Bruce Bisset: The whole apple, not just the pip

By Bruce Bisset

Seems to me if those who think it's better to have only one voice instead of many speaking up for a community were to consider the pertinent examples, they might start by examining their own extremely selective reaction to the McGredy & Winter "Future Prosperity" report.

For what the genteel folk from A Better Hawke's Bay (ABHB) don't seem to grasp is that in focusing on a single issue (amalgamation), they are themselves guilty of the kind of fragmentation they allege is holding back the region - and which the report seeks to address.

Moreover although the sparse segment on local government reorganisation is couched in vagaries and speaks only of "possible long-term" benefits and "modest" savings, the ABHBers have seized gleefully on its description of regional leadership as "critical" as if in answer to their prayers - ignoring five other major areas similarly identified as critical for success.

Which is odd, because this lobby group, which when formed was ostensibly all about prosperity and growth and is laden with people who are supposedly business-savvy, has constantly bleated about regionalisation and spent a huge amount badgering our local councils to produce this study.

You would think, then, when the report highlights (as of "critical" or "high" importance) various business-based initiatives needed to transform our regional economy, ABHB might take stock among themselves and come up with a valid forward-looking response.

But no. Even when the study plainly identifies that local government "has quite limited ability to influence or drive economic development", all ABHB can bang on about "in yet more expensive newspaper ads" is the need to amalgamate local government.

Clearly, they don't take their own advice to heart. ABHB is not addressing the report holistically and is ignoring critical needs within its own gamut of expertise, and by doing so threatens to undermine the good work of the consultants it begged us to pay for.

As to why its attitude is bitter not better, perhaps the answer lies in three related factors: power, assets and water.

Electoral power, that is. Any candidate standing for a unitary authority comprised of the current five councils would require substantial funding to have a hope of election; thus without wealth or the backing of a major party most citizens could not aspire to a seat.

And if there's one thing the rich like to play with more than anything else, its other people's assets. Hawke's Bay has a number of public plums, not least the port and the airport and some large tracts of land that a single authority, lacking any critical oversight, could manipulate as it wished.

Then there's water: the lifeblood of our region but now fully allocated and due to become scarcer as the climate changes.

The proposed Ruataniwha storage scheme has already been signalled as needing private funding, and given central government's obvious bent toward privatising water (witness them putting off reconstituting Environment Canterbury for another three years so irrigators can continue driving the decisions) could well end up fully non-public - especially with a "business friendly" unitary council.

The report hints at these deeper currents when it strays into unsubstantiated opinion, such as that the Bay "has considerable public sector resources that can and should be put to better use".

Should? Exactly what use might that be, if not concerned with maintaining our existing infrastructure?

Regardless, one telling comment it contains is that debate about amalgamation has "got in the way" of collaboration. ABHB probably has not considered this comment is a critique they need to own.

Nor that the key word in the phrase "effective and inspiring community leadership can make a difference" is "community" - and that downsizing democracy to a rich man's club is a sure way to disempower local voices.

But even if one voice were stronger, you still have to be listened to. Ask Auckland.

The point is that when you commission an all-aspects report, you must be prepared to accept the whole result, not the one bit you not-so-secretly favour.

The McGredy & Winder study is not pro-amalgamation; in fact primarily it's a wake-up call for business to get off its fat butt and start providing training, jobs and added value to the region's production and distribution industries.

Now, let's hear some response on those issues. Please.

That's the right of it.

Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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