I can understand the sentiment behind this in some respects. The problem is that both Labour and National have tended to treat local government as their political football. In Labour’s case, they tend to pass laws to give local government unlimited powers with little accountability, while National are fond of offloading as much central government responsibility as they can onto local government, while at the same time passing legislation to tightly control and regulate the way local business is done.
The fact that in many cases central government has been quick to step in to help local councils avoid legal problems caused by contempt and disrespect for people’s rights. Some examples which come to mind:
- Taieri Aerodrome – the local aviation club set aside a large land area for future development of the airfield and put it into trust with the local council, who then went behind their backs proceeding to subdivide and sell it for business development. Rather than face accountability, their actions were retrospectively validated by an Act of Parliament.
- Christchurch earthquakes – decades of allowing unsuitable land to be subdivided without regard for the possible hazards led to the possibility of the CCC being sued by insurance companies. Instead, the Government stepped in to bail out landowners with the red zone offers.
- Kaipara – the district council was forced out of office and replaced by commissioners having failed to manage a sewerage project originally costed at $17 million which blew out to more than $60 million. An Act of Parliament in 2012 retrospectively validated the ratings demands.
Of course, many of these issues would not be occurring if local government was competent or accountable; something we cannot take for granted. Competence is the major one, as the ability and competence of many elected members is often dubious. Most of them would not have a clue at a national level, so those rejects end up around a council table where they can supposedly do less damage.
Part of the accountability problem, apart from at its core being an issue of not very good quality of elected membership, is that local government politics is so local. The more local you go with issues, the greater is the amount of self interest. Councils pander to relatively small but well organised local lobbies and the core focus for many residents is to live in a desirable neighbourhood so as to sustain or increase the value of their residential property and local government is seen as having a core role in enabling that. But also the controls on what local government can do are so limited compared with what central government can achieve. And at local level councillors often don’t stand on any particular ideological platform. There have been very few local government politicians who have the guts to implement policies to control spending, because most of them are always campaigning for increases to fund their particular politicial bandwagon.
In short if this campaign reflects a key concern about local governance, it is probably well founded; but it ignores that you simply cannot expect the kind of radical reform that Margaret Thatcher and Co rammed through in the UK, because that would be political suicide. That particular ideology was motivated for political and ideological reasons, in the same way as the New South Wales State Governments have repeatedly meddled in the formation of local governance in Sydney, for example. Because of the way in which central government uses or implements its own agenda through local government, this campaign is unlikely to achieve much, and should be seen for what it is – an attempt by certain groups to advance their own political elitist agenda, and really just another lot of useless politicking.