By his own account, Lawrence Yule was chastened by the last local body election results in 2007. Running then for a third term, he was surprised to find his two opposition candidates — neither of whom were household names or enjoyed a pre-existing network of support in the community — nonetheless collected 45% of the votes.
His response immediately thereafter was to embrace “sustainability” as the message he heard from the electorate … and to promise that sustainability would be the grand cause of his third term.
Unfortunately for the electorate, what “sustainability” seems to mean to Mayor Yule is the political sustainability of Mayor Yule.
So, to sustain his political career for another term as Hastings Mayor (and hopefully, from his perspective, for another 3-4 terms after that as Uber-Mayor of a new region-wide Unitary Authority), this time Mayor Yule is leaving nothing to chance.
He’s charged out of the gate early.
Mayor Yule realises that Rodney Hide — with his populist finger on the pulse of “Main Street” New Zealand — is threatening to foment a ratepayer revolution against “out of control” local government, and that this revolution might kick butts out in 2010. So, attempting to ride that wave instead of being crushed by it, the Mayor has cast himself as the champion of local government reform here in Hawke’s Bay.
Not only will he carry the torch for amalgamation, he will do us the favour of making it the central cause of his re-election campaign.
Forgive some of us ingrates for not being over-awed by this grand Yulewellian gesture toward the public good. [FYI — according to the Oxford Dictionary, a Yulewellian gesture is one that advances one’s prospects simultaneously at all levels — local and national, personal and public.]
First and foremost, some skeptics might see Mayor Yule’s leadership of such an effort rather like putting the captain (and crew) who rammed the ship into the iceberg in charge of organising the lifeboats to escape. Maybe a fresh team should organise the rescue party.
Second, there are many advocates around the Bay for some sort of local body consolidation, including many who are not current indentured officeholders. Mayor Yule is only one voice … he doesn’t own the issue. Indeed, a clue to his motivation is the fact that he made no effort to bring forward a plan that reflected any kind of considered support from his fellow elected colleagues … either Hastings Councillors or other local body leaders.
Going forward, he will need to earn a leadership role on the issue, not merely assert one.
Third, if the Mayor were truly a champion of local government reform, there are many ways he could press forward right now — not in theory, but in practise — to achieve better, more efficient and more foresightful outcomes in local government operations in Hastings itself, as well as the region. Most of these measures have in fact been far more strongly and consistently — and previously — advocated by others, like Councillor Wayne Bradshaw and the Chamber’s Murray Douglas.
Fourth, and perhaps least important for the moment, are quarrels one might have with the details of Mayor Yule’s version of amalgamation.
For example, if you assumed a goal of amalgamation might be fewer elected officials on the public teat, you’ll be disappointed that the Mayor’s plan only reduces the number of representatives from 37 to 33. Or, more significantly, if you were hoping for a well-considered theory of local responsibilities and accountability, with a rationalisation for which bodies should perform which functions, you won’t find it in this hastily concocted plan, which is more focused on who will sit in which deck chairs.
What explains the Mayor’s sense of urgency about tabling his own personal plan?
Simple … he hears threatening footsteps behind him. He senses the disaffection with his regime. He realises a stronger challenge to his re-election will be mounted in 2010 than ever before. So, he needs to try to point the coming debate to anything other than the past performance of his regime or current bread-and-butter issues. And if that something else has the appearance of grand vision, so much the better.
He will tell us … “The machinery of local government is broken, and who better to fix it than people like me, who understand its intricacies. Now is not the time to change horses or to trust political novices.”
That spin didn’t work for incumbent Labour against upstart National. We shall see if it works for Lawrence Yule. Maybe he will succeed in distracting voters from real issues and scrutiny of past performance. Maybe he will scare the electorate over change. And maybe he will lure his opposition into quibbling over the fine print of his amalgamation scheme.
Personally, I think the voters will agree with Mayor Yule. “Yes!” they’ll say, “the machinery of local government is broken.” But then, I wager, they’ll ask: “But who broke it?!”
As Mayor Yule has signaled … let the election begin!