The New Zealand Initiative on local government and democracy

The New Zealand Initiative think tank yesterday launched The Local Manifesto, calling for more responsibility to be devolved to – and greater freedom for – local councils.

It’s a call I broadly agree with, especially since the think tank points out that local councils are currently too much beholden to central government and not answerable enough to their citizens.

I welcome the recommendation for councils to use more citizen juries, as the city of Melbourne did to get community support for a $5 billion infrastructure plan. (Instead of raising local taxes, the jury recommended lifting developer contributions, selling non-core assets, and increased borrowing.)

Ditto the use of non-binding referenda. They can be problematic, presenting citizens with an overly simplistic choice and, as Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel argued at the report launch last night, overly influenced by “paid advertising”. But the report points out that Whanganui did them well between 2005-10, giving citizens the chance to say which level of rates they preferred (not just a binary choice) and getting significant community engagement.

At the launch, Dalziel also backed participatory budgeting, a process in which citizens directly determine council spending, saying, “Participatory budgeting is one component of what we intend to implement in Christchurch.” I couldn’t find any mention of participatory budgeting in the report itself, but I certainly think it should be on the agenda. It gives people control over meaningful decisions, and forces them to make important trade-offs – more spending on roads means less for parks, and so on – much more than referenda do.

I wasn’t so sure about some of the other recommendations, however. The initiative thinks local councils should be able to opt out of national standards, for instance on water quality, if they think the cost too great. But if a national standard is the absolute minimum, and is backed up by evidence, that doesn’t make much sense. No local area should be able to say, “We know, based on the evidence, that lowering the water below this quality leads to more people falling ill, but we are going to do it anyway.” Arguably what we need instead is more performance-based regulation: central government setting a standard that must be reached, but letting councils decide how to do that.

The report’s advocacy of democracy is slightly undermined by its (admittedly lukewarm) enthusiasm for council-controlled organisations, which may have their advantages but are definitely removing important decisions from citizens’ control.

Finally, the report doesn’t fully grapple with the crucial issue of co-governance with iwi. If iwi are to have what is guaranteed to them under the Treaty of Waitangi – control over key resources – we are going to have to have a massive ramping up of co-governance. That surely is a core part of any genuinely democratic devolution of power – so while I welcome much of the thinking behind this report, some of the implications of its broad thrust remain unexamined.

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One comment on “The New Zealand Initiative on local government and democracy
  1. Max,

    On national standards the idea was to highlight an important principle of decision-making, namely that policymakers will take a lot more care in the process if it hits them in the pocket.

    As it stands, central government can pass policy on what it thinks is best for communities, and doesn’t take a lot of care to scrutinise the costs because these are merely passed onto the community. Nor is there an incentive to explore other options in one-size-fits-all thinking. Recall Lianne’s fluoridation example last night.

    Opt-outs are a means of confronting central government with the costs of the decision it imposes on communities all over NZ. What we have said in the report is that opt outs need checks and balances. Firstly, any opt out would need to be approved by local strike down referenda. Second, should the opt out impose a cost on central government down the line, say health care costs from 5,000 people suffering from water contamination, then the particular council would be liable for these costs.

    On co-governance, this is bigger issue that the report could meaningfully give answer to. Indeed, it is a constitutional issue that should probably be resolved first before we ask local government to tackle it. Then again, another means of tackling it would be to get central government out of the process all together and let each local community reach their own arrangements. Actually, I quite like that idea, but then as a committed localist, I would!

    Jason

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