Labour’s big miss in Canterbury

In opposition, Labour railed against Canterbury’s regional councillors being sacked, but in Government it’s in no rush to restore full democracy. David Williams reports.

The Labour-led Government has failed a crucial test in Canterbury.

Despite making an election issue out of a return to full democracy at Canterbury’s regional council, Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta has confirmed to Newsroom it will follow the last Government’s timetable of waiting until next year’s scheduled local body elections.

That’s little payback for a surge of support for Labour in Christchurch at last year’s election. The decision not to call early elections will disappoint many – including Mahuta’s ministerial colleague Eugenie Sage, who was one of 14 councillors sacked by the National-led Government in 2010, mainly over claims it was mismanaging water.

Another ex-councillor sacked in 2010, Jo Kane, is disappointed, adding: “I know it would be costly, but so’s democracy.”

Labour’s go-slow on Canterbury democracy even leaves it open to a swipe from ex-Environment Minister Nick Smith, who made the National-led Government’s decision, jointly with then Local Government Minister Rodney Hide, to sack councillors at Environment Canterbury (ECan).

Smith, a fading flower in National, says Labour “screamed from the rooftops” in opposition and if it believed the strength of its rhetoric it would have moved to restore a fully elected council. “I think they know, as I did, that a sensible transition through this term of council and full elections in 2019 is actually the right thing for Canterbury.”

Despite this setback, the Government will hope to wrestle back public support in Christchurch over the coming weeks as Canterbury Rebuild Minister Megan Woods weighs up plans for a new stadium and metro sports centre and priorities are set for a $300 million capital acceleration fund.

‘Earliest practicable time’

After six years of Government-appointed commissioners at ECan, seven councillors were elected in the 2016 local body elections, joining five appointees. Days after that hybrid election, a private member’s bill was pulled from Parliament’s ballot – authored by Labour’s Wigram MP, Megan Woods – which would have forced a full regional council election.

The bill failed to get to its first reading in December of that year. Speaking before the vote, Woods called it an opportunity to rectify a wrong. “This is not something that I, as a Cantabrian, am prepared to sit by and watch happen, because it simply is not good enough.”

After Labour formed a coalition Government last year, local government academic Dr Jean Drage, of Lincoln University, a staunch opponent of the ECan sackings, wrote to Woods urging the Government to hold elections in February.

Drage’s letter was referred to Mahuta, who wrote back in December. Mahuta said little time would be saved by holding elections early, considering the time needed to pass new legislation and with ECan about to embark on a representation review.

Mahuta’s private secretary confirmed to Newsroom that after having examined all the options, the 2019 local body elections was the “earliest practicable time” ECan could have full elections.

Drage is disappointed, calling it a missed opportunity for Labour to show some goodwill to Christchurch.

“Labour got a lot of support from Christchurch at the last election. That support that they had before the earthquakes had finally come back, basically. So I was saying to [Woods], 'c’mon, show us your support, really, for Christchurch, let’s have this election'. I think it would have been a really positive step.”

Woods says, as a local MP, she’s asked for a meeting with Mahuta “to examine the options and implications more closely”.

The Green Party’s Sage, the ex-ECan councillor who’s now the Conservation Minister, says Mahuta’s decision is disappointing. She adds: “But I am delighted that the Government is changing the law so that the purpose of local government will once again be the promotion of community wellbeing.”

Fruits of the intervention

What has ECan achieved since 2010? National MP Smith says it has gone from being the worst-performing regional council in New Zealand to the best-performing.

“That’s reflected in the fact that we now have proper limits in place in nutrients in eight of Canterbury’s catchments, and a further six well advanced in the pipeline. There are plans and real action taking place around the clean-up of Lake Ellesmere, or Te Waihora, and Wainono Lagoon down in South Canterbury.

“The relationships with the 10 territorial councils in Canterbury and Ngai Tahu are strong and functional. And the council has over 98 percent compliance in terms of its consents under the Resource Management Act.”

(Commissioners were helped considerably by new laws giving them extra powers over water, having appeals to the Environment Court taken away and the ability of the Government to temporarily suspend the Resource Management Act.)

Newsroom asked ECan’s David Caygill, a commissioner since 2010, for comment but he said he could not respond by our deadline.

A water grab was feared in 2010. But Irrigation New Zealand chief executive Andrew Curtis says nobody’s been able to get a consent for a project and do it any faster. All that has happened, he says, is the planning framework for the region and then the catchments have been created, enabling the proponents of water schemes to be clear about what their consents could achieve.

“What it’s done is it has inserted things like minimum flows, nutrient limits, on both catchments and farms – it’s inserted those a lot quicker.”

Curtis says Canterbury is now at the forefront of water management internationally. It’s also likely the envy of other parts of New Zealand, which are facing years-long hearings to confirm their water plans.

According to ex-ECan councillor Kane, who sits on Canterbury’s district health board, Curtis’s view appears to come with a healthy dollop of self-serving gloss. She says water development was made easier by installing commissioners.

“I can remember myself sitting on some hearings where things were turned down only to find that, suddenly, down in the Mackenzie country, the irrigation is being put up.” She also believes important work programmes, like weeds and pest control, have suffered as ECan focused on water.

“It’s become a non-entity, and I think that is a tragedy.” – Jo Kane

And what of the costs of the ECan sackings? Drage says such drastic intervention erodes the faith in local democracy. “Taking that legitimate right away from a community ... after a period of time, people just, in a sense, get a bit used to the fact that they don’t have a say in these things.”

Curtis’s comments appear to back that view. He says a mixed model of elected councillors and appointed commissioners ensures the right “governance skillsets” can be found around a council table. “We very much like the idea of democracy. But we also very much like the idea of having the rights sets of skills around the table, and democracy doesn’t always bring you that.”

Kane thinks the biggest loss has been ECan’s profile in the community, which is now “nil” – “other than probably the rural sector, and they’re not even that happy with them anyway”. “It’s become a non-entity, and I think that is a tragedy.”

Is she just the person to restore its profile? Kane says she’s not sure she’s got the appetite to stand for ECan in 2019. Plus, she’d want the top spot. Maybe she’d consider it, she says, if she was endorsed by Federated Farmers.

But it appears her allegiances are split. “Don’t forget the mayoralty for Waimakariri’s up for grabs and they need a good kick in the teeth, too.”

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