On the 14th of February 2014 the Chair of the Otago Regional Council (ORC) announced that representative democracy at the ORC was officially dead. Discussion on topical issues that impact on the Otago region must not be held in open debate.
Indeed the Chair had a legal opinion which was presented prior to the council meeting, to inform councillors that it would be “unlawful” for the council to debate a notice of motion supporting (in principle) the exploration for oil and gas off the Otago coast. This highly contestable legal opinion was swallowed whole by most councillors despite my assertion that we 12 councillors could all present a different legal opinion which was after all just that – someone’s opinion.
The legal opinion also said it was “undesirable” for councillors to even comment publically on matters of public interest for fear of being accused of predetermination should a Resource Management Act (RMA) consent issue arise some time into the future.
I’m more than just a tad unsure how the word “undesirable” can have a legal meaning yet the vast majority of councillors happily sailed on under this “flag of convenience” so as not to express an opinion at the council table.
If elected councillors cannot debate and support or oppose matters of real public importance – what are we there for?
Councillors stand for election on any and many given issues, so are we are therefore all guilty of predetermination?
Surely councillors of all political hues must be able to debate current issues so as to better represent their constituents who have, to all intent and purpose, allocated their personal authority to their preferred choice of candidate at election time who best represents their personal beliefs. That is what representative democracy is all about.
If no debate is allowed, due to the possibility that one day well into the future an issue may arise that requires resource consent, then surely no councillor can venture an opinion on anything at any time.
To make matters worse the Chief Executive offered a view that because oil and gas exploration was commercial, the council should keep well away from any public debate especially on commercial issues. Really?
The ORC engages in very active support for the “commercial” activity of irrigation. Indeed the ORC channels considerable sums of rate payer’s money into studies of the benefits of irrigation.
Further, the ORC just a few years ago spent 1million dollars in the highly commercial activity of land based mineral exploration of the Otago region. Presumably there is the small matter of a resource consent that the ORC may need to hear should anyone wish to investigate and actively mine a deposit of a given mineral.
So how does the above differ from oil and gas exploration? It would seem as though the ORC can get involved in anything as long as it is not discussed in public, so
apparently it’s OK to debate or discuss these issues behind closed doors in a workshop but it’s not OK to do so with open doors. So how does that work?
The issue for Otago is no longer about exploration for oil and gas but one of a direct threat to representative democracy. The belief that the duly elected representatives of the people are to be subjugated to the requirements of the RMA cannot be allowed to stand. Besides it makes far more sense for independent commissioners to hear all consent applications.
Councils are required to develop policies, implement and regulate their policies, then sit in judgement on their policies if the policy is appealed. That cannot stand as well.
Nobody is entitled to sit in judgement in their own cause, yet councils all over New Zealand do just that all the time.
Meantime councils all over New Zealand hoist and fly their flags of convenience and sail blissfully on. This appalling situation cannot continue. It now becomes the call for Minister Paula Bennett to order a judicial review of exactly what are councillors’ functions in any well functioning representative democracy.