Brian Rudman: Sir Brian Elwood struck the right note with big reforms of 1989

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Prime Minister Helen Clark says there's "been a lot of brainstorming within officialdom" about the Royal Commission into Auckland local governance and that the Government is close to settling the membership and terms of reference.

All, it appears, without consulting the local councils about to go under the microscope, which is, in itself, not such a bad thing. Who of us really needs another round of consultation about how the commissioners should consult?

My only desire is that the terms of reference are broad and, more importantly, that any recommendations for change are given the power of law, as was the case in the revolutionary reforms of 1989. On that occasion, Local Government Minister Michael Bassett gave the Local Government Commission, headed by Sir Brian Elwood, a guarantee that the Government would support their findings as binding. The result was widespread amalgamations, resulting in more than 800 councils across the country being replaced with fewer than 100.

With backing like that, local politicians and officials knew it wasn't a game they were involved in, but serious business. The new royal commission needs the same authority.

Indeed, one would expect anyone willing to take on the job of commissioner to insist on the same conditions as Sir Brian did. Otherwise, why would they risk wasting a year of their valuable time preparing a report likely to end up as nothing but a dusty door stop?

Helen Clark says a lot of people have been volunteering their services for the commission, which seems a little pushy. What's the rate of pay, he quickly wonders.

I haven't heard of any in that cap-in-hand category, but some names have popped up, like Wellington lobbyist Mai Chen, and her one-time legal partner and former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer. Local government experts Justice Mark Cooper and senior lawyer David McGregor are others, to say nothing of Sir Brian who, some say, should be sent in to complete the job he started nearly 20 years ago.

After all, he did make it clear back in 1989 that those reforms were not the final word. At the time, the commissioners resisted giving Auckland a solitary council on the grounds that local feeling was more in favour of four cities plus the three satellite districts. The regional council was to control the big infrastructural issues such as water and public transport. But unbeknown to the commission, just around the corner was an incoming National Government obsessed, under Local Government Minister Warren Cooper, with emasculating the regional body and undoing the tiered Auckland governance structure the commissioners had designed.

Without Mr Cooper's disastrous intervention, maybe we wouldn't be facing the need for a royal commission. But enough of history.

While those screaming for reform seem to get all starry-eyed over the magical properties of centralising power within a greater Auckland council, there are sceptical politicians abroad who have their doubts. One-time mayor of the old Waitemata City Council and now Invercargill mayor, Tim Shadbolt, for one.

Writing in his online Herald blog Southern Man, Mr Shadbolt recalls thinking that "the big cull of 1989" was a good thing. He's not so sure now, and "doubts a major restructuring will solve Auckland's problems".

The significant revolution in 1989, he says, was the shift of power to the bureaucrats. "Mayors soon discovered that CEOs hired and fired staff rather than the mayor and councillors and that the tenders process was also run by senior management ... The mayors became little more than show ponies ... "

Auckland Regional Council chairman Mike Lee is another doubter, suggesting those pushing for structural reform are missing the point. He argues the need for a cultural change rather structural change and points the finger at "out-of-control spending". He targets over-staffing at middle management level within local government bureaucracy and "far too much reliance on expensive outside consultants by even relatively junior local government officers".

He fears structural reform might trigger another wave of spending and wants spending restraints.

With elections looming, such sentiments will do Mr Lee no harm. But both he and Mr Shadbolt do highlight the risks inherent in creating bigger bureaucracies. The $250,000 "artwork" farce unfolding on the pavement outside the Civic is a good example of what can happen when bureaucrats and their consultant friends run amok with ratepayers' funds. At times like this, you're left wondering, maybe it's not politicians we need fewer of after all.

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