Just maybe, the Government is preparing for a climb down on the Auckland super city’s second tier. It has been probably the most vexed aspect of the Government’s super city model. And much as I would like to see Messers Key, Hide and Carter die in the ditch over such an unpopular and misconceived policy, it is good for Auckland if they are about to throw this particular doozie overboard.
To recap: the Government rejected the Royal Commission’s recommendation of six local councils with the power to deal with local issues. Instead they proposed 20-30 local boards with very limited local powers, and the job of community engagement. These have been widely derided as toothless talkshops (by me and many many others). In fact I struggle to recall anyone who has publicly defended the Government’s second tier other than Rodney Hide. Almost everybody else has weighed in against them, most notably two of the Commissioners Justice Peter Salmon and David Shand, but also Lawrence Yule of Local Government NZ, the three horsemen (Mayors Len Brown, Bob Harvey, Andrew Williams), both the Fairfax and APN community newspaper chains, and an array of campaigners and community groups, plus Labour and the Greens.
Local Govenment Minister Rodney Hide wasn’t quite running up the white flag when I pressed him on this last week at question time, but Judith Collins saying the local boards had better be more than ‘tea and scone clubs’ was a hint that support for his second tier was leaking away. Hell, John Key was backing away the week before.
The climb down is now well underway with John Carter (the kinder, gentler face of reform) telling Radio NZ he’d ‘learned a huge amount’ through Auckland community meetings and discussions on the issue and ‘it’s helped focus my mind on the things that matter for people. And where I started some six or eight weeks ago, I’ve shifted personally, myself, a lot.’ And then telling the Eastern Courier how important it is to get the lower tier right, how people were telling him they wanted fewer boards than the 20-30 being proposed, and how they needed to be given their own budgets.
That is heartening. I have no doubt the select committee is going to hear plenty of submissions on this issue so the Government will have no shortage of advice on how to get this aspect of the super city right. For the record, Labour wants to see empowered and resourced local councils with the ability to deal with the important local issues – to keep the local in local government:
1. fewer local councils than the 20-30 proposed in the bill
2. governance and policy making responsibility over local services and assets
3. control over their own budgets
4. powers and responsibilities mandated in law (not delegated at the discretion of the Auckland Council)
It remains a mystery why the Government got it so horribly wrong in the first place, thinking they could ram through these changes without the public really noticing, under the cloak of blaming the region’s Mayors who, ironically, have been doing a pretty good job of keeping local government local. As the Commission argued, if you are going to centralise the big regional functions in the super city, then you must balance that with an empowered second tier of local governance that has the mandate and the capability to do the local stuff well.