Monday, January 28, 2019

Clive Bibby: A victory for common sense

These days it doesn't happen often but a recent landmark decision affecting the lives of the rural folk in the Tairawhiti (East Coast) region has gone someway to restoring faith in the democratic system of government in this country.

To say that it has been the result of dogged determination by a handful of battlers to protect their rights against the increasingly controlling interests of an urban majority would be the understatement of the year.

The local body electoral system had operated well for decades in our region, in spite of some aspects of non compliance with the Local Government electoral law (two of the four rural wards had been operating without the minimum number of electors within the ward boundaries for many years), until a complaint was laid with the Electoral Commission which forced a review by Council with subsequent recommendations for a new compliant electoral structure.

The subsequent hearings conducted by the Electoral Commission heard representations from Council supporting their recommended format and also appeals  to that proposal from objectors - some of whom offered alternative suggestions for a compromise solution.

The Council's proposal included plans to do away with the current rural wards altogether and replace them with 9 councillors plus the Mayor elected at large servicing the whole region. The compromise offered by the submitters was for a reduced number of rural wards from four to three in order to have all rural wards complying with the "minimum number of electors" section of the law. It also included the suggestion of having one city ward comprising seven councillors elected at large.

Most people with an ounce of brain would have understood the rural people's concerns which were based on a belief that there are communities within the rural sector that have common interests not shared with their city cousins. These interests are important because they determine the way things operate in the rural areas and it is important that this commonality is represented by councillors who understand those interests and can advocate on behalf of them when decisions are being made at the Council table.

Prior to the hearings process, it was obvious that the rural communities were not at all confident that their proposal would get across the line given the arrogance of both the city Councillors and some members of the media who openly scoffed that the verdict would be a "slam dunc" in favour of their proposal.

Well, we shouldn't have worried.

Not only did the Commission's decision reject the Council's draconian version but it plumbed for virtually more of the same - a retention of the status quo which means the two rural wards that had been operating in defiance of the law can continue to do so. It simply agreed with our submissions based on the need for special interest communities being represented by their own kind.

As you can imagine, there is a fair amount of egg on the faces of those councillors who thought they knew best. Whether they will humbly accept their chastisement and learn from the experience or throw their toys out of the cot and resign remains to be seen but thankfully, their future actions are somewhat irrelevant.

We now have the basis for electing a new council in October that will be wary of treating the rural sector with the contempt it showed during the recent debacle.

And we can be confident that the Commission's decision will raise new hope for more cooperation between town and country on matters that affect us all - which means most things!

Readers, particularly those from rural communities in other parts of the country, who may be facing similar threats, should take heart that a precedent has been set that may well help them overcome their difficulties.

All in all, good news for the sod busters. A welcome respite for communities under siege and a poke in the eye for the commissars who want us all dancing to their tune.

Clive Bibby is a commentator, consultant, farmer and community leader, who lives in Tolaga Bay.

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