd, 2013
  • 11:20 am

Whilst correctly constructed amalgamations can lead the initial efficiencies and savings a key overall regional benefit is more often lost. Well run councils need to and often do compete with each other for new businesses to be established population growth etc which serves to provide new employment and general prosperity which in turn serves to maintain the rates base.

He in Canterbury we frequently hear calls for the amalgamation of Selwyn, CHCH and Waimakariri. This would be an unmitigated disaster especially given the dysfunctional CCC. Although CCC is totally dominant the smaller councils do compete furthermore once if ever the CCC is sorted then the overall regional benefits from a competitive environment will more often than not far out weigh any daily operational saving benefits. This view is support by Eric Crampton senior lecturer in economics at Canterbury University who is rightly very skeptical of the benefits of most council amalgamation proposals

Better to focus on achieving well managed, well governed standalone councils in most circumstances along the lines of your excellent suggestions

  • Roger Strong
  • July 2nd, 2013
  • 8:24 pm

Different problems in the country. We have a council who charges high rates but provides no services in the rural areas. We get no water, no sewage, no rubbish collection and a poorly maintained gravel road. The farmers who have the misfortune to live on their main asset-the land-pay as much in rates as a 30 or more hourseholders in the town and have only a fraction of the services provided. The only people who can afford to stand for council are the well-off landowners who care little what the rates are. Democracy is what the council decides it will be. Long overdue for reform but this government drags it’s feet in the matter.

  • Stephen
  • February 28th, 2021
  • 2:05 pm

Satisfying how badly that comment aged, when I notice it today

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