Situation Normal – All Fouled Up. That sums up the current state of Rodney Hide’s plans to turn Auckland into New Zealand’s first super city as the citizens start wondering what happened to the local in local government
The year 2009 must be shaping up as one of the worst in Rodney Hide’s life. The most overworked word in his current vocabulary is “sorry”. Sorry about charging people $45 a head to hear me speak as Minister for Local Government. Sorry about taking the girlfriend along on a taxpayer-funded working holiday. Sorry about saying John Key “doesn’t do anything”.
Soon, it will be “sorry” for telling everyone how easy it is to slip things past Cabinet Ministers: “You turn up with your papers. They’re all busy with their own stuff. They’re not bothered.”
It could get worse. If Hide doesn’t watch his step, he is going to dance his way into the biggest “sorry” of them all. His brainchild – the conversion of Auckland into New Zealand’s first super city – is slip-sliding away from him. If current trends continue, he will have a super mess on his plate instead.
It will cost him his job as Minister outside Cabinet, and it could easily be the catalyst that converts the currently untouchable John Key into the Prime Minister of a one-term government... if he continues to let Hide keep tripping himself up.
It is not all Rodney’s fault. His troubles are being aggravated by an arithmetically-challenged Local Government Commission and the pathologically uncommunicative and extremely powerful Auckland Transition Agency.
Last month, the Local Government Commission outlined its proposals for dividing the Auckland region into 12 wards to be represented by the 20 councillors who’ll sit at the super city’s top table and take the big region-wide decisions, plus the 19 local boards of five to nine members apiece who will decide on local matters. It has taken a while for the impact of these boundary and representation proposals to sink in.
Now, the storm is breaking as the deadline of 11 December draws near for submissions on the boundary and representation proposals.
David Thornton, current chair of the Glenfield Community Trust and former member of the North Shore City Council, the Auckland Regional Land Transport Committee, and the Greater London Council, has produced a devastating criticism of the Commission’s plan.
“The proposals on representation … would devastate true representative democracy in New Zealand,” he says. “Auckland citizens will be massively under-represented by world standards under the Local Government Commission proposals.”
According to Thornton, in Australian urban centres the average representation ratio is about 3,000 citizens per elected member; in the United Kingdom, it is about 2,600 to 1; in the Netherlands, 1,555 to 1; and in Denmark, it is 1,115 to 1. He calculates that the Local Government Commission plan will provide Auckland with a representation ratio of 12,905 to 1 at Local Board level, and 9,638 to 1 in the so-called super city council.
The New Zealand Herald’s crusty local government specialist Brian Rudman adds further fuel to the fire. He concludes that if each Auckland citizen was provided with one vote of equal value, the outcome would see one super city councillor representing a ward of 70,809 people. But the Commission has complicated the situation by determining that some wards of the super city will have two councilors, and others just one.
As a result, the ward boundaries proposed by the Local Government Commission will deliver huge variations in the level of representation from one ward to another. Rudman says residents of East Coast Bays, Howick, Pakuranga and Botany will be massively over-represented by comparison with the denizens of the Mangahau [inner city] and Hauraki Gulf ward, and significantly better represented than their counterparts in New Lynn, Avondale, Orakei and Maungakiekie.
Meantime, the Auckland Transition Agency chugs quietly away, at putting together the first super city plan and management structure together, determining the responsibilities and Budgets of the local boards, and appointing the Chief Executive, who will then select his key managers. The super council bureaucracy will all be up and running before the elected councilors and board members get near the place.
The Transition Agency is governed by a board of appointees, selected by and reporting to the Minister of Local Government. It has the power of veto over new spending proposals by the existing local authorities, and it is implementing structural policy decisions taken by the Key Cabinet and Rodney Hide. There is nothing very democratic or transparent about its process. Its periodic reports and press statements are a model of economy – and its accessibility to the media is, in my experience, zilch.
Rebellion is inevitable. The burning platform is currently being constructed by Labour around proposals for the CCOs – council controlled organizations. There may be up to nine of these organizations, each of which is governed by a board of directors appointed, in the first instance, by ministers of central government.
Labour’s Auckland Issues spokesperson, Phil Twyford, is zeroing in on the new organization being created to manage super city water and wastewater services. He sees it as the chosen vehicle for the dreaded P – the privatization that John Key said would not happen within his government’s first term.
Polling shows Aucklanders strongly opposed privatisation of council water systems, and Twyford has seized on a previously unpublished section of a paper submitted to Cabinet by Hide last October is proof of a hidden agenda.
Hide’s paper recommends [among many other things] repealing section 88 of the Local Government Act, requiring councils “to carry out formal consultations if they wish to transfer delivery of a significant activity to a council controlled organization, not for profit organization, or private contractor”. The section, Hide submitted, is “biased against the use of the private sector to provide council services.”
What Twyford has not revealed is that the subsequent minute recording the cabinet’s decisions lists approvals for other recommendations made by Hide, but makes no mention of repealing section 88. Perhaps, the cabinet ministers were not too busy to be bothered on this occasion, even though Hide’s paper tried to slide it through as a “minor legislative change”. But, as yet, no-one has stood up and denied Twyford’s allegation.
So, the flames are starting to lick around Rodney’s pyre – and simply saying “sorry” will not secure survival if they are allowed to burn out of control.