We probably all agree that trust is a fundamental “glue” of positive interpersonal relations.

Trust also enables the “social compact” between ourselves and those we select and empower to govern us.

And all the elements of trust — honesty, transparency, good intention, dependability — apply to both situations.

As a relatively recent transplant to New Zealand, I’m wondering whether Kiwis are placing too much trust in their local elected bodies … and even in some of their fellow citizens who take private actions that have public impact.

Specifically, lately I’ve been looking at a variety of examples of local body enforcement — or non-enforcement — of environmental and public health mandates and regulations. And I’m beginning to wonder …

a) whether citizens should continue to merely assume — as I sense many do — that their elected leaders and fellow citizens, absent persistent and skeptical outside scrutiny, will routinely act in the broad public interest; and,

b) whether local officials should continue to routinely assume that regulated individuals and businesses will faithfully “do right” out of conscience or some sense of civic responsibility, versus an expectation of diligent enforcement of applicable rules.

Over and over I hear “regulators” in local bodies express a strong preference to accommodate the parties they are supposed to regulate. They use expressions like “work things out,” “negotiate,” “persuade,” “collaborate,” “build goodwill,” “cooperate” etc. They assume that they’re dealing with “good apples” whose intentions are honourable, even if momentarily somehow clouded.

The other day I was chatting with a senior manager with regulatory duties in an area council … someone I take to be totally dedicated to public service. I commented that, from my American perspective, Kiwi “regulators” appeared to be unusually trustful of those whose behavior — as builders, as dairy farmers, as handlers of hazardous materials, as irrigators, etc — they were supposed to monitor and ensure as proper. He replied that I was indeed too cynical, and that he could count on one hand, at most two, the instances in his decades-long career where he had encountered a really bad apple … a malevolent violator of the rules.

However, the very day of this conversation, the Housing Minister of the National Party — hardly the party naturally inclined to regulation — announced that he was looking into more rigorous regulation of the building industry because of its recent and continuing sins.

OK, call me a cynic, but I think there are more and more “bad apples” out there. People who are perfectly mindful and deliberate as they cut corners, circumvent rules and policies, and demur from voluntary actions in the public interest. As economic pressures mount, people get stressed, standards tighten, and the ability to profit from malfeasance increases, there will be more and more cases where bad actors will emerge.

And what I see in the face of that is a continuing disinterest on the part of local regulators to interpret and enforce existing rules vigorously and unswervingly, especially as these apply to the environment and public health. They would rather “have a chat” or “work things out” with the offender. And if that fails, seek the mildest possible penalty … as with dairy farmers who habitually pollute waterways.

Yes, it’s unfortunate if an inclination toward trust must be replaced with an inclination toward wariness. But I think that’s a mindshift that needs to be considered by public officials with regulatory responsibilities. Misplaced trust carries too high a social cost. These days, there’s just too much to be gained by breaking or skirting the rules.

We need more watch-dogging and less accommodating.

Tom Belford

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8 Comments

  1. Yes Tom We do need more watch-dogging and less accommodating.

    It took me a few goes to get a non-complying dairy farm served with an abatement notice because the 'council was "working "with the owners". A week later two truck & traliers of cows got taken away -but I think the remaining cows arer still crapping in the creek.

    In the past such calls [ for more firm action & enforcement] has resulted in people complaining we are becoming a nanny state.

    The plain fact is that no-one is or can be trusted.

    Most espeically those in public administration and more especially those that are not elected.

    The elected officials,in most cases. forget what they said to get elected. A shinning example locally come to mind -but then She is something special!

    The rest get beaten down by the system and the old farts who have done more than one term-as well as the fact that they refuse to discuss 'matters' cos it might predudice a decision they make in committtee etc.

    The fact is the system is not working – and as far as i am concerned has not for a long time.

    I really admire your determination and work for all of the 'asleep' residents who go home wondering what is going to happen on Shortland st tonight.

    aroha

    Dave

  2. Perhaps being more wary and "watchdog" is appropriate but it would also be useful to publicise, reward, encourage good performance which so often goes unsung. Humans are social animals. If we can applaud good standards of ethical behaviour it makes those who would cut corners stick out all the more. What often happens though is that those who "do the right thing" prefer to get on with it without applause and all we hear about is the ratbags. (PS thank goodness for sound investigative journalism which BayBuzz provides!)

  3. “…lately I’ve been looking at a variety of examples of local body enforcement — or non-enforcement — of environmental and public health mandates and regulations. And I’m beginning to wonder …”

    I must say I feel similarly and have almost come to the view that a majority of our councillors are there for the presumed acclaim the position brings them alone. ‘Trust’ is of course a two way thing … so I guess if the Tuki is abundant with E-coli and is said to substantially feed the underground, there is the Clive outfall (albeit being upgraded), it becomes somewhat difficult imposing sanctions for regulation abuse unless it is of course extreme and flagrant.

    And then there is air quality … something that the council have very little inkling about … they do not have the appropriate equipment to measure it and consequently statements are simply intuitive. They cannot, for example, even say that 'approved' chemical use is not substantially damaging health … they have no way of measuring this let alone assessing violations. And then there are the health statistics … worst on almost all national parameters , and particularly child health, that indicator of the overall health of a community.

    I must say food standards have always been pursued with appropriate diligence.

    But water and air? These are the essentials of life and the quality of them is assumed … in this case wrongfully.

    To rely on complaints before investigating violations on such fundamental issues is an abrogation of their legislated responsibilities.

    Trust is indeed a two way thing … this however is more akin to expedience.

  4. Oh Tom.

    Methinks you strike a timely and responsive chord.

    If I was a pessimist I would think we are "going to hell in a handcart."

    What I believe, though, is that we urgently need a paradigm shift of immense proportions if we are ever going to create an honest and caring environment for future generations to enjoy!!

    Far too many people in responsible positions seem to eschew the core values spelt out in the ten commandments and the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth – honesty, responsibility, faithfulness, compassion, loyalty, kindness etc. etc. We need leaders in our community who live by these simple truths to come forward to repair the damage and to take us forward to build a new and better society. Barak Obama is attempting to do this in America. He has a hard "row to hoe" but he is a shining example of the kind of leadership required at this critical time in world history.

    For me, the worst aspect of all this is "who can we trust?"Do the people responsible understand the enormity of their actions and are they going to be made accountable for their gross dishonesty – I'm talking here of Banks, Finance Companies, Company Directors etc. Here we are "baying for the scalp of Barry Mathews, CEO of Corrections" whilst a significant number of New Zealanders are coping with the loss of their savings due to unscrupulous/inept money management. As a well known Talk Show host ponders – in his wonderfully urbane style : "where is the money? who's got it? did it ever exist? Those responsible need to provide answers. FAST!!

    Notwithstanding all I have said so far, we must remain optimistic that new leaders of integrity will emerge to heal and repair the enrmous damage done in the name of GREED and SELF GRATIFICATION.

    I would like to see more people following the lead of our Prime Minister, John Key in his quest to freeze Parliamentary salaries. And speaking of Key, I am impressed by his empathy with those who have been and are at the "sharp end" of the recession.

    In conclusion, lets resolve to "look out" for each other during this testing time. I am reminded of a challenge during a sermon at my old School : the Vicar asked us " Am I my Brothers Keeper?'' The reply,"YES I AM." This country and the world needs to embrace such wisdom if we are to get out of the awful mess we are in.

  5. Having a bunch of men in white coats running around enforcing regulatory matters is probably not the best answer. If the people that populate these parts can't be good stewards of our land, air and water there isn't much hope that someone getting paid to enforce the regulations will make much of a difference.

    Strong leaders and champions of our environment will do more than council officers who clock off at 5.00pm. We need to find those people, celebrate them and let them (actually all of us) determine the quality of the place we want to live in.

    It used to be acceptable to smoke in any environment and the non smokers used to shrug their shoulders and accept that was the way things were. A smoker can't light up anywhere now without someone taking exception , how socially unacceptable has it become to be a smoker?

    Imagine if we transfered that kind of stand to environmental issues. The power of the people would round up and weed out the bad apples in no time.

  6. "Having a bunch of men in white coats running around enforcing regulatory matters is probably not the best answer."

    Which indeed it is not, but there is a need for a full investigation of the impact of changes in practice (for example horticultural) on environment and health prior to widespread implementation … not afterwards. The difference between assessing the impact of product in an isolated case is substantially different from an industry dispersing product in concert that cannot be contained… and the impacts of such change have not, and are not systematically assessed by either the Regional Council or the Health Authorities (or ERMA which carries overall responsibility). The District Health Board does not appear to collate health information in any meaningful manner, nor does it endeavour to incorporate what they have with that from General Practitioners … all these people have ever been able to do is speak intuitively and relate their intuitions to overseas research or 'truisms.' This situation is an indictment on all. In fact a recent cursory reading of the regulations (Regional Council) would suggest that the requirement that product be contained within the target area (within boundary) has been removed for commercial activity – not so for private persons. It would be nice to think that I was wrong about this, and that at the very least there was a public notification.

    Reportedly there are some 3000 plus contaminated/toxic sites in the Hawke's Bay, where these sites are is probably indicated by the soil remediation required on many sites that were previously orchards … not all can be saw mills, and I don't know of any orchardists who spray product directly on to the ground – the implications of this are obvious. Consequently data and monitoring are required and the results viewed in conjunction with health information and environmental impact. This role is considerably beyond the abilities of the lay person and obviously at present well beyond both the ken and ability of our regulatory authorities

    Whilst this situation continues, our environment and health will quite simply continue to be at risk – the indicators are currently present in abundance – and remediation can only be reactive. This is simply not good enough.

    Before you can address an issue you need to acknowlege its existence … you cannot simply keep turning your head the other way.

    'Trust' sort of requires that the respective councils at least acknowledge concerns that are put to them by those who fund their existence … to fail to follow even basic courtesies unfortunately indicates both arrogance and personal agenda.

  7. yes,we all mostly agree.to get out and do something meaningful and collectively does assist..especailly in our amazing Aotearoa.N.Z–" but we are a lazy lot and leave the hard basket to only a few.

    We should have become the social,envioremental lobby for our world.

    Sadley unlike many Scandanavian countries, proud to pay.higher taxes towards better social cohesion.

    Our politicians, (apart from former Prime Minister Norman Kirk) have sold "more police prisons and punishment as our main deterent to preventimg crime. "What suckers for punsihment, and retributive justice we have become"

    Keep it up Tom Belford.The recent Springhill Trust meeting offered some hope.?. .

  8. re “trust- A Quaint Concept”

    there is no simple answer to the questions raised. If we went to the “Sole Administrator” concept- how do you guarantee that that person is trustworthy??

    At least with the board system there is/should be balance and checks. But only as long as Free Speech remains.plus open access to records.

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