Sunday, May 28, 2023

Gerry Eckhoff: The distrust of authority

As the dust settles (for now) around the Gore council table, it would seem reasonable to at least discuss the conditions which brought about the debacle within that District council and (truth to tell) among most other councils throughout NZ. 

Those to whom a measure of authority has been given should pause occasionally to reflect on whether our representative democracy is working as intended – to benefit and serve the public. 

Even a casual glance at the process of local government should indicate a certain dysfunctionality of process.

A representative democracy is typically a grouping of people chosen by the wider public to act and speak on their behalf. Those extended the privilege of being an elected representative need to ensure that their personal views are open to change when the need arises. That requires a process which not just allows for, but actually encourages a forum where rate and taxpayer opinion can be freely expressed. Currently the public voice and trust in councillors ends immediately after an election, so the question of why a long-standing trust or faith in local Government appears to be lost must be asked and most importantly - answered. There is a review of Local Government occurring at this time, being conducted by none other than - Local Government.

The reasons for the widespread disenchantment with Local Government (especially) are many and varied starting with the entry of party-political ideology into local Government, and with that comes predetermination.  The 2002 Local Government amendments gave councils the power of general competence which meant they were not constrained to the supply of basics such as water, roading, sewage facilities etc. It became very apparent to the perpetually aggrieved that capture of councils for populist causes just got a whole lot easier which in turn elevated the position of mayor from spokesperson to a presidential style of leadership of council.                                                                     

The continuum of squabbles between councillors is a direct result of having to at least try to work with those of a completely political ideology who sit at the same table.  In central politics, an elected person sits and works with those of a similar philosophy.  In local Government, many differing ideologies can be expressed and promoted by those with a limited understanding of complex issues. How many of our representatives have a good grasp of a balance sheets or in running large businesses? A fair question is whether the electorate would seek any financial advice from diverse but totally inexperienced councillors who govern the councils affairs.

People in both local and central government who espouse a singular special love of the environment, tend not to like people very much or so it would seem, yet it is surely the wellbeing of communities that require the utmost attention. For too long the electoral implications of a given decision tends to be of uppermost consideration.  To paraphrase GB Shaw - all forms of Government who rob Peter (rural) to pay Paul (urban) can always rely on the votes of Paul.  We now see the unintended consequence of that truism with a huge divide between urban and rural voters where the urban vote will always dominate. That outcome will see more protest and more distrust of authority. Indeed, “the distrust of authority should be the first civic duty of the public” - as one Norman Douglas once advised.

A fair question is also whether the very substantial payment of councillors has had an equal rise in competence. It is however a sensible change from a time when milage was the only compensation paid.  Yes, councillors did tend to be grumpy old blokes back in the day but strangely there was little of the turmoil we see today, and things tended to get done - like the timely replacing water pipes.

Today the Mayor of Auckland receives $296k with councillors receiving a minimum of $107k. Even the Mayor of Central Otago receives $122k so money talks quite loudly around the council table.

Perhaps the quest to exercise power and authority at council should be moderated by a need to pass some basic test of competence. Whether its control of the ship of state or a local body dinghy named “Monopoly” there is a real need to ensure those who hanker to get their hands on the tiller - actual know how to set the sail.

Gerry Eckhoff is a former councillor on the Otago Regional Council and MP.


Terry Morrissey said...

"Perhaps the quest to exercise power and authority at council should be moderated by a need to pass some basic test of competence."
How about a basic intelligence test for those seeking candidacy for a central government? How about a recall referrendum for both local body and central government?

Robert Arthur said...

In small towns the free newspaper often reports on Council. But in say Auckland the average person has little or no idea of goings on. Mayors tend to get reported, but few of the public now receive or fully read newspapers. Only the eccentrically obsessive trouble to follow on line. Persons vote on the short quaint, self compiled self serving summaries circulated just prior election. Ardent newspaper readers can sometimes draw on summaries on candidates by some not entirely independent reporter. Those tiny few persons who have some interaction with a Council via some councillor may form a view of that person, based on some single encounter and event. Without widely read objective newspapers extensively reporting on Council matters the democratic system fails. All plays into the hands of staf, now extensively infiltrated and brainwashedand working to their own (common) agenda. In this age of super communication the great majority are less informed than ever. Modern persons are very uninterested. It staggers me the number of free newspapers never uplifted from letterboxes. Surely everyone can spare a glance. Hardly anyone troubles to read Council policy releases. All are now so riddled with artful maori twaddle intangible speak that near impossible to fathom.

Anonymous said...

Recall referendum, I like that!

Jigsaw said...

Having the 'recall' ability in government -both local and national would be a huge step forward for our democracy.
We also need a much great awareness of the different roles of council staff and councilors. So often we see a CEO trying to impose his/her own ideas and philosophy on council affairs when they-staff and CEO are NOT elected and are there to do the biding -within reason of the elected representatives.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Gerry for the update, I've become out of touch and now must think about setting my sights on becoming Mayor of Auckland. But joking aside, I'm from further South and here we seem to have a penchant for importing Council CEO's from left-leaning English Boroughs that seem to align well with those elected ideologues that typically have very limited real world experience.

I like the idea of a competency test but, sadly, the results of which would likely be beyond the typical voter hereabouts to comprehend and interpret. And on that, Rob Muldoon was wrong, for they haven't gone to Australia given our average IQ seems to be declining here. Maybe it's those 501's?

Anonymous said...

Right on Terry. Direct Democracy gives the Power back to the people.

Recall, referendum and initiative processes are electoral devices used by citizens when they want to take part in government activities. A recall allows people to remove public officials from office, while referendum voting and initiatives allow citizens to propose, approve, or veto specific legislation.

Ewan McGregor said...

Well, there’s food for thought here, but generally, with 21 years of local government representation behind me, I don’t agree that our local democracy generally is not working as well as a free electoral system can. Of course, it has its faults, but what democracy doesn’t? America, for instance, is proud of its long-standing democratic traditions, but I think ours is more democratic.
Gerry says, “Perhaps the quest to exercise power and authority at council should be moderated by a need to pass some basic test of competence”. How about a pre-selection process modelled on that operated for decades by the National Party? Maybe the great unwashed could have made a better job of some of the recent selections. I recall at a meeting soon after the 1990 election hearing former cabinet minister Warren Cooper mocking Roger Douglas for having an interest in a failed pig farm, this in the context of his incompetence to run the economy. So, he would have been given the thumbs down, presumably.
In my experience in local government, I have found that there is invariably a mix of competence, but the wisest councilors tend to prevail. And while the elected govern, as they must, they take on the advice of the qualified staff, which is why they are there.
So, personally, I can’t think of anything worse than some sort of ‘basic test of competence’ before you can offer yourself to the judgement of the people. Or alternatively, all candidates are subject to a rating by - well, by whom? That’s not how democracy works, with all its faults. And I’d like to know more about the likely qualifications for ‘recall’.
The trouble with democracy is that the people vote differently to the way we think they should. For the really cynical, that’s pretty much always.