Not unusually, the Better Local Services Bill, now before a select committee, is not written for the layman.

Those who don't know much about the subject will not find it riveting, but it's a different story amongst the aficionados. In fact some councils are rebelling, and well they might.

In a nutshell, the Bill gives enormous power over our lives to the Minister of Local Government and the Local Government Commission, which will do his dirty work.

It would seem that the government has adopted Plan B after council amalgamation proposals in Northland, Wellington and Hawke's Bay were scuttled by referenda in those regions. The solution? Get rid of the democratic element.


Tell the people of this country that if the government wants to amalgamate councils it will do just that, and to hell with what the local people think.

It is an open secret that the government thinks we have too many councils, and is preparing to reduce that number come hell or high water.

The people who live with the decisions local councils make, who pay the rates that keep them solvent, are to have no say at all.

This is supposedly in the name of efficiency, as defined by a government that, like most of its predecessors, wouldn't know efficiency if it was bitten by it.

Every day Ministers preside over government departments that waste money, don't do the job they're supposed to do and generally muddle along in a fashion that many local bodies put to shame. But now, far from cleaning up its own act, the government is intent on telling councils how to do their job better.

Make no mistake, this drive for efficiency is the cloak that has been draped over a drive for amalgamations.

Bigger is apparently better. We in the Far North at least know that is not so. The amalgamation of two boroughs and four counties into the Far North District Council in 1989 had a severely detrimental effect on many Far North communities, and continues to do so.

Amalgamating the three Northland district councils and regional council into one authority will exacerbate that.


If there is a compelling counter argument, let's hear it. But let us make the final decision.

To claim, as it clearly does, that Wellington knows what's best for us represents an outrageous, unprecedented assault on democracy, even if the consultation that took place prior to 1989 was a farce.

The government thinks it's boxing clever, but it isn't. It's proposing to amalgamate council services, a process that is already voluntarily underway in Northland.

The FNDC has pointed this out, and has suggested that the government should be acting as a broker to facilitate that, as opposed to dictating the outcome.

At the end of the day it must be for the local people to decide what happens, when and how. Any other approach runs counter to every concept of democracy that our MPs should be protecting, not undermining.

The Bill would give the LGC the power, for example, to dictate that core council services, such as water, wastewater and transport, be transferred to council-controlled organisations (CCOs).

The Far North already has one of those in Far North Holdings, the key principle being it operates on a commercial basis. New CCOs would do the same, regardless of what voters want.

Whether or not that would be more efficient is a moot point, but there is a smaller picture to consider. It might well be that some existing districts will find themselves subsidising others.

The LGC's power to force councils to transfer functions and powers fundamentally means that the people who built, and paid for, assets will no longer control them.

Councils won't even have the ability to appoint elected members to multiply-owned CCOs. Voters will have no say whatsoever regarding how those CCOs function or what they charge. If voters aren't happy they will have no choice but to grin and bear it.

Councils and voters won't even have the ability to call for a judicial review of the process for establishing a CCO. In fact there is no provision for any involvement by any third party over re-organisation developed by the Kremlin. Sorry, the commission.

The only check will be that the Minister must determine that the proper process, as dictated by him, has been followed. Worse, the CCOs will in all likelihood be run from Whangarei, even Auckland.

This assumption that Wellington knows best is flawed beyond belief. Wellington has no idea of how communities like the Far North, or the communities that make up the community of the Far North, function. It has no idea of how the Far North has fared since 1989. To claim that this Bill is in our best interests is scandalous.

This Bill represents a giant leap towards the death of democracy in this country, dressed in the fiction that efficiency is the be all and end all of government at every level.

There was a time when Kaitaia Borough councillors called on business people in the town to ask if there was anything they wanted on the next meeting agenda.

Correspondence was read out at borough and county meetings. Rates strikes were calculated in public.

The Kaitaia Borough and Mangonui County Councils were demonstrably inefficient at times, but they gave the people they served every chance to be part of the local government process. They were democratic.

That level of democracy was lost in 1989, although current Mayor John Carter has led a sterling FNDC effort to communicate with communities, ratepayers and voters.

The question now is whether the amalgamations of 1989 have become too small for the 21st Century, and how much democracy we are prepared to sacrifice for so-called efficiency.

The FNDC has pointed out to the select committee considering this Bill that it faces any number of challenges that, if not unique in New Zealand, deserve consideration.

Those include a high proportion of conservation and Maori land, a small rating base, high unemployment and widely scattered rural settlements, all of which make the efficient and effective delivery of services difficult.

It has also pointed out that imposing 'solutions' on remote, culturally distinct communities is unlikely to be effective. It says economic development needs local collaboration and engagement as well as regional scale and capacity.

'Collaboration and engagement probably sound like a foreign language to Wellington, but they are at the heart of local government in this country. They should also be at the heart of central government, but haven't been for a long time, if ever.

The FNDC says it is already working on improved service delivery, within itself and as part of the Northland region, and wants to be confident that no mechanism that might impede progress will be imposed.

That's a polite way of saying it would like to pursue efficiency and effectiveness on behalf of the people it serves without the government dictating how it will function.

Voters who do not appreciate the extraordinary arrogance that this government is displaying need not be so polite. They should tell the Minister to go to hell.

They might suggest that he look at Britain's decision to leave the EU as a clear message that there is more to life than economies of scale.

Sovereignty, and that's hardly too lofty a word to use here, is important to us too, and we should make it very clear that politicians jeopardise that at their peril.