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.