The rush to impose the ‘Super City’ proposal on Auckland

So, as John Key explained at his press conference yesterday, Cabinet will have reached a decision by April 6th about the Royal Commission’s Auckland “Super City” proposal – because, according to Key, that’s the timeframe that needs to be followed in order to get the new city framework in place for the local body elections of 2010.

Now hold your horses. Set up a Royal Commission. Get its key proposal. Put it to the public in a referendum to let them decide. Isn’t that the way it should be done? After all, that’s the sequence for how the transition to MMP was managed. This time, we’re talking about the future of the biggest city in New Zealand, and abridging the democratic rights of 1.4 million people – and they’re not going to be allowed to vote about this at the ballot box?

At the press conference, Scoop raised two fairly basic questions – given that Key had just said that this new structure will create the context for Auckland’s prosperity for the next 50 years, aren’t the local body elections of 2010 really a self imposed deadline? And doesn’t a massive report advocating a new and revolutionary political structure for Auckland for the rest of this century deserve more than oh, a week of consideration? Apparently not.

Clearly, the government is intent on putting this proposal into place. After all, if the public were given the chance for a referendum, they might choose the wrong option. And if they did vote to retain the regional identity, interests and relative autonomy of Manukau, Papakura or Birkenhead then… it would become almost impossible to put in place the Super City concept, and later privatize its services and key assets. Brilliant strategy, really. Because you don’t have to privatize state assets – you just have to peel off Auckland as a state within a state, and privatize its assets and service delivery.

The Plan

What retired judge Peter Salmon and his colleagues have recommended in the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance is a structure that scraps most of Auckland’s local councils and community boards, with only the Waiheke Island and Great Barrier Island community boards escaping the purge.

In its place will arise one super city council to rule them all and in its decisions bind them – led by a Lord Mayor who will hold extensive powers. This ‘inspirational leader, inclusive in approach and decisive in action’ will not only make the trains run on time. He will be able to appoint the deputy mayor and committee chairpersons, propose budgets, initiate policy and establish and maintain – in the final grandiose touch – an ‘appropriately staffed’ mayoral office. This new Super Council would the sole entity with the power to set rates.

Below them would be six local councils responsible for a limited range of core services – such as liquor licensing and brothel policies, dog control, gambling, hearing and deciding resource consents, building consent processing and looking after local parks, roads, footpaths, events and graffiti removal. Yet to fund even their core work, local councils will be entirely dependent on the Super City council who – remember – will have the sole power to set rates, and dispense or withhold funds as they see fit.

The scale envisaged is immense. The super council will consist of 23 councillors, ten elected from the community at large, 10 from wards. Three councillors will be Maori, one of whom will be appointed, presumably by my liege, the Lord Mayor.

This means that some of the local councils will represent up to 400,000 people, with local wards serving up to 40,000 people per councillor. No wonder Rodney Hide is murmuring impotently about the possible loss of local democracy and identity. In an era where Big Government is supposed to be such a bad word, this proposal will entail a centralisation of power unimagined by any left wing activist with Stalinist tendencies. This Queen St Kremlin will rule from Wellsford in the North all the way south to Papakura, and envelop a population of about 1.4 million people. As the Dom-Post has calculated, the assets the new Lord Mayor and his band of 23 will command will be bigger – at an estimated $28 billion – than the assets of Fonterra and Telecom combined.

Interestingly, the Royal Commission – and a hat tip to No Right Turn for this – has explicitly not recommended the single transferable vote form of proportional representation for the creation of the super council. Instead, it has advocated an FPP system – essentially a system of block voting – which readily enables slates of candidates from one major party to achieve landslide outcomes (and thus sweeping powers) with as little as 30% of the overall vote. Here’s how the many weaknesses and very few strengths of bloc voting have been described:

The block voting system has a number of features which can make it unrepresentative of the voters’ intentions. Block voting regularly produces complete landslide majorities for the group of candidates with the highest level of support. Under block voting, a slate of clones of the top-place candidate is guaranteed to win every available seat. Additionally, like first past the post methods, small cohesive groups of voters can overpower larger numbers of disorganised voters who do not engage in tactical voting, sometimes resulting in a small minority of voters electing an entire slate of candidates by merely constituting a plurality.

While many criticize block voting’s tendency to create landslide victories, some cite it as a strength. Since the winners of a block voting election generally represent the same slate or group of voters, there is greater agreement amongst those elected, potentially leading to a reduction in political gridlock.

Oh, and as NRT points out, the Royal Commission has also advocated that these wise mandarins should be elected for longer, four-year terms of office, to avoid being swayed by such trifles as election year concerns. Accountability can be so vexing. In other words, it is not merely that the Royal Commission report guts local communities of the power to govern themselves and to fund the priorities of their choice and hands it to over a highly centralised elite. The voting system being advocated will virtually ensure that a minority slate will gain landslide, disproportionate victories – and face little meaningful opposition around the Super City council table, for extended terms of office.

In sum, what is being proposed for the local government sector in Auckland – and there are already calls for Wellington to emulate it – will re-create the elected tyrannies of the Lange-Douglas years. Incredibly, the needs of rugby and the drive for faster Internet have both been invoked by the Royal Commission for the changes being proposed, which will include the appointment of a new Minister for Auckland, and an Auckland sub-committee within Cabinet.

There is a pressing need, the Commissioners allege, to ‘maximize the long term legacy benefits’ of the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Well, back on planet Earth, Auckland is just realizing what the ‘long term legacy benefits’ of the existing council’s involvement with David Beckham will cost them and similarly – thanks to the global recession – the long term legacy benefits of the Rugby World Cup are currently looking like a super sized bill for taxpayers, in order to bail out the competition.

So far, the NZ Herald – which felt moved to front page editorial outrage by the alleged authoritarian implications of the Electoral Finance Act – has been much fairly low key about the authoritarian aspects of this revolution in local government. It has been left to one or two of its columnists (Brian Rudman mainly) to voice the community concerns. Yes, the Royal Commission does recognise that sweeping metropolis-wide elections will run the risk of seeing local elections dominated by celebrities with name recognition and corporate sponsorship – but ironically, it cites the existing local election law spending cap of $70,000 per candidate as a prime safeguard against the wealthy “effectively buying their way into power as a result of greater resources”.

Some safeguard. Given that block voting will foster the election of slates of candidates, much of the likely corporate spend will be lavished on “party” or “slate” advertising, and thus fall outside the cap – which an incumbent Lord Mayor and super council could move to vary in any case. With the help of their Auckland minister and sub-committee in Cabinet if legislative change be needed to do so.

Ironic, really. Such spending caps, which the mainstream media was treating as anathema to democracy when part of the Electoral Finance Act only a year ago, is now being touted in order to sell this highly dubious package to the public.

IMHO both the Key government and the Herald are misreading the public mood on this one. People do care about their communities. Auckland, like most allegedly faceless urban centres, is an intensely tribal place. People in Mt Eden, in Mangere, on the North Shore, in West Auckland and in Otara believe in their community uniqueness and treasure it. In the face of the recession, the values of community and of local responses should be being valued – not jettisoned, as obstructions to progress.

This really is the worst possible time to suppress the diversity that makes Auckland so vital. Good governance does not require such authoritarian solutions, and the bestowing of sweeping, dictatorial powers on the likes of John Banks. In particular, the heart of a recession is not a good time to be putting the setting of rates – and the power to decide what level of services those rates will fund – into the hands of a tiny corporatist elite.


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