Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: March 20

ACC Minister Nick Smith. Photo / NZ Herald
ACC Minister Nick Smith. Photo / NZ Herald

Is it a case of 'do as I say, not as I do', as the Government looks to rein in the powers of local government? While National has been accused of desk shuffling in the state sector, it can't be accused of holding back when it comes to telling locally elected councils what they should and shouldn't be doing.

The quadrupling of local public debt, and rates increases over seven percent a year in the last decade are the main motivation behind the reforms, according to the Government. As Gordon Campbell backgrounds in an excellent article (see: On the local government reforms), the political lineage actually goes back to Rodney Hide's Local Government Reform bill which, in turn, owes its inspiration to Colorado's TABOR Tax. Campbell outlines how the reforms in Colorado resulted in street lights being turned off, rubbish bins removed and public toilets closed. Such was the impact that many local organisations in Colorado have successfully appealed to voters to escape some of the law's provisions.

Campbell also points out that the Green Party has taken the lead, with Eugenie Sage releasing figures that show that the problems the Government has identified have already been brought under control: 'Council spending on so called "non-core services" - such as culture, recreation and sport - declined by $ 185 million between 2008 and 2010 to 13.2 per cent of authority spending. From 2007-2010 rates were a stable portion of household expenditure; holding steady at 2.25%'.

John Armstrong reports that the changes are 'radical - and very much in Hide's spirit' but notes that John Key and Local Government minister Nick Smith seem reluctant to acknowledgement Hide's contribution - see: Hide's reform legacy hard to spot.

A clear aim of the reforms is the encouragement of further mergers, according to Patrick Smellie - see: Super-mayors, cities encouraged in local govt role reforms, although they stop short of forced amalgamations. The Mayor of the prototype 'super city' has said, however, that the reforms actually clash with some of the requirements already imposed on the Auckland council and thinks those reforms need more time to settle in before a new round is started - see: Len Brown challenges local govt changes.

Of course the Government has plenty of raw material to work with, as it points to high profile cases of expensive failures by local bodies and ratepayer resentment at the rapid increase in executive salaries. Local body politicians counter with examples of necessary and successful programmes. Local Government President Lawrence Yule says that often this expenditure was a result of having to step in where the private sector and central government had failed, using the example of the Mayor's Taskforce for Jobs, security patrols and CCTV cameras: 'One could argue that if the police were fully resourced and doing their job then the council shouldn't have to invest in that type of thing' - see: Govt paves way for mega councils.

Tim Shadbolt, who obviously saw the changes coming in February, says the biggest and most costly recent event for local bodies was the Rugby World Cup, which his council only got involved in when Government came 'begging on bended knee' - see: Ironies will arise when Govt launches attack on councils. He also points to the leaky home crisis where MPs ignored council concerns about private sector building inspections at a huge cost to individuals and government.

Spending millions of public money bringing David Beckham to New Zealand will always make good headlines but, as No Right Turn points out, the Department of Internal Affairs has advised that the increased costs largely relate to infrastructure provision, including making up for past under-investment, higher expectations of services and lower tolerance of pollution - see: A recipe for public squalor.

The changes do have their vocal supporters though. Among them are Business New Zealand and the Property Council of New Zealand (see: TVNZ's Government looks to cap council spending), along with ex-Act MP Stephen Franks (see: Nick Smith's genuinely radical reform - will general incompetence survive?) and right-wing libertarian blogger Peter Cresswell, who finds himself surprised to be praising Nick Smith - see: We come to praise Nick Smith. For now.

You have to wonder where the ACC leak story will end. Today ex-ACC minister Nick Smith has become entangled in the saga as it is revealed that he wrote a reference on ministerial letterhead for Bronwyn Pullar, the woman at the centre of the story. Although Smith says he is happy for the letter to be released, he says he regrets writing it and has apologised - see: 'Error of judgement' over minister's ACC letter.

Given that Cameron Slater has been actively contributing to the flow of information (see: The blackmail scandal lurches onwards) it would be no surprise if there were a few more twists and turns to come. Rob Hosking has a good FAQ on the story to date - see: ACC leaks: your questions answered.

The internal, but nevertheless public, discussion amongst Labour Party activists about the direction David Shearer is taking the party continues, with a focus on who will have a say when the final policy decision are made. Robert Winter (see: The Internal Debate on Shearer) and Mike Smith (see: Bathwater and babies) both have an expectation that the activists and the non-parliamentary party have useful contributions to make. Giovanni Tiso, in a lengthy post, questions just who Shearer is prepared to listen to - see: Finlands of the Mind.

In other articles of interest, Martin Taylor from the New Zealand Aged Care Association argues Why Bryan Gould was wrong, responding to Gould's recent article on the privatisation of the aged cared sector and the Oceania industrial dispute. Taylor implies that the industrial action has more to do with a wider union attack on the current government than wage negotiations. He puts the responsibility for low wages in the sector squarely at the door of past and current governments.

Claims that the nationality of the Crafar farms purchasers was a motivating factor in public opposition to the sale have been tested by a UMR Research survey (commissioned by the Michael Fay-led consortium) which shows 70% of New Zealanders continue to oppose the sale and respondents overwhelming denied that the purchaser's Chinese nationality affected their view - see: Ethnicity 'not a factor' in Crafar farm opposition.

Finally, ex-Green MP Sue Kedgley looks at the history behind the privatisation of Wellington's local electricity network (see: When we sold off Wellington's power) now owned by a Hong Kong-based multi-national and also chaired by high-profile Ports of Auckland chairperson Richard Pearson.

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Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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