The pre-ordained demise of Auckland

Barely five months into the Key administration, the centre right is plainly making far more effective use of its ideological bedmates than Labour ever did with the Alliance, or the Greens. Rodney Hide is not even in Cabinet. Fewer than four per cent of voters voted for Act’s agenda at the last election. Yet who is getting the bulk of his agenda enacted? Who is at the forefront of many of the government’s initiatives – on Auckland the Supercity, on rates reform, on spending cuts, on attrition in the bureaucracy? The government’s ideological outrider, the man from Epsom.

If this is a good cop/bad cop routine (and it isn’t, because Hide is also being pushed out front on the Auckland issue as the champion of local democracy) then it is a game Labour never came close to playing, let alone winning. For much of the MMP period Labour has routinely patted itself on the back as the party that got MMP, while National was still mired in old, FPP thinking. It might be time to revisit that idea.

The reality is that the last Labour government consistently treated its erstwhile allies – firstly the Alliance, then the Greens, and its own Maori caucus to boot – either patronizingly or with thinly veiled paranoia, as liable to upset the applecart. At best, it managed its ideological friends. It never embraced them, or set them loose in the way that Key is unleashing Hide. Labour much preferred its allies to be indistinguishable from itself, like Jim Anderton.

So far, Act has positioned itself outside Cabinet as the bean counters of local and central government spending, and the stewards of regulatory reform. That’s a far more powerful role than merely being the boss of some isolated portfolio. Local government after all, can be made to cut across everything else. To date, who has been the real Environment Minister, making the running on air and water standards ? Clue : it has not been Nick Smith.

Of course, no matter where Hide situated himself, it would have come to nothing without active endorsement by the Cabinet inner circle : Key, Bill English, Simon Power and Steven Joyce. This quartet, plus Hide is running the show. Which consists of Act providing cover for National on the economy and the ideology of small government, while the Maori Party similarly rides shotgun for National on social and industrial issues.

Labour would never have dreamed of using the Greens so imaginatively, in order to achieve the common goals of the centre left. Instead, it saw its role as being to deny and obstruct its ideological partners for a greater good that it alone could be trusted to define. The result is that National and Act have achieved as much in the first five months as Labour managed to eke out during its entire nine years in office. Any centre left resurgence in future will require Phil Goff to relax Labour’s iron claim to tactical and moral superiority.

Yes, National does enjoy more comfortable numbers in Parliament. Yet even when the centre right majority is slim, it behaves as if it has a clear mandate for its entire agenda. and acts with partisan unity to achieve it. Labour has rarely, if ever behaved as if it trusted its allies or believed in their goals. At best, its allies were to be used as mercenaries in order to fulfil Labour’s agenda, and little more. That’s why Labour in government lacks the cohesion necessary to achieve sweeping centre left goals – its main skill being to deny and frustrate the centre right, while achieving incremental gains.

This is not simply a New Zealand phenomenon. The Republican Party also treated George W, Bush’s dubious mandate as a license for extremism. Massive, unsustainable tax cuts and high risk nation building followed in the wake of Bush’s wafer thin ‘victory’ in 2000. GOP legislators were still demonstrating more cohesion at the depths of the Bush presidency than the Democrats are currently able to muster at the height of Barack Obama’s popularity.

As Jonathan Chait said recently in an interesting essay in the New Republic : “Republicans did not denounce Bush for squandering a budget surplus to benefit the rich, the way Democrats now assail Obama for big spending and deficits.” Nor did the Republicans let themselves be stymied over their bureaucratic appointments, or badgered into illusory compromises that deliver little, or nothing. Amazingly, as Chait says, more than a few Democrats are already behaving as it if is all downhill – that Obama can only lose popularity from here, so distance and independence from him are the wisest course.

In mitigation, one has to concede that it is hardly a level playing field out there. It helps National immeasurably that it is the party of business and the corporate media. The summer of business discontent in 2000 only confirmed Labour’s paranoid belief that progress could only be achieved by gradual and tiny steps. Unfortunately, it also cemented in a perception among business lobbyists that the Clark government was gunshy, and could be easily spooked into backtracking. Obviously, Hide and Key face no such worries.

One can only speculate for instance, how the mainstream media would have handled the Super City outcome if it had been a Labour government that was ramming an undemocratic solution into place with such haste, and lack of proper public consultation. Essentially, the government has given barely a fortnight’s consideration to the Royal Commission report, and allowed no subsequent input from the public, or sought no mandate by way of referendum.

Can this be any way to decide the structure of our largest city, the editorials would be thundering up and down the country, and the fate of the nation’s economic powerhouse for the next 50 years? Should 1.4 million New Zealanders be shut out entirely from the decisions on how they are to be represented at a community level ? It would have been treated as the starkest, most malignant expression of Helengrad and the Nanny State – and a dire threat indeed, to the freedoms fought for on foreign fields.

Instead, Key has been able to get away with claiming that the new structure must, must, must be in place for the 2010 local body elections. Really? Why? Isn’t getting the structure of local democracy in Auckland right for the next half century a wee bit more important than the 2010 council elections? Secondly, Key argues that the consultation has already occurred, in front of the Royal Commission. Well, that’s not how we did it when we switched to MMP.

Back then, the Royal Commission reported back its recommendations about proportional representation in 1986, and then we had two referendums – in 1992 and in 1993 – to decide on whether to embrace the change. Could Key explain why the public were given more than one referendum subsequent to the Royal Commission findings on that important issue, but he is leaving no chance for any public vote at all this time ? The mandarins on the Royal Commission are not usually treated as having the final verdict, the serfs must accept without further ado.

Finally, contrast this with the situation on rates reform. There, Hide seems to be advocating that there should be a referendum if councils ever again want to raise rates, beyond the level of inflation. That ideological goal is held to be well worth the time and expense involved for any council, of holding a referendum.

But a referendum on how 1.4 million Aucklanders should be represented in their communities ? No way. Thanks to the fact they can command obedience from Act and the Maori Party in Parliament, the government will probably have no trouble in ramming this one through.

This afternoon, Key will announce his embrace of the One City/One council concept. Hide will be wheeled out to announce that instead of six local councils, there will be a dozen or more community boards. This will be packaged as victory for democracy, and for the plucky little battler from Epsom. In fact, it will be a meaningless sop if the capacity to levy rates and allocate funding is retained solely by the Super Council. In such a scenario, the community boards would become mere management centres for decisions made and (not) funded further up the line. Besides losing their parochial pride, Manakau will have lost its ability to set its own community priorities, and fund them accordingly.

At his post Cabinet press conference yesterday, Key dismissed the need for further consultation : “I think what Aucklanders are now looking to the National government for is leadership, to make some decisions, and inform them of those decisions.” Politics once again, is imitating parody. A couple of years ago, Stephen Colbert satirized this approach to governance as a process in which the President is the Decider, and the media is there merely to write those decisions down. Well, Aucklanders are now getting their chance to live out that parody.