Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Local body politics, aka life in the firing line

Of course the trouble with our hierarchical structure of governance is that those on the level above can't resist tinkering with what's going on below. Photo / Peter Bromhead
Of course the trouble with our hierarchical structure of governance is that those on the level above can't resist tinkering with what's going on below. Photo / Peter Bromhead

As we prepare to yawn our way through another round of local government elections, spare a thought for the masochists fighting to represent you.

Why on earth do they do it?

Not only are they volunteering to be blamed for every unemptied rubbish bin, they're also putting themselves in the firing line for bullying Beehive politicians who think they know better. In the present government, Nanny Nick Smith is the one who immediately jumps to mind.

Over the weekend he was at it again, this time wearing his Minister for the Environment bonnet and threatening a law change, following a High Court ruling that upheld the right of local authorities under the Resource Management Act to regulate the use of Genetically Modified Organisms within their boundaries.

Local council don't have "the technical expertise," thundered Nanny Nick.

In a burst of doom-mongering, he claimed the ban, which is included in the new Auckland Unitary Plan and in resource management plans in the Far North and Hastings, would stop future medical trials such as a liver cancer vaccine trial now underway at Auckland Hospital.

It seems it was Smith who lacked the technical expertise. Dr Kerry Grundy, the expert spokesman for the councils involved, rejected his claim, saying that medical trials were specifically exempted from the ban. "The plan provisions apply only to outdoor use of GMOs," he told the Science Media Centre.

Aucklanders, of course, are used to Smith's "mummy knows best" rants in his role as Housing Minister, as he tried to lay the blame for the Auckland housing crisis on anyone but himself.

He even threatened to sack the whole council and appoint Commissioners to run the local government of a third of the country, if the new Unitary Plan wasn't to his liking.

An empty threat in reality, given it would have meant the government admitting the Super City structure it had imposed on Aucklanders just a few years before, had failed.

An embarrassing admission that would have been, especially as the Government is now trying to push through a local government amendment bill proposing that major features of the Auckland experiment be imposed across the country in the name of efficiency.

Small councils would be amalgamated, and control of services such as water, sewage, roading and flood protection, be handed over to the misnamed "council controlled organisations":

Of course the trouble with our hierarchical structure of governance is that those on the level above can't resist tinkering with what's going on below. The poor old local boards in the Auckland Council structure are worst off, because when the dust settled after the restructuring, they ended up with the rats and mice that no one else wanted, and with precious little money to do anything.

At the top of the pecking order is central government, which can't let go. Indeed the present government, whose "Nanny State" attacks on the previous Labour Government, helped secure its victory in 2008, has been increasingly strident in reminding its local government inferiors who knows best.

Aucklanders learnt this lesson very quickly, when on taking office, the new government quickly over-turned the city's deal with the previous government to introduce a regional fuel tax.

It was to help fund and fast-track urgent transport projects such as the City Rail Link.

Turning off this funding tap was a decision that stalled Auckland transport solutions, and led to years of head-banging between central and local politicians.

The new government was also quick to remove the general tree protection rules that had helped transform the central Auckland suburbs into a remarkable urban park.

Aucklanders had chosen to live in a city where property owners had to seek permission to cut down trees over a certain height. Instead, the new rule requires council to do the impossible and traipse throughout the city identifying individual trees for scheduling, then going through a long drawn out consultation process.

Of course, local government politicians do have their uses. As fall guys. Last month, Minister of Workplace Relations Michael Woodhouse tossed a hospital pass local government's way.

After 25 years of failing to solve the Easter Trading fiasco, central government whipped through legislation dumping the issue in local politicians' lap. Given this sort of treatment, it amazes me anyone stands.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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