Mike Lee: The Government is no longer listening

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Mike Lee says the more undemocratic aspects of the Super City need to be revised before it's too late.

Protests over dropping Maori representation on the Auckland Council also fell on deaf ears. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Protests over dropping Maori representation on the Auckland Council also fell on deaf ears. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Is the "Super City" about strengthening Auckland or weakening it?

The new, vigorous defence by ministers Steven Joyce and Rodney Hide of their plans for Auckland was quite extraordinary.

Especially given that the parliamentary select committee charged with hearing public submissions on the crucial Super City legislation has not yet reported back to the Government.

If recent statements are anything to go by, it would appear the Government has already made up its mind and that Joyce and Hide's plans - including the unpopular Council Controlled Organisations - are to be imposed on Auckland, whether Auckland likes it or not.

It is this high-handed approach to due process and democracy, implicit in the Government's plans for Auckland, that a wide range of people are finding so offensive.

Leaving aside the integrity of the select committee process, there is the simple question: wasn't the whole point of the "Super City" meant to be about strengthening local government in Auckland?

Let's be clear. The Auckland Regional Council has supported the Government's Super City reforms from the beginning - one of very few Auckland councils to do so.

Up until now, we felt we have been able to work constructively with the Government on these reforms.

But all that appears to have changed. It has become quite clear the Government is no longer listening.

According to the explanatory note to the third bill currently being deliberated by the select committee, the Super City was intended to "create one Auckland, which has strong regional governance, integrated decision making, greater community engagement and improved value for money".

But what has become quite obvious is that Auckland isn't getting this at all.

Instead of one body we are essentially getting three.

Three extraordinarily large bureaucracies - Auckland Council, Watercare CCO, and the bizarre Auckland Transport CCO.

What we have here is not unified governance in Auckland at all.

Instead we will have three quite separate and powerful fiefdoms running Auckland, but only one democratically accountable - the Auckland Council.

However, even within the Auckland Council, most of the important responsibilities will be put under the control of the boards of council controlled organisations.

Ministers Joyce and Hide argue that these organisations will be transparent and accountable but, in practical terms, it is very hard to see how this will be achieved.

To be fair to the ministers, they are right when they point out that Auckland already has numerous such organisations.

However, there are significant differences between the relatively small size of these existing council organisations and the statutory, mega-sized regional ones being proposed by the Government.

The ministers also overlook the fact that it was the councils themselves that made the decisions to set up the existing controlled organisations.

This was after due public process.

Also that those councils have the ability to wind up these organisations if they feel they are not performing or have served their purpose.

But the new mega-sized operations will be imposed on Auckland by legislation and only the Government will be able to disestablish them.

This raises the question about whether they are really "council controlled organisations" at all.

For instance, Auckland Transport will not be in any sense of the word "controlled" by the Auckland Council.

This will be very much a creature of the minister in Wellington but will be spending about $680 million of Auckland ratepayers' money every year - more than half the Super City's rates take.

Yet despite its being empowered to spend huge amounts of public money, the public accountability arrangements for Auckland Transport would fall well short of what is considered acceptable.

It is already a point of serious public concern that Auckland Transport will be able to conduct its business in secrecy, and that all the initial directors are to be appointed by Government ministers.

Other unacceptable features of Auckland Transport are:

* The Auckland Council will be unable to appoint (or dismiss) the Auckland Transport chair and deputy chair.

* Auckland Transport is not required by legislation to act in accordance with the requirements of its shareholder (the Auckland Council).

* The Auckland Transport Board is not made accountable to the Auckland Council.

* The Auckland Council may be able to make changes to Auckland Transport's statement of intent but, unlike the Crown Entities Act, this bill has no specific provision requiring Auckland Transport to act in accordance with this statement of intent.

* Auckland Transport is not required to give effect to the Regional Land Transport Strategy, or any other Auckland Council policy that relates to the transport agency.

* Auckland Transport could set up companies, sell assets and enter into major financial commitments without the approval of Auckland Council, even where the transactions may leave the council with significant liabilities or commitments.

* Auckland Transport won't be required to have regard for the wider land use and development objectives of the Auckland Council.

The ministers argue that Auckland Transport will operate in the same way as the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA).

This is simply not the case. The Minister of Transport has far greater control over NZTA than Auckland Council will have over Auckland Transport.

Moreover, no council in Auckland has ever set up a controlled organisation to control local roads. Local roads are crucial to the fabric of our communities.

Issues over local roads do not only require commercial or technical responses. They need solutions which are appropriate to the local community.

Ministers also claim the local boards will be able to influence the activities of controlled organisations.

It is true that under the current proposals, Auckland Transport will be required to consult local boards about its programmes, but it's hard to see how much influence the local boards will actually have.

Final decisions will rest with a board of unelected appointees, with far less incentive to listen to the public than elected members.

The Government still has time to reverse this Orwellian nightmare. The solution is straightforward.

Put transport responsibilities into the new Auckland Council where they belong.

And let the new Auckland Council order its own affairs and make decisions about whether to establish council controlled organisations or not - just as councils in Wellington, Christchurch and everywhere else in New Zealand do.

It would be a bitter irony if Auckland's "Super City" turned out to be less democratic, more constrained and with significantly less powers than now exist in local government in Auckland - and the rest of New Zealand.

If the Government carries on down its present path, it will sow cynicism and resentfulness in Auckland lasting for years. And the term "Auckland Super City" will taunt the Government until it leaves office.

* Mike Lee is chairman of the Auckland Regional Council.

- NZ Herald

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