What’s going on in the body politic here in Wine Country, the Fruitbowl of New Zealand, Salt of the Earth?

In a word … Progress. We used to have seventy elected representatives for a population of 150,000. That’s now less than fifty. Partly by reducing the numbers on the five councils. Largely by sacking the democratically-elected Health Board for complaining to the Ministry of Health about the Minister’s dodgy mates.

However, as Politicians tumble from their perches, staff numbers rise. Hawke’s Bay Councils directly employ about 500 people, and that number increases slowly but surely year by year. These consist mainly of office workers. If you include the boys and girls out fixing roads, weeding parks, and sweeping the footpaths, the number is a great deal higher. The New Zealand Armed Forces and Police total some 19,000 men and women. The total bureaucracy well exceeds 50,000. Our leaders believe paper is more important than public and national safety.

As a local politician of 12 years standing, I can atttest to the fact that your representatives are all well meaning, good hearted and caring. Although common sense, efficiency and cost effectiveness often seem to get lost somewhere along the way.

Here’s a good example. I was the Mayor of Central Hawke’s Bay for six years. It seemed an obvious and simple idea that all new houses should have a rainwater tank to intercept storm deluges, to retain the flood off the roof and slowly release the excess into the storm water system over the next few days. And to supplement the water supply during dry spells in summer. There were obvious savings for little extra expense. A win all round and popular as well.

This idea was promoted but never actioned, on the grounds that it was a Regional Council responsibility.

Last year I was elected to the HB Regional Council. We held a strategic planning session. We decided that water was the proiority for the foreseeable future: scarcity, purity, allocation, and so on.

Last week the Council discussed implementation of parts of the strategy. I suggested that Council require every new house to have a rainwater tank. We cannot action that idea, I was told, because it is a Local Council responsibility!

Part of the problem is the terrible fear of accepting responsibility. If we promulgated a rule requiring water tanks and someone drowned in the bird bath, would we be sued? Better to do nothing. Leadership is neutered through fear of consequences. And leadership without courage is a nullity. This leads to many an excuse for delay or inaction. When action is essential or inescapable, hire an expert to advise and put the responsibility on to a consultant.

Inevitably, when there is a cock-up, which, to be fair, is seldom, considering the scale, scope and complexity, and the broad range of functions carried out by Councils, the culprit is invariably a consultant who has since left the firm, died or gone to the Hong Kong Branch and will report back in due course … like never.

The other serious barrier to effective government is Parliament. Their favourite sport is national policy statements and plans on everything from global warming to blowing up party balloons to care of the pet hamster.

The central government policy on clean air sets ridiculously low standards requiring the Regional Council to ban open fires. The problem is that banning open fires, which don’t actually do any demonstrable harm, will lead to colder houses, which demonstrably cause poorer health. The main victims of the new rules will be the poor in Hastings and Napier who cannot afford extra electricity bills for heating and will pack the hosptial waiting rooms with flu, pneumonia and pleurisy. Solving a phantom problem will cause real problems.

Councillors have taken an oath to uphold and obey the law so there is a real dilemma when the law is not just misguided, but actively designed to kill your constituents.

In my next column I will explain how to reconcile these diametric opposites. How to design a perfect political system. And more importantly, how to enhance the well-being of your hamster by training him to blow up party ballons with sequestered greenhouse gas.


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