John Roughan

John Roughan is a Weekend Herald columnist

John Roughan: Who'd be mayor if you can head CCO

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One of the little ironies of New Zealand history is that Auckland started life as a government town and Wellington was a creation of private enterprise.

Their talents turned out to be completely the reverse.

Wellington, as the New Zealand Company's settlers soon discovered, is a cold, windswept place ideal for staying indoors and making public policy with monastic dedication.

Auckland, as early parliaments took 25 years to discover, is a lovely, sunny leisure ground where public attention spans are short and sensible people go to the beach. That is why "Wellington" - which means Aucklanders who govern the country down there - has emasculated the Super City.

John Key, Rodney Hide, Steven Joyce and the rest are legislating to ensure that the new Auckland Council's most important work will be contracted out to businesslike boards that, initially at least, they will appoint.

Helen Clark would have done the same. In fact it was her cabinet that rewrote the Local Government Act in 2002 removing the distinction between councils' commercial and non-commercial services.

Thereafter all could be contracted out to "council-controlled organisations", the now dreaded CCOs.

That was not very sensible. Non-elected boards have worked well for government departments that can charge for their services, and for the chargeable services of local government. They can be given a measurable financial objective and left to decide how to organise and price the service to meet it.

The system works when the public doesn't care how the service is organised so long as it remains reliable. The boards that will manage the Auckland Council's property, water supply, stadiums, events and the like, should be fine.

But the system is problematic when the public cares about the means to an end. It is the means, not the ends, of solving traffic congestion or developing a public waterfront that are likely to arouse public interest and political disagreement. The ends are readily agreed.

That is why orderly, professional policymakers want to restrict democracy to ends. They would have elected representatives write general statements of intent for appointed boards and leave the boards to decide how to fulfil the intentions.

A public policy academic at AUT, Peter McKinlay, wrote to me after an earlier column on this subject. The organisations proposed for Auckland could work well, he argued, if those elected to the council "understand the nature of the governance role".

He said statements of intent and the associated monitoring requirements could be "a very powerful tool in the hands of elected members who understand what they have got, especially when it comes to the strategic direction of the organisation".

He may be fascinated by these statements, few others will be. Councils are statutorily obliged to spend inordinate time, energy and money publishing long-term planning statements and inviting public discussion on documents that are stunningly meaningless and mentally numbing. The vast majority of voters sensibly ignore them.

McKinley advanced his theory in a discussion on National Radio the other day and it was dismissed from the right and left by mayoral candidate John Banks and Regional Council chairman Mike Lee. They have done these paper exercises.

Banks changed his tune, as he too often does, in the Herald on Tuesday. "Each of these (arms-length boards) will be delivered a very clear set of directions outlining what is expected of them," he said. He would have them in his office once a month and "hold their feet to the fire".

I wish Banks didn't so often sound like the last person he heard. But his only rival for the "super" mayoralty so far, Manukau's Len Brown, was worse. His main concern was that council-controlled organisations might be seen as a prelude to privatisation. He promised he "would not allow these assets to be sold".

For heaven's sake. One of the boards will be given the entire Auckland local government property portfolio. Another will have the city's duplicated stadiums.

If the amalgamation of eight local bodies does not produce some surplus property for sale it would be astonishing.

Though a private offer for a stadium is less likely, would Brown refuse it?

That sort of comment provides a good argument for keeping Auckland politics as far as possible from the decisions that matter.

Within eight months of the election we are not seeing the quality of mayoral candidates the "super" city was intended to encourage, and no wonder. Any serious and capable business leader with a desire to do something constructive for Auckland would do better to chair a board.

Their feet would be fairly immune to any mayor's fire for the term of their appointment and, if the legislation is tweaked to expose them to a bit more public scrutiny, the system could satisfy democracy and make decisions of value.

- NZ Herald

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