Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Whither local democracy?

Central Government Retains its Hold
The Minister of Local Government is reported in the New Zealand Herald to be considering establishing a committee of Cabinet with the power to make decisions over Auckland matters.  This echoes a suggestion by the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance.  It emerges though at this last minute as yet another in a series of convoluted arrangements made in response to the contested decision-making that has been a feature of local governance Auckland.
The reason for this proposal is that the new Auckland Council will have to deal with a large range of government departments.  But so does every other council.  Perhaps the real problem is that the new arrangements reveal the fragmentation of central government.  If so, why the special treatment for Auckland?  While it is by far the biggest local council that government has to deal with, that does not mean that Auckland’s problems are necessarily more complex than those of councils elsewhere.  In fact, consolidation into a unitary council was meant to have strengthened local capacity to deal with any issues that might be holding back the region’s development.
Coupled with the way in which the Minister has stage-managed the implementation of reform, from the time he issued a brief government response – Making Auckland Greaterusurping the Commission’s tome, through the appointment of the transition agency and the local government commissioner, to the three Acts of Parliament defining the structure of the new council, this reform has been driven from Wellington.  Appointments to the boards of the Council Controlled Organisations responsible for infrastructure and network services were also made by the Minister.  And now it has been announced that both the Minister and Prime Minister are addressing the inaugural meeting of the new council, something that journalist Brian Rudman suggests is “intimidating”.
Wellington in Auckland
Certainly, scale means Auckland’s economic performance makes it a focus of government attention.  But this was addressed in 2005 by the establishment of the Government Urban and Economic Development Office (GUEDO).  This included personnel from the Ministries of Economic Development, Transport, Environment, and the Department of Labour (DOL) “to achieve greater alignment of Government priorities and effort towards sustainable urban and economic development of the Auckland region”. 
The office joined the frenzy of reporting and caucusing about Auckland’s economic development, working closely with the Auckland Regional Council on a series of projects aimed at defining the “Auckland problem” and finding ways of resolving it. The results are not yet obvious as the region has continued to underperform the rest of the country in terms of employment growth, most evident in a 3.6% contraction between February 2008 and February 2009, compared with 2.3% for the rest of the country.
In 2010, joining the spirit of reform that took over the region, GUEDO changed its name to the Auckland Policy Office to reflect a “broader role in developing and implementing government policy in Auckland”.  Today central government’s Auckland Policy Office incorporates the Departments of Internal Affairs, the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Building and Housing, Treasury, the State Services Commission, the Ministries of Social Development and Culture and Heritage, the Securities Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency. Only a minority of these departments have staff in the Auckland office.  However, the APO is overseen by a committee of the departmental chief executives, suggesting that there should already be an appreciation in Wellington of Auckland issues and coordinated departmental positions on how to respond to Auckland initiatives.  What more do we need?
Another sign of Wellington’s growing presence in Auckland is the growth in central government administration in the region, with the numbers up by 60% over the past decade, to 6,100 compared with 4,710 in local government. (These figures do not include employees within operative services, including hospitals, schools, or water supply).  Even the central government bureaucracy in Wellington did not grow at such a rate, although it still managed to expand employment by 47% over a decade in which the capital’s total employment only grew by 17%.
Structural Change and Contested Decision-Making
One thread behind the creation of one council was the difficulty in getting agreement on major infrastructure projects – the region’s debate over and consequent rejection of the central government’s proposal to turn a large area of the waterfront into a rugby stadium being the obvious example.  Yet even after reform it seems that Auckland’s capacity to make its own decisions will still ride heavily on central government advice, agenda, and approval.  
But by raising the contestability of regional decisions to the national level, is there any guarantee of better outcomes for Auckland and Aucklanders?
Delivering on a Community Mandate
At least the “almost-local” ward electoral system and the creation of local boards in the new arrangement has created an opportunity for communities to be heard, and for this concession we should be grateful.  As it is, the representative system first time around was not to be denied, with a community-grounded platform prevailing in the mayoral election.  It remains to be seen how far the Mayor, Len Brown, can marry a community mandate with a structure in which economic rationality was intended to prevail.  And how far central government will support this, the local electorates’ preference, remains an unknown.
So in Auckland how far the representative system will deliver local democracy depends, still, on the leaning of a minority (if popular) mayor, and on central government designs.  Commentators watch with anticipation the capacity of our new mayor and council to deliver, and to deliver quickly, if they are to survive the next election. There is not much new in this.  It is how electoral politics works.
However, for local democracy to be truly and consistently served, it may be that the best form of governance comes from empowering communities to assist with decisions and, even more, perhaps, to deliver them. With the removal of physical infrastructure services and economic initiative to CCOs, the time might be ripe for a community development mandate to be addressed.  This can be done as much through developing the capacity of communities to implement what they want and not simply to define it. 
The issue may not be so much of what can we give communities, Mr Mayor, but how can we help our communities to serve themselves? This is a long way from the model imposed from the centre, but not beyond the reach of a new Auckland.  It is the way to true local democracy which perhaps, just perhaps, the new arrangements have opened up.  The alternative is to be looking always over our shoulder at central government.

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