Thursday, July 28, 2022

Peter Jackson: Speak or hold your peace?

Councils gagged if they accept the Govt’s cash

Whatever you think of Jacinda Ardern, she can hardly be accused of deceiving us when she promised that her Government would be transformational. Indeed, “transformational” might seem like an understatement, as she and her party continue to promote societal changes that promise to last a very long time.

She also promised that her Government would be the most open and transparent that this country had ever seen. The jury might still be out on that, although if they have yet to return their verdict it would likely be that they are enjoying an extraordinarily long lunch.

Many of those whose job it is to obtain information from the Government on our behalf will tell you that that has become much more difficult than it used to be. Even the select committee process, another opportunity for politicians to explain what they intend doing, how and why, has largely become a farce.

There is one field of political endeavour that has become more transparent than it used to be, however.

According to the Northern Advocate (July 22), an invitation from the Government to the Whangarei District Council to apply for $9.48 million, in support of a Three Waters “better off support package”, comes with strings. The agreement reportedly includes a clause stating that “those who accept the money must not do anything that would have an adverse effect on the reputation, good standing or goodwill” of the Department of Internal Affairs or the Government.

Whangarei mayor Sheryl Mai told the council the DIA (Department of Internal Affairs) had stated that publicly criticising or expressing opinions on reform could not “reasonably be expected to have an adverse effect”.

If that is true, why would the Government include such a clause? If a council is going to do anything that might have an adverse effect on the reputation, good standing or goodwill of Internal Affairs and the Government, it will do so via public criticism, will it not?

They could, of course, go to Wellington and set fire to Trevor Mallard’s slide, or chuck a few paving slabs at a passing cop, but that seems unlikely.

Whatever assurance the DIA has given, the only possible interpretation of this condition is that councils that accept the money are expected to shut their gobs. And that is outrageous, if not quite unprecedented.

Some years ago, in less open and transparent times, the Labour Government of the day announced funding of around $13m, over three years, to enable the FNDC (Far North District Council) to maintain local roads that were carrying heavy forestry traffic, and were consequently falling to bits. (All our roads, including state highways, seem to be falling to bits these days, but that’s another story.)

Anyway, our mayor, not surprisingly, was delighted. So delighted, in fact, that for months after the announcement she would preface her public remarks, whatever the occasion, with thanks to the Government for recognising the Far North’s roading woes and doing something about them.

The Age reported the funding, but not the repeated expressions of appreciation.

Then one day I, as the editor of the local newspaper, received a call from deep inside the council, to inform me that they had had a call from the Prime Minister’s department saying that the council might not receive the second and third years’ funding if the PM did not begin seeing signs of gratitude.

The newspaper’s policy didn’t change, and to be honest I don’t know if the council got the rest of the money or not, but it was the first time in my experience that a politician had tagged an offer of public money with the condition that the recipients showed their gratitude.

Now, it seems, in line with the current PM’s promise of openness and transparency, such expectations are put in writing rather than relying on the more discreet nudge nudge wink wink technique.

Not, perhaps, that one would expect a fearless stand on principle by the WDC (Whangarei District Council). It was also reported last week that Northland’s publicly owned stadium, aka Semenoff Stadium, has been priced out of amateur sport’s reach. The trust that runs the place, which underwent a $16m upgrade in 2010, $13m of that coming from the NRC (Northland Regional Council), has reportedly been told by the WDC that it must function on a commercial basis, according to industry best practice.

Ergo, if the Northern Football Federation wants to play its club final there, it will have to cough up close to $10,000, which it doesn’t have.

The case for the defence is that codes had been warned that the “community (hire) rate” would be dispensed with when the Northland Event Centre 2021 Trust was formed. Meanwhile the WDC expects the trust to operate a “multi-purpose community facility for the benefit of Northland”, and to “build local confidence, local capability and local connection”. All whilst balancing the books.

If the football final goes somewhere else, that’s $10k the trust won’t be getting, so someone else will presumably have to pay more. Who might that be? Who knows?

The WDC’s response to questions from the Northern Advocate was, basically, that it was nothing to do with the council. The trust, incidentally, is a council-controlled organisation.

So the council makes the rules but isn’t responsible, and the trust is doing one of the things it’s been told to do but not the others, and isn’t responsible.

Anyone want to talk about local government reform?

Peter Jackson MNZM, former editor of the Northland Age newspaper, 38 years at the helm of this popular paper, now happily retired. This article was first published in the Northland Age 28/7/22.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would like to see a council accept the money yet still continue their opposition to three waters. I'd imagine DIA would if they choose to, have to take some legal action if the council refused to 'toe the line'. And that would be very interesting to see that played out in the public arena. Would a council then actually have anything to loose?