Since coming to power in 2008, the current government has almost obsessively tinkered with the Acts that provide the legislative direction to Local Government. To date, successive amendment bills (by my reckoning about 11) have progressively limited the scope of Councils’ work, reduced the requirements to consult with our ratepayers, changed the basis for Councils to retain ownership and management of our water assets, transferred accountability of Councils away from ratepayers to Wellington officials and increased the ability for central government to intervene in local decision making at will.
This latest amendment bill’s stated intention is to “improve service delivery and infrastructure provision arrangements at the local government level”. However, unchallenged this Bill shifts further power away from ratepayers to the Local Government Minister and the Local Government Commissioner.
At the recent Local Government Conference in Dunedin, Simpson Grierson, a leading law firm who specialise in advising Councils on the legality of what they do, released a report that clearly outlined the reducing coherence of the legal framework Councils work under. In particular they looked at the interface between the Local Government Act 2002 (LGA), The Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) and the Land Transport Management Act 2003, and how over the last decade constant tinkering by government to these Acts means that they are now poorly aligned with each other, causing confusion and uncertainty.
The main casualty of this tinkering is local democracy. The report says ‘recent changes to the LGA and RMA have had the effect of limiting local decision-making and public participation and had an emphasis on “efficient” outcomes rather than quality ones with wider or longer-term benefits.’
Whakatane District Council has of course submitted to the appropriate select committee outlining our concerns regarding this latest amendment bill. However, I think that one of the most powerful responses we as a community can make is to increase our voter participation in the up-coming Council elections.
Local elections have traditionally been characterised by low voter turnout, and the message that sends to central government is that we don’t really care about how our local assets and services are managed. I think we do care and that we don’t want to stand in the queue behind cities with complex needs like Auckland to get our projects advanced and our potholes fixed in a timely way.
Please take the time to open your voting papers when they arrive in the mail and take the 10 – 15 mins needed to read the candidates booklet and vote. We often don’t appreciate what we have until we lose it.
Judy Turner, Deputy Leader United Future New Zealand and Deputy Mayor of Whakatane District Council.