John Minto: Unelected positions spell trouble for ratepayers

John Minto writes that democracy in Auckland is being contracted out via Hide's appointees.

Cartoon / Rod Emmerson
Cartoon / Rod Emmerson

Act leader Rodney Hide and Transport Minister Steven Joyce demonstrate just how fragile democracy can be when they provide such a range of misleading and inaccurate justifications for denying the Auckland public democratic control of service delivery in the new Super City.

From the outset the process of uniting Auckland has been an exercise in reducing and restricting democracy.

Firstly Act vetoed guaranteed Maori representation on the council but supported the proposal for eight councillors to be elected at large alongside 12 elected from local wards.

This proposal was eventually defeated as it would have given a head start to the political grouping with the most funds and therefore the greatest ability to campaign across the region. No prizes for guessing who this would be.

The focus has now shifted to Act/National's most audacious attack on local democracy with the proposal for seven council-controlled organisations to deliver three-quarters of Auckland services without democratic control or direct accountability.

The directors of each organisation would be appointed, initially at least, by none other than Hide himself. We can expect the appointees to be over-represented from that marginal 3.5 per cent of voters who supported Act at the last election.

So while unelected directors of the controlled organisations will run the city and spend the majority of ratepayers' money, the elected councillors will twiddle their thumbs on the sideline.

Hide and Joyce imply these organisations are benign, working efficiently and responsively in the interests of ratepayers with clear lines of accountability, but this is not true.

A couple of years back I had personal experience of just how high-handed these organisations can be after a dispute I had with Metrowater over how it calculated water use for our property. It was an exercise in frustration.

The senior management refused to meet to discuss the issue so eventually I requested to speak to a meeting of the city council's finance and corporate business committee which had responsibility for Metrowater. I explained the situation and answered questions from committee members who had also received a report from Metrowater on the issue.

I asked the committee to require Metrowater to attend mediation to sort out the dispute.

A long discussion followed about whether or not the committee was able to require the council-controlled organisation to do so.

Councillors asked for clarification from the chair who consulted the council chief executive who informed the meeting it was not legally possible for the council to set such a requirement because to do so would be to interfere in Metrowater's management of the business.

The only accountability was through Metrowater's statement of intent by which the organisation outlines its responsibilities to the city council.

It was a frustrating discussion but eventually the majority of the committee took my side and voted to recommend Metrowater agree to attend mediation.

This was as far as they were allowed to go but I assumed the moral weight of these elected councillors would get Metrowater to the table even if the council lacked the legal authority to require it to do so.

How wrong I was.

Metrowater wrote to me following the council recommendation and flatly refused to agree to mediation. In an act of unaccountable corporate arrogance they gave me and the council committee the fingers.

It was only after publicity that Metrowater eventually agreed to meet and sort it out.

Throughout this dispute the elected councillors were impotent in dealing with this controlled organisation of which the council is the sole owner. It thumbed its nose at the mere thought of democratic accountability.

The elected councillors were trumped by unelected appointees.

Prime Minister John Key is right when he says council-controlled organisations are not new.

But the proposal to dramatically extend delivery of council services at arm's length from democratic accountability is dangerous and unacceptable.

Remember these proposed organisations are also the ones which will hold most of the $28 billion of Auckland's local community assets and we can expect Hide's appointees to work hard to prepare them for privatisation.

Auckland Regional Council chairman Mike Lee is right when he says these organisations could "... set up companies, sell assets and enter into major financial commitments without the approval of the Auckland Council, even where the transactions may leave the council with significant liabilities or commitments".

Our local body democracy is being contracted out to those who will do the bidding of business.

For example, we can confidently expect the transport organisation to have roads, roads and more roads as their top three priorities while public transport is again sidelined.

Joyce is a fellow traveller of Hide and is working hard with the Act leader to force these proposals through.

Joyce is best remembered as the National Party campaign manager at the 2005 election who co-ordinated the secret Exclusive Brethren support for National's campaign to have Don Brash elected Prime Minister. Democracy took a hammering there as well.

It's a case of the Act tail wagging the Auckland Super City dog and dog is as good a term as any to describe what would pass for local body democracy under these proposals.

* John Minto is an Auckland-based political activist.

- NZ Herald

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