Let the posturing begin!

Recently, both John Key and Rodney Hide addressed the grand poobahs of Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ), presided over by none other than our own Mayor Lawrence Yule.

At issue, fundamentally, was (and is) the role and cost of local government. And in this particular debate, no political maxim applies more than this one: Where you stand depends on where you sit!

As populist Minister of Local Government, Rodney Hide, to justify his political existence, excoriates local government officials as a crazed bunch of profligates. PM Key professes a politically comfortable moderate middle, saying in effect: yes, local government could be more restrained and efficient, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater … all while dangling mouth-watering pork barrel dollars before local mayors. And local government officials want it both ways: they want Rodney and John to stop throwing responsibilities upon them with no money to get the job done; but they compete fiercely for central government funding of their pet local projects, from cycleways to stadiums.

In this posturing, they’re all hypocrites.

Rodney Hide
Let’s start with Rodney Hide. Back in April, Hide caused to be “floated” in the public domain a Cabinet paper, written to his specifications, titled, Improving Local Government Transparency, Accountability and Fiscal Management. Now, who could be opposed to concepts like promoting “plain English” in public documents, requiring councils to report on how well they are maintaining local infrastructure, or requiring a mandatory local pre-election fiscal update (as is done at the national level)?!

Or to these observations, speaking to the inability of citizens to control local council spending:

“There are a number of weaknesses in the present system that limit the ability of ratepayers and citizens to exercise that control:

• local authority elections rarely focus on spending issues. Reasons for this include the rarity of party organization and that most candidates stand on the basis of their personal attributes to serve the community;

• media scrutiny of local government is weak compared to central government;

• local government financial information is incomprehensible to most non-accountants;

• there is limited comparative information (financial and non-financial) available to compare council performance; and,

• there are no mandatory requirements for councils to seek ratepayer authorization of major projects or high rate increases.”

However, a fine read of the paper discloses a variety of troublesome and – many have argued – ungrounded assertions and proposals. Two of the most problematic issues involve the definition of “core services” and the notion of public referenda on major spending proposals.

With respect to “core services,” Minister Hide has refused to be pinned down. His paper refers to roading, footpaths, public transport, water supply, sewage treatment, stormwater and flood protection, and public health and safety services (like refuse collection and regulation of nuisances).

But when I interviewed Minister Hide back in April and asked whether local projects like sports parks, amusement parks, opera houses and museums fit his definition, he ducked the question, playing the politician by bemoaning generalized council excess, then retreating to a platitude about authentic public consultation when asked for specifics.

And of course there you have it … one ratepayer’s Marineland is a core service, another ratepayer’s cycle path is. Making those calls is the “stuff” of local politics … and Rodney Hide doesn’t want to get anywhere near those nitty-gritty choices.

Instead, he floats the idea of a sledgehammer to “control” spending – “I wish to consider circumstances in which polls and referenda could be required for certain decisions.” This is a seductively “democratic” concept, but one that is quite perilous to the body politic in practice (as anyone familiar with the American experience knows). No one has been more outspoken than I have on the issue of whether our local councils have advanced major spending projects that might fail a direct voter test. But there are numerous ways to inject more public accountability into spending decisions, and surely these deserve to be considered alongside more radical surgery.

Yet, ironically, Rodney’s paper concludes: “I do not propose to publish a public discussion document.” Having inflamed the voters, Minister Hide wants to shut them out of finding the solution.

John Key
Into this calculated political provocation by Minister Hide steps the Prime Minister. Many (I’m among them) say that National is happy to see Hide trash local government profligacy. Radical Hide, goes this argument, is conveniently creating space in the responsible middle that National can ultimately occupy … “Thank you Rodney, we’ll take it from here.”

But this will require PM Key, sooner or later, to draw the debate to his own political parameters, presumably disappointing governing partner Hide in the process. Key will need to take stands on the definition of “core services” and the role of spending referenda. Referring to Hide’s review in his speech to Local Government NZ last month, Key offered consolation in vague politician code to local poobahs: “After hearing your views we will work through the recommendations in the review and consider each of them on their merits before deciding whether to take them forward.”

Beyond that, his Government will need to make some difficult decisions about the very competency of local government. Like … can the locals be entrusted with managing the environment under loose guidelines, or do they need to be told more precisely what to do, or do we just cut them out of the equation entirely? Or … do we spare their misery and simply declare for them that it is not the job of local government to spend gobs of ratepayer money in a vain attempt to protect coastal settlements against unstoppable Mother Nature?

Meanwhile, like Rodney Hide, John Key is happy to play the public both ways.

On the one hand, lots of posturing by Key (and Finance Minister English) about fiscal belt-tightening and local government austerity. However, only days before he spoke to LGNZ, here was John Key taking the grand tour of Hawke’s Bay “wish list” projects. Getting the pitch on Lawrence Yule’s sports park. Studying a model of Barbara Arnott’s new museum and art gallery. I don’t think he checked out the miserable Mental Health In-patient Unit or chatted with folks in the local WINZ office … or asked the mayors about their infrastructure backlogs. And no way did he venture near the Haumoana coast!

But I wasn’t there. Maybe he did ask the tough questions. Maybe he did get back on his plane and say incredulously to his aide: “What are these guys smoking?! No way are we pouring money into a velodrome a few hundred peak athletes will use, or putting millions into a museum that has fewer visitors per year than the local McDonald’s! What do the poobahs at our next stop want?”

Local poobahs
Speaking of our local poobahs … The grandest, by virtue of wearing a second hat as President of Local Government New Zealand, is Mayor Yule. But Mayor Arnott and Regional Chairman Alan Dick follow the same pattern.

Let central government come down with an edict on clean air or drinking water or functional septic tanks or tough building standards or freshwater management and our local officials go ballistic. First, as a matter of general principle, they attack the Wellington bureaucrats as numbskulls in the Hawke’s Bay Today (and DomPost if they score big time). Then they authorise council staffs to spend valuable time preparing letters and submissions of complaint (essentially, patch protection) to various ministers and parliamentary committees. [By the way, have you ever been consulted on one of these submissions, ostensibly made on your – the ratepayer’s – behalf?]

Then they go winge to Rodney Hide about the burdens and infringements of central government.

On the other hand, let the faintest smell of money for local projects waft from Wellington to local nostrils, and our local poobahs can’t get to the Hawke’s Bay Airport fast enough!

Then there’s the Rodney Hide problem. He’s their Minister, after all, but here he is, raising all these nasty questions about fiscal integrity and the role of local government. It’s the ultimate disloyalty … like the Defence Minister contemplating eliminating the Navy.

Said Lawrence Yule at the Local Government NZ meeting: “I would like to publicly state that as a sector we are philosophically opposed to rates-capping and the formal definition of core services, and such approaches challenge the very heart of our democracy.”

Mayor Yule and the other poobahs don’t seem to realise that it is they who have created – indeed invited – Rodney’s opportunity for populist political grandstanding. How? By resisting meaningful efforts to implement shared services and other cooperative efficiencies. By keeping their financial reporting impenetrable. By steamrolling ahead with pet projects without convincing public mandates.

Recently, I asked all Hastings Councillors how they justified approving a $1 million contribution to the HB Museum & Art Gallery, when their own survey of ratepayers showed that 46% wanted no contribution at all, and another 24% wanted a lesser one. Only Councillor Bradshaw and Mayor Yule even deigned to reply. Meanwhile, Councillor Bradshaw had to scratch his way toward a Council agreement to call upon the Council CEO to meet an “indicative” target of finding 5% in savings over three years.

So, who in fact better reflects the attitude of today’s ratepayer – Rodney Hide or our own local elected officials? One does not need to agree with Hide’s ultimate stance or sledgehammer solutions to accept that he has his finger on the ratepayer pulse. And the examination of issues that he has triggered will carry into the 2010 local body elections.

Someone – and maybe more than one player – will try to frame a “local government reform” debate in 2010 local body elections. It might be Hide and his Cabinet study. It might be John Key with a political compromise. It might be our incumbent local elected officials, who have a pre-election epiphany. Or it could be a coalition of citizens who have just say “Enough is Enough.”

But it’s a safe bet … the status quo won’t survive.

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