The Government has scored the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance a C minus for effort and moved swiftly to try and inject some "local" into the proposals for the reform of Auckland local government. But what was announced hardly does that. It still creates a worryingly top-heavy structure that will sideline the disparate interests of the Otaras and the Devonports and the Avondales.
Getting rid of the commission's proposed second tier of six local councils - each the size of an existing city - is sensible. These were so large, and impotent, they would have failed to represent "the local". In their place, the Government is proposing 20 to 30 local boards which will "provide for strong community representation and the ability for residents and ratepayers to influence decision-making".
The trouble is, the small print shows their powers will only be persuasion and lobbying. They won't be able to raise revenue or hire staff, but will be allowed to "develop local operational policies for local issues, for example dog control, liquor licensing and graffiti control". If that's not excitement enough, they'll be able to play the kamikaze card and lobby the Auckland Council to levy a special rate in their area for extra services.
In reality, the road to all decision-making is upwards to the all-powerful Auckland Council.
Having decided to split Auckland into 20-30 localities, the Government and its advisers have failed to do the obvious democratic thing and base them on the region's 22 existing parliamentary boundaries. It would have further simplified matters if these boundaries were also the basis for electing the 21 - if you include the mayor - city councillors. But instead, they propose 12 new wards for that.
There's also to be two grades of councillor. Eight will be elected at large, representing a constituency of more than a million people. This job will be tailor-made for celebrities and the seriously rich who have the wealth to promote themselves individually or as a group. Alongside them will be 12 councillors elected from the wards.
This is a slight improvement on the commission model which had 13 councillors elected at large (if you included three Maori representatives) and 10 ward representatives. Prime Minister John Key says the new balance between regional and local is about right. To me, given Aucklanders are surrendering all power, the democratic safety valve should be that all councillors are elected via wards.
As for persisting with the mayor being elected at large, that will only perpetuate opportunities for dysfunction between councils and mayors that every city has known. You only have to recall the Dick Hubbard mayoralty in Auckland City.
Sensibly abandoned, are the grandiose plans for turning Auckland into a mini-State, with its own minister and various Auckland boards spending Government cash on social issues and transport. Rather alarming is the back-pedalling on the claimed savings of amalgamation. The commissioners talked of annual savings of $76 million to $113 million by 2015. Local Government Minister Rodney Hide now says it is "too early to say" and the key issue is "good governance".
But if good governance is the issue, local representation has to be revisited. A full ward system is the only way to ensure an equal voice for Aucklanders, no matter where they live.