Local government is no joke

After years of mutual suspicion it is time for the Government to shed its patronising approach and take the local government sector more seriously, says Peter Dunne.

The annual conference of Local Government New Zealand has been taking place in Wellington this week.

Local government is one of the lost souls of our system of government.

In part, this is because the quality of some of the decision-making of local government, not to mention some of the personalities within it, have been less than stellar over the years.  (The recent appalling performance of the Greater Wellington Regional Council on reforming the region’s bus services, and the emerging gridlock that now seems to typify the Auckland Council would be among the obvious current examples, while the presence of eccentric personalities holding sway at council tables is legendary and ongoing.)

These sorts of examples make it too easy to readily dismiss local government as a bit of a joke, not all that relevant to the lives of most of us, and the poor turnout at local government elections every three years is often held up as confirmation of that.

Yet local government is an important part of our national landscape. Our 78 local authorities (comprising 11 regional councils, and 67 other territorial authorities – unitary authorities, city and district councils, and within them, community boards – permeate most areas of daily life. Their public equity in 2018 was just under $124 billion, and their capital and operating expenditure more than $15 billion. Indeed, most likely, local government and the services it provides, has a far more direct impact on the lives of New Zealanders than does central government.

And, perhaps, therein lies the major part of the problem. Since the abolition of provincial government in 1876, New Zealand has had a very dominant central government structure.

... the local government sector has come to be treated by successive central governments as little more than just another sector group pushing its own barrow.

The comparatively small number of Members of Parliament, and the absence since 1950 of an Upper House has led to the growth of powerful Executive Government, bolstered by one of the tightest expressions of the doctrine of collective responsibility of any Westminster-type Parliament.

These have ensured the pre-eminence of clear majority government, even in the more proportional world of MMP. In turn, this means central governments have been used to getting their own way on most of the issues that matter.

Against that backdrop, the local government sector has come to be treated by successive central governments as little more than just another sector group pushing its own barrow (like the business community, the trade unions, or the farmers) completely and often conveniently ignoring the fact that unlike business, unions or farmers, local government draws its mandate directly from the people, the same way central government does. Over the years, that awkward reality has made the dialogue between the two frequently uncomfortable.

After all, both know that to continue, they need to maintain the support of the public, which means, to put it crudely, getting all the credit and therefore the votes at election time. The last thing either wants to do is share credit with the other, lest the electoral significance of the good works of either be undervalued when it comes to election time.

While central governments like to talk about a “partnership” with local government, it is usually a one-sided arrangement, where unpopular tasks are shovelled off to local government under the guise of devolving authority to local people, but seldom accompanying them with the financial resources necessary to do the job properly. Then, when local government tries to broaden its revenue base, central government is quick to step in to say no, if the measures being proposed look as though they might be nationally unpopular. The ongoing debate over the incidence of regional fuel taxes or other local user charges to fund local infrastructure is a classic case in point.

The upshot of this petty behaviour over many years has been a level of mutual suspicion that makes genuine co-operation, or partnership, near impossible. Add to this the propensity of local government, somewhere in the country, to do something crackpot from time to time, and suspicion becomes a chasm, seldom able to be bridged. Even when good ideas are advanced by local government, this blighted mutual history often gets in the way of their being considered at all seriously by central government.

... within the corridors of the Beehive and the senior bureaucracy, local government will be ridiculed once again for having aspirations beyond its scope, and worse still, daring to mention them.

A good example emerged this week. The Government announced a form of bail-out to get most of the country’s District Health Boards over their chronic deficits. Those deficits have to a significant extent been shaped by the cumbersome administrative structure imposed by the 20 District Health Boards since their establishment in the early 2000s, yet like its predecessor, this Government seems unwilling to do anything more than merely tinker at the edges to address the problem. In the circumstances, Local Government New Zealand made the not unreasonable suggestion that maybe it was time to look afresh at the overall structure and whether there was an opportunity for local government to play a more direct role in the delivery of local health services.

The cool politeness with which the Prime Minister received this suggestion spoke volumes. In a word, this idea is going nowhere because of this Government’s ideological belief that health, like education, is one of the core services that can be only be delivered from the centre. So, the fiscal pressures induced by the top-heavy District Health Boards’ structure will continue for no good reason other than the Government’s ideology. And, within the corridors of the Beehive and the senior bureaucracy, local government will be ridiculed once again for having aspirations beyond its scope, and worse still, daring to mention them.

The dysfunctional relationship between central and local government is becoming intolerable. It has been building up for most of the last 30 years under previous National- and Labour-led governments, and is by no means the responsibility of the current Government alone, although, like its predecessors, it seems little inclined to want to do too much to address it. After all, power sharing is also credit sharing, something this Government is not at all into.

It is imperative, though, that a clearly defined role for local government be established. It has to be more than fixing drains and potholes, or running buses and trains. Otherwise, voter turnout will remain low, the calibre of people seeking election will steadily decline, and overall public satisfaction with performance will reduce further. While the local government sector needs to up its game by sharpening its focus on the things it can do more constructively at the local level, as well as raising issues about the judicious devolution of properly resourced service areas that it could take on, central government has to shed its historical patronising approach in favour of taking the sector far more seriously than at any point since the 1989 reforms.

Sadly, on the evidence of this week’s conference, local government seems set to remain looking like lost souls, which, the Government, as it starts to contemplate next year’s election with not too many success stories to campaign on so far, will be quite happy about. They will well recall former United States House of Representatives Speaker “Tip” O’Neill’s observation that “all politics is local” and his specific advice that “when you’re running for Congress, run against the local government”.      

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