Pauline Wetton: Boiling frogs and strangling democracy

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An authoritarian, centralising Government appears reluctant to share decision-making with its citizens.

Like the frogs, local democracy may very well be dead before we are even aware of the threat to its well-being. Photo / Getty Images
Like the frogs, local democracy may very well be dead before we are even aware of the threat to its well-being. Photo / Getty Images

Is boiled frog on the Government's menu for local government?

"To cook frogs, take the required number and place them in lukewarm water. Heat the water very slowly, and by the time the boiling point is reached you will have dead frogs ready to serve. The gradual rate of heating ensures they remain unaware of their doom until it is too late to escape."

With the Better Local Government Policy that culminated in the December 2012 Local Government 2002 Amendment Act, you have an analogous situation: like the frogs, local democracy may very well be dead before we are even aware of the threat to its well-being.

Under the 2002 act, locally elected councils and boards were given considerably enhanced powers of governance; they were responsible not only for general infrastructure but also for working towards "the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being" of the people they represented.

While remaining under the overall control of central government, local councils and boards could respond to the needs of their own communities. With very few exceptions - and setting aside the constant grumbles over rates - the system has proved an efficient and effective way of giving cities, towns and rural areas more democratic heft.

The National Government, from the start, seems to have been determined to rein back the powers of local government. Starting from the largely manufactured premise that local government, like the ACC, was "broken" - heavily indebted and widely inefficient - it issued the Better Local Government Policy with the avowed aim of cutting back superfluous activities such as the "four well-beings" while refocusing councils on providing infrastructure.

Since 2009, we have seen a series of laws passed that mark a fundamental shift in the relationship between central and local government.

Local Government NZ responded to this attack by commissioning a report from the Institute of Economic Research which found that councils had been neither fiscally irresponsible nor unwarrantedly extending their activities.

Having created, in the Super City, an entity second in size and clout only to itself, the Government found that democracy-in-practice had returned a mayor and council whose policies might well turn out to be anathema.

The Government has since been niggardly in the extreme in its response to the attempts of the new city to find solutions to its transport woes, crushing each suggested area of "wiggle-room" with a bluntly expressed "No!" as its inevitable response. Quite why the Auckland Council seems surprised by this is difficult to fathom. After all, the Government's ideas had been made clear in a series of Better Local Government policy statements; and if its intentions were not apparent there, they should have been made crystal clear by the removal of any of the Canterbury region's democratic rights by the Environment Canterbury (Temporary Commissioners and Improved Water Management) Act of 2010.

Under this act, the right to elect a region's own officials was removed for the next two elections; Canterbury will not have the right to elect its own representatives until 2016.

This anti-democratic legislation was passed under the pretext that the regional council was dysfunctional and taking too long to come to a decision over how water rights in the region should be allocated; although if the way we use our most precious resource is not a reason for discussion, compromise and collaboration, what is?

What we are seeing seems to be an authoritarian, centralising Government reluctant to share decision-making with citizens. And those who are still untouched by this process have no reason for complacency.

The Local Government 2002 Amendment Act, passed before Christmas 2012, is not region-specific. Every city and town, urban or rural area will be, potentially, affected. Our ability to make local choices to deal with local concerns is likely to be threatened.

The key phrase used repeatedly in this act is "the minister may intervene ... if (he/she) believes, on reasonable grounds, that a significant problem relating to the local authority may exist".

Any one of a hierarchy of alternative governance systems can be used to replace locally elected officials - as has happened in Canterbury and in Christchurch.

In 1933, a European government passed the Enabling Act, enabling it to do whatever it pleased. There is a similarity, to my mind, with some of the provisions of the 2012 Local Government 2002 Amendment Act. The tone of recent government threats of intervention in the planning for an increased housing supply in Auckland is enough to make one uneasy.

So who wins under this act? Local democracy is likely to be the big loser - and our centralising Government the only winner. All of us who value our right of participation in the nation's democratic processes should be very, very worried. Or are we content to be the dead boiled frogs on the Government menu?

Pauline Wetton is a politics student at the University of Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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