Populist politicians love soundbites and scapegoats, but history teaches us this rarely leads to positive outcomes in the real world.
Nowhere is this more on display than in the Auckland Mayoral election campaign, where local government workers and the services they provide have unfortunately become the scapegoat of choice.
With a growing population and increasing community need for public facilities, it is deeply
concerning to hear suggestions from mayoral candidate John Tamihere to privatise our water and freeze rates for three years.
A slash-and-burn campaign against Auckland Council's budget will only hurt the city and the people trying to make it their home.
We all benefit from the amenities provided by a well-resourced council. Libraries, swimming pools, parks and bus stops are supported by the rates we pay. It is dangerously short-sighted to advocate rates reduction at any cost, particularly at a time when an increasingly unequal city should guarantee services for all residents – not just those who can afford them anyway.
Auckland faces a crisis of crumbling infrastructure, starkly visible in every traffic jam and every time heavy rain floods sewage into the harbour and back onto our beaches. This infrastructure crisis could have been avoided if previous local administrations spent more on maintenance, but in every election the short-sighted call goes out to cut rates and cut spending.
Successive administrations acquiesced to varying degrees in pursuit of votes, and the chickens have come home to roost.
The Public Service Association has not been driven to comment on the Auckland Mayoral race because we endorse the current leadership of Auckland Council under Mayor Phil Goff.
We have concerns about the impact of fuel taxes on our members, many of whom drive long distances as part of their work. We are particularly unhappy that so many council employees, such as library assistants, continue to receive unacceptably low pay for their important work. All too often these workers are predominantly women, and we are currently challenging Auckland Council with an equal pay claim for these workers.
There are points of agreement and disagreement with both candidates, and we intend to be part of an open political dialogue.
Aucklanders have been hit particularly hard by the housing crisis and the wider cost of living, and it is understandable why the idea of a rates freeze may appeal to some. But if the small amount of money saved means insufficient funding for libraries, environmental clean-up efforts and free activities for children, is it worth it? Who pays the price?
The Productivity Commission's draft report on Local Government Funding and Financing compares average yearly growth in rates per capita across territorial authorities between 2000 and 2018.
Auckland's per capita rates increase were the sixth lowest in New Zealand, of 66 areas analysed.
The report notes local government expenditure "has been in line with growth in national population and incomes. As a result, rates have remained stable as a proportion of per capita national and household incomes for many decades, despite widespread concerns to the contrary."
Tamihere says he supports council workers and wants to bring work currently performed by contractors in-house. He argues a rates freeze is affordable in part by pushing thousands of unspecified contractors off the payroll.
We agree too much is spent on contracting out. Putting aside the interesting question of how a council could expand staff while reducing its revenue, the current overreliance on contractors is caused by a misguided cap placed on fulltime staff numbers by Goff and the Auckland Council Governing Body.
The issue is not overspending, but rather a fatally flawed attempt to cut costs that has backfired time and time again.
Ideologically motivated reductions or restrictions in personnel budgets do not somehow lead to a reduction in community need. Contractors make up the shortfall created by an insufficient number of permanent staff, and they fill the void left by an erosion of institutional knowledge. This is why central government has abandoned caps on the number of public servants. Why should Auckland Council stick to outdated and discredited thinking?
The last thing Aucklanders need is to spend hundreds of dollars each year on increased water charges, in a transfer of wealth from local communities to corporate profits.
All evidence indicates that allowing a private company to purchase a significant share of Watercare will drive up costs for ordinary people, and Tamihere admits himself that water charges will increase. He just doesn't know by how much.
Asset sales have been tried before in New Zealand. We were told they would save money and lead to increased efficiency. In practice, the private sector often cares more about maximising profit than maintaining infrastructure or investing in essential services.
A 2011 study comparing Wellington's publicly owned water supply to the region's privatised power network is illustrative. Between 1990 and 2010, the cost of running the water network increased by 17 percent. In the same time period, the cost of running the power network more than quadrupled.
It is fair to note that Tamihere is so far proposing only the sale of a minority share in Watercare, whereas Welllington's power supply ended up majority privately owned. Our concern is that this is the thin end of the wedge. It sets a dangerous precedent for our water supply, an essential public service and the most basic requirement of human life, to be bought and sold on the market. Where will this end?
Local and central government can work together to tackle the cost of living in Auckland and elsewhere by expanding public housing, supporting decent jobs that pay a living wage, and taking stronger action to prevent private landlords from gouging tenants than just politely asking them not to.
A slash-and-burn campaign against Auckland Council's budget will only hurt the city and the people trying to make it their home. The mistakes of the past cannot be repeated. We deserve better from our politicians than this.
• Glenn Barclay is the national secretary of the Public Service Association