Lacking power, they endorse things that just aren't going to happen
So without enough to do, the elected body ponders long-term planning objectives and reads a great deal of paper on subjects such as environmental sustainability. It is getting so that every time the Auckland Council says or does something it causes me to wonder, do we need elected councils?
Seriously. The whole of New Zealand has a population no bigger than a decent-sized world city. Can a population of four million support more than one elected body? By "support" I mean give the body real power.
Power forces an elected body to use common sense. Without power an elected body can easily become a talking shop of pointless, though possibly perfectly rational, proposals that we are never going to see.
Last month Auckland's council decided to ban fireplaces. Not fires, fireplaces. I haven't used mine in years but the bylaw would have me brick it up if I wanted to sell the house.
It would be cheaper for me and more effective for their purpose, I'd have thought, if they just watched Auckland's chimneys. But is this really necessary?
When Christchurch banned open fires a long time ago every resident could see why. Their atmosphere had a temperature inversion layer that trapped smoke on cold days. You could see the haze from the hills. If you can see air pollution in Auckland it probably comes from motor vehicles, notably the council's contracted buses.
Some people say they have seen it, in some corners of Queen St, sometimes. Damned if I can see it.
Predictably, the council caved on the fireplace ban this week, but by then it had invited public discussion of another non-starter. It suggests a $2 toll on the motorways as an alternative to petrol tax or rate rises to fund its solutions to traffic congestion. The Government has said it's not going to happen. It said it again, so why is the council wasting time?
Why are 20 good people, all of them public-spirited, spending untold hours in meetings, chewing through piles of paper, cups of tea and chicken sandwiches, to come to decisions they must know are not going to happen?
The best of them probably know deep down they would come to a different decision if it was going to happen. Democratic power is a wonderful discipline on the mind. Without it, you can be just a columnist.
I think a toll on Auckland motorway exits would be fair and effective, I've argued for it here. But if I was in an elected position to decide, I probably wouldn't do it. Power, I suspect, makes you more conscious of that inarticulate general will called common sense.
Motorway tolls, I think, offend a common sense that it is somehow wrong to be charged to move around. It is one thing to pay a toll on certain, limited, avoidable sections of the public highway, but not on a city's main arteries.
It is not the cost, $2 is nothing, the real cost is to our sense of freedom. That reason is too weak to stand up in debate and governments will not use it. They struggle to explain their decision but they are in no doubt it reflects the popular will.
The incompetence of elected councils these days is not the fault of those elected to them. It is competence in the constitutional sense of what they are allowed to do. They are not allowed to manage road repairs, parks, rubbish collections and all the other things their electorate thinks they are going to do. These are for officers to manage and the politicians must not interfere.
So without enough to do, the elected body ponders long-term planning objectives and reads a great deal of paper on subjects such as environmental sustainability. Hence, I guess, the need to brick up the fireplace.
We could do away with the elected council and hardly notice. The Government and its agencies already make Auckland's important decisions. The motorways are the shining example. Congestion on my daily commute has been greatly reduced by the northern busway and the Victoria Park tunnel. It has been bad this week because it was wet. Aucklanders will not walk to a bus in the rain. Public transport is at best a fair weather solution.
If the Government is going to keep control of Auckland's important decisions, as it should, we do not need to elect a council. If its role is just to put out proposals from expert advisers for public discussion, as it did on tolls, it is not with its keep.
We have enough token democracy with elected district health boards, whose work is largely dictated by the Ministry of Health, and school boards of trustees, that answer to the Ministry of Education.
If we need to elect a council it should be given the power to make decisions and charge us for them, with tolls if it dares. Then watch common sense prevail.