David Hargreaves says we all need to be getting much more interested in local government

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By David Hargreaves

There’s a couple of opposing, and I would say dangerous, dynamics in action within New Zealand at the moment.

The first of these dynamics is the growing apathy of large portions of the public towards local government – particularly when it comes to electing councils.

The second, and opposing force, is the move of Local Government New Zealand – strongly pushed by the lobbyist NZ Initiative – to give greater powers and autonomy to these councils that the public aren’t interested in.

So, yes. As a country we are in general terms getting less interested in local councils – as shown by voter turnout figures, while those councils themselves want to be able to influence our lives more. This in my view is setting the country up for a potentially disastrous situation in future.

You see, I think there’s every chance that these LGNZ moves, with the considerable weight of the NZ Initiative behind them, might get some traction.

But that would be at a time when, in my view, we are many million miles away from having local authorities that can even be properly trusted with the powers they have – let alone getting broader ones.

I opined on this subject previously last year when the LGNZ/NZ Initiative campaign was launched and do so again now on the basis that clearly this is a campaign that will not go away. 

I also note that LGNZ has launched a campaign to encourage more people to vote in this year’s local body elections. 

We’re not bothered

Depressingly, the LGNZ’s media release did not seem to get much coverage and it’s symptomatic of where we are in this country at the moment that already there’s a kind of gearing up happening for (late) NEXT year’s general election while other than a bit of sniping and chitchat around the Auckland mayoral contest, the fact that local body elections are THIS year is mostly escaping the public.

As I indicated last year, I think the idea of less central government control in essence is a good one.

But, and this is the huge but, the public need to have confidence that by devolving power then decisions will be made more soundly. And how many people in New Zealand would actually trust a local council over the central Government when it comes to decision making? And that’s not to say that people have huge confidence in central Government decision making either – they just have even less confidence in local government.

Right now I think it would be a disaster to start devolving more power to our local authorities.

If the overall apathy towards local government continues to rule, however, then that’s what might happen. And none of us should start shrieking and complaining about things going wrong if we didn’t get involved in the first place.

Some figures

The statistics show us that as a country we take a reasonable interest in what goes in in the general election – in terms of bothering to cast a vote, anyway.

However, in terms of electing of local authorities – well, the figures tell us that we just ain’t that interested and have become less so.

Note that the bottom line there is tracking the votes for city councils. That’s right. They are worse than average.

And if one starts digging into the detail of some of these figures then the picture really does start to look even worse. 

Among the country’s top five cities by population the turnouts in 2016 were as follows:

  • Auckland 38.4%
  • Hamilton 33.6%
  • Tauranga 38.3%
  • Wellington 46.2%
  • Christchurch 37.8%

So none of those places are governed by councils with a mandate from more than half of the adult population, while Hamilton’s council was ‘voted in’ by just over a third of its adult population.

These figures suggest none of these councils can claim true legitimacy to make decisions on behalf of the residents – BUT, everybody has the chance to vote, so, anybody who didn’t vote have themselves got no legitimate reason to carp about what ‘their’ council might be doing.

The oldies have it

The other truly depressing thing about digging into the details of voting patterns in the local body elections is that, according to LGNZ, the highest voter turnout in 2016 was in the 70-plus age group (89%) and lowest was in the 18-29 age group (34%). 

I don’t know what those percentages equate to in terms of actual numbers of votes, but what they do tell you is that older people who have many more years behind them than in front of them are fully involved in voting for what councils decide to do in future – while very few of those people who will in coming years be affected by such decisions are having a voice. That’s how you get poor quality, short-term, decisions that favour certain vested interests.

Now, it may well be that we could allow ourselves to get talked into a view that, oh, young people will get more interested if the councils have more power, and we’ll attract a better calibre of local body politician if we devolve more power. But that would be dangerous. And it would make very big assumptions that I don’t think we should make. But you could definitely see such a process of logic getting traction. We should not be tempted.

Oh, no. We somehow need to get more people involved in supporting local body elections and the whole political process, and we need to somehow get better people putting themselves up for councils – FIRST. Yes, let’s get a healthy looking local authority set up first before there’s even the remotest consideration of widening the powers of local councils.

How do we do that?

Well, that’s the discussion we should be having. Not a discussion about devolving power. Don’t try to run before we can walk. Let’s get on our feet first.

Time for an overhaul

I think we should be looking at such things as whether we have the right numbers of councils. Would smaller be better? I know that hasn’t been the trend. But is Auckland the ‘super city’ better than it was?

We should also be looking at what the ‘core competencies’ are of councils. Personally I’ve always been most interested in how well councils get water into my house and then take the waste away. I want a council that does that well, not a council that starts erecting vanity projects at the whim of its mayor.

I believe there’s room for a thorough overhaul of how our local authorities are governed and run. (Another Government Taskforce?!)  And that needs to happen before any sort of nonsense is talked about giving what we have now more power. 

As a final word: For goodness sake VOTE in this year’s local body elections.

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