Mai Chen

Public and employment law specialist Mai Chen on current events

Mai Chen: How to get on the Auckland beltway

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Aucklanders need to know how to deal with the Super City - and how it wields its power over 1.5m of us.

The Super City has a unique demographic of indigenous and minority groups and they are growing.  Photo / Richard Robinson
The Super City has a unique demographic of indigenous and minority groups and they are growing. Photo / Richard Robinson

Last week, I started writing an open source user's guide to the Auckland Council, approaching those who have created and evolved the council so we can understand why it is the way it is and how it really works. I wrote a similar Public Law Toolbox to open up central government to New Zealanders.

I intend to share what I learn free of charge so all Aucklanders can better understand their local authority and work with it. The amalgamated Super City is an obvious example of why Auckland matters. Auckland Council estimates Auckland accounts for just over 37 per cent of New Zealand's GDP (and growing). In 2011 Auckland GDP growth was just over 2 per cent, compared to a nationwide contraction.

Second only to central government in terms of power and influence, it governs at a local level over 1.5 million New Zealanders (according to Statistics NZ) and its draft Annual Plan for 2013/14 plans over $3 billion in operating expenditure and $1.7 billion in capital expenditure. And as the area of highest population growth and greatest economic output, Auckland's growth impacts all of New Zealand.

How it is governed matters to everyone.

The creation of the new Auckland Council has left Aucklanders and Auckland businesses with many questions: If you have a problem with Auckland Council, what is the best way to fix it? How does the Auckland Council really work? Does the Auckland amalgamation legislation enacted by Parliament give you enough information about how the council works? Who do you call? Where do you start? And how do you escalate your concerns if the person you call won't help?

Welcome to the Auckland beltway. In Wellington, we go to the Beehive. In Auckland, the council wields the power, and there are few areas of Auckland life not affected by its reach. A decision on public notification, and formal consultation on, Auckland's Draft Unitary Plan is scheduled to be made in September. The council is already reviewing the 158 bylaws it inherited from its seven predecessors, to establish a single set of bylaws for all of Auckland. These bylaws traverse the full spectrum of Auckland life - from alcohol control to cemeteries to prostitution to dog management to food safety to posters to wastewater to waste disposal and more besides. All Aucklanders will be affected in some way.

This means that engagement and consultation is crucial for the council and its residents. But the size of the council can be daunting and the law is a blunt instrument. The amalgamation legislation does not provide any easy explanations as to how the council actually operates. The very short enactment and implementation timeframes means the legislation is not as clear as it could be. It is a good place to start but it does not give the full picture. How the council has evolved over the past three years to what we have now is an untold story. But it should be told. Aucklanders (and the rest of New Zealand) deserve to hear it because without knowing the story, the scale of the council's operation and reach can be daunting.

The issues the council has to deal with also include its unique demographic of indigenous and minority groups. At the last census, 18.9 per cent of Aucklanders were Asian, 14.4 per cent were Pasifika and 11.1 per cent were Maori. These groups continue to grow. Statistics NZ has projected that by 2021, Auckland will have a majority of minorities - 27 per cent will be Asian, 17 per cent Pasifika and 12 per cent Maori.

Auckland's population is also young. Statistics New Zealand says the average Aucklander is 34 compared to 36 nationwide. There will also be geographic shifts. The proportion of young people (especially Pasifika and Maori) in South Auckland is growing. This year's census will highlight the ethnic and demographic shifts in the isthmus.

I hope what I share with Aucklanders on an open-source basis will help these groups to participate in their local democracy and enable them to have a greater input into how Auckland evolves, so we can make sure all ethnic groups are catered for. Their voice and leadership is important, especially as issues like education, health and housing affect our ethnic populations and young people acutely.

The focus will be on practical guidance but also lessons learned as no doubt other councils round New Zealand are considering mergers. There can be little doubt further amalgamations are on the horizon.

In my experience, there are as many things to learn about effectively working with the council as there are to working with central government. I will be asking what the tools in the council toolbox are, who has the power, and how do you get the cut through you need to achieve the outcomes you want? Understanding how things have ended up operating in a certain way helps you to figure out how to break through.

Dealing with central and local government is always different; however I have found the council and staff I deal with to be professional and constructive problem solvers. The council has a close relationship with its local communities and businesses via local boards which mean that practical and reasonable solutions to problems often can be quickly found.

I shall give instalments as I go as the interviews have already started. My hope is that by bringing together the most important architects of the Super City, the first road map of the Auckland Council can be published.

So watch this space.

Mai Chen is the founding partner of Chen Palmer Public and Employment Law Specialists. She is also an Adjunct Professor in Commercial and Public Law at the University of Auckland. She is co-authoring the Maori Law Toolbox, forthcoming.

- NZ Herald

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