Friday, October 12, 2007

Local Government and Mandate

"I don't know you, I don't know anything about your company and I don't know anything about your product. Now, what was it you were you trying to sell me?"So wrote David Ogilvy in his famous ad for advertising back in the 1960s.

These days there would be few companies that did not appreciate the importance of advertising and corporate communication. The role is simply too important as a generator of sales. Even central government does a good job in informing the public about what its thinking about, what it is planning to do, and how the public can get involved.

But when it comes to local government which is currently pleading with the New Zealand public to give it some kind of mandate, the communication and control function is almost non-existent.
Ask anyone on the street what are the main issues confronting their local council and the probability is they couldn't tell you. They don't know what local government does, they don't know who made what decisions, and they don't really care.

Should they? Of course they should! Local Government collects millions in rates and spends it on roading, water, rubbish collection and civic amenities. Under the outrageously restrictive terms of the Resource Management Act and Building Act they practically own the land we live on, and we have to go cap in hand to them to allow us to spend our own money on our own properties – and pay them hefty fees for the privilege.

And more important the lack of of electoral representation fundamentally undermines the mandate of local government. Although this would not stop local Government if we had a half-way decent democracy there would be some form of law/court or commission which would insist that certain actions can only be carried out when an organisation has a clear mandate to carry them out. For any real democracy that would not be a threat but for local government at this juncture it certainly would be.

Because at the moment more often than not what happens is that local government gets captured by developers or interest groups who use ratepayer money to further agendas the voting public has no idea about and wouldn't approve of, if they did.

So why don't we vote? Because we don't know what Councillors and mayors are accountable for and we don't know what they have or haven't achieved. We have no idea who the candidates are, what their records are or whether their platforms have anything to do with what their role would be.Why not?

First, because news about Council decisions is restricted by Councils carrying out so much business in committee. Second, there is no such thing as an opposition when it comes to local body decision-making. And thirdly our local bodies are the wrong size.

In my view the French have the best appreciation of petty politics. Two thirds of the funds spent in local body politics in France are spent by communes. A commune is about 1,200 households. It is, in essence, a neighbourhood. As such everyone knows everyone else. Thus: "If that fat bastard Bertrand things I am paying my rates so he can swan off on a 'fact-finding' trip overseas, he has another think coming". Everyone in the neighbourhood knows what is happening, they know and care where the money is going and where it's being spent. That is the very essence of accountability.

People understood the Boroughs. They could see the benefit of collective action at a neighbourhood level. Borough dealt with pot-holes, intersections, play-areas, libaries and all the little resources a community wants to provide itself with in a way that remote District Councils never can and never will.

Of course petty politics is essentially petty. Above that you need a more substantial organisation. The logical step is Provincial Council embracing all the District Council functions in a Province. This would look after major road links, water, catchments, parks and reserves etc. It would also need some heavy duty representation including one delegate from each Borough, and a serious sized directly elected council. In Germany the State Governments actually nominate delegates on to the upper house of parliament but that is another story.

Provincial Government would be in a far better position to further the economic, social and environmental aspirations of our provinces than a hotch-potch of district and city councils loosely linked by an over-developed catchment authority (Regional Council). It would be better understood by the media and voters alike and by dint of having more power would stimulate more interest in local body elections.

Until we get local government that conforms to our natural heirarchy of collective interest: neighbourhood; province; and nation, local government will continue to irritate its constituents with interventions based on an inadequate mandate.

The simple fact is the combination of the local government reforms of the 80s and the Resource Management Act of the 1991 have failed to deliver a local government structure that New Zealanders have any confidence in. Unpleasant as it may be, it must be changed, and preferably sooner rather than later.

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