John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Where is a mayor who can fix Auckland's democratic facade?

The truth about the Super City is that its mayor and council you can do very little unless the chief executive and senior officers let them. Photo / Brett Phibbs
The truth about the Super City is that its mayor and council you can do very little unless the chief executive and senior officers let them. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Watching the candidates for Mayor of Auckland I can't help wondering, do they know anything about the job they seek? None of them have sat on the Auckland Council.

We have 19 candidates, no less, and none of them are sitting members of the council. The reason may be that those on the left who might have stood - Penny Hulse, Mike Lee - were willing to defer to Phil Goff and none of the sitting members on the right believed they could beat him.

But Goff is not exactly a political colossus. He has had a fine career in Parliament but didn't appear to jump at the prospect of being Auckland's mayor when it was suggested. Maybe he does know what it involves. I hope so. In fact, I dare hope he may be capable of fixing it.

None of the candidates I heard at a public meeting last week said a word about the impotence of the elected positions on the Super City council. Besides Goff there were Vic Crone, John Palino, Mark Thomas and David Hay, not to mention Penny Bright whose presence I found offensive.

Until she pays her rates she shouldn't be allowed to vote, let alone stand for election.

Of the serious candidates, Thomas and Hay were the only ones with inside knowledge of local government, Thomas a chair of the Orakei Local Board, Hay as a planing officer. Thomas impressed with his grasp of the council's mechanics but didn't strike me as likely to change them. Hay sounded like he lives by them.

It is probably not safe politics to campaign on the fact that an unsatisfactory constitution renders elected positions practically powerless. Much safer to make bold declarations about what your propose to do for the voters if they give you the chance. But the truth about the Super City is that its mayor and council you can do very little unless the chief executive and senior officers let them.

The council gets to discuss big amorphous principles such as environmental sustainability, community engagement and land-use planning objectives but once they have decided these are a good thing, they have to let the officers decide how, where, when and under what conditions they might be put into operation.

Anyone who doubts this should take the time to attend a council meeting any day of the week. The council meets as committees of all, or nearly all, members all day, just about every day. The poor members are fed fat agendas full of long reports of nebulous, mind-numbing vacuity.

Most of their evenings must be taken up reading it all and at the meetings they wade through it all, having a desultory debate on a minor point and knowing all along there is not much to decide. Christine Fletcher has complained publicly about how little time the interminable meetings leave for her to meet constituents and attend to people's real concerns.

The mayor and council are a democratic facade, maintained for appearances while professional staff make all the real decisions. You don't have to go to a meeting to see the ignorance in which the elected members are kept, it becomes apparent every time something goes wrong.

The example that sticks in my head was the Pt Chevalier school that was going to charged for a picnic in a nearby park. This came as complete news to our elected representatives.

Doubtless, they had at some point approved a broad policy parameter that they were assured would be harmless. Probably none of them asked if the hiring of parks would apply to schools. Councillors are no longer accustomed to considering operational implications, as the "governing body" they are not supposed to.

The text book says their proper role is "governance" not "management".

It was Parliament that applied this strict separation of roles to the Super City and now is proposing to extend it to all councils. The same principle separates Parliament and the Government from the public service but somehow governments do not seem as impotent as councils. Good ministers are on top of their departments, know what is going on and get Cabinet decisions carried out.

Goff was a good minister. He has always been on the hard-headed side of the Labour Party but I'm not sure he is coming to this job with much enthusiasm. His endorsement of Auckland Transport's trams to Mt Roskill suggest he may be content to ride any proposal the planners serve up.

Vic Crone did not say anything to distinguish herself strongly that night. Palino may be the most likely to stir things up, challenge the officers, get elected representatives back into a meaningful role. But I'd have more confidence in Palino if he stood for the council first.

It's our council vote that matters. Make that one count.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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