How many commentators on the Local Government Commission decision will waste the minutes of scarce public attention to a local government issue? The public decided long ago that an Auckland-style uber-government for our region was not their idea of improving local democracy.
So they’ll have little patience for whining that the people got it wrong. I’ve heard astonishing contempt from believers in amalgamation. They thought the ‘ignorant’ proles should have been grateful that their betters were working to ensure they could be governed remotely by them, instead of by locals they might know in their neighbourhoods.
But there are serious improvements that the region should be working on. In my opinion the greatest need is to improve the chances of getting more good councillors and fewer passengers and nutters. The current election process can involve thousands of serious voters in voting decisions they know to be farcical. Even close followers of public affairs end up voting on name recognition, not sure whether it is from mere repetition, notoriety (even for idiocy) or because of a previous media career.
Unstructured democracy is fantastic at one thing – ejecting people who have lost the public’s confidence. But it can be terrible at finding good people. Modern ‘politics as tournament’ journalism dissuades nominations from the eminent people of proven acheivement outside politics who would in the past have served (for no pay) as city fathers and mothers.
So the LGC should start debate on moderating the risks. Aspects of our current election system can result in councils few sensible people would choose to join. Majorities can ride on the backs of a few public-spirited competent members.
There is a risk that today’s LGC announcement will spur those who are convinced that ‘someone must do something’ into calling for a reflex transfer of fresh powers and assets to the regional council. Unfortunately, the GWRC is exposed to the worst risk (after the ludicrous DHBs) of lurch voting on name recognition.
That is not because it is a retirement home for former mayors and MPs. I think their experience can mitigate the risks of poor perfomance. Without some of them, and the tight control of Fran Wilde in particular, the GWRC would have looked chaotic, and been more wasteful than it has been.
But it is still largely bereft of the kinds of experience needed to run businesses with hundreds of millions in assets and turnover. In particular it is not a suitable owner for the regional network services that should be amalgamated:
1) Most analysis suggests that scale efficiencies can be obtained from amalgamating region-wide network services, such as water and transport.
2) The very large and capital intensive businesses thereby created need more reliable governance than comes from the accidents of local government elections. No prudent director wants to serve on a board without enough other members with the professional knowledge and experience to hold sophisticated management to account;
3) Assembling such boards needs systematic shoulder-tapping, and succession planning. They can’t risk being suddenly left without someone who knows where to look for the bodies in financial information, or who can smell consultant bullshit dressed in engineering or planning jargon.
4) Succession planning is unreliable in democracies. Yet publicly owned agencies need the healthy discipline of involuntary ejection of members from time to time, by voters, or at least by people who themselves are subject to voter control.
5) The regional network agencies should balance those needs. They should have nominated members of regional constituent territorial authorities, who go if they lose electorally, plus coopted directors appointed for their recognised qualifications and experience.
Nearly two years ago I urged that the effort going into foisting a super-city on us should instead go into more focussed reforms.
Stephen Franks is a principal of Wellington law firm Franks & Ogilvie and a former MP. He blogs at www.stephenfranks.co.nz.