Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The new Auckland, Part 1

Later today, the government is set to announce their plans for Auckland after the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance released its recommendation for a single unified city for Auckland (a concept someone dubbed “super city”, a name which is epithet as much as descriptor, so I won’t use it). This is a very complicated issue, so I’m splitting my reaction into two parts: First, in this part, I’ll talk about what the Royal Commission recommended and what I think about it. In Part 2, I’ll look at what the government proposes.

First, some background: The Royal Commission was announced back in July of 2007 as a way of finally solving Auckland’s notoriously fractious politics and inability to cooperate regionally. With roughly a third of the population of New Zealand, the Auckland region is a major force in the national economy. The eight councils ruling the Auckland area were simply unable to act together to the detriment of the entire country.

The Royal Commission proposed a completely new structure for the region, abolishing all eight councils in favour of a unified city ruled by what they called the “Auckland Council”, which would exercise all the powers under the Local Government Act. Under it would be four urban and two rural “Local Councils” dealing with local matters including dog control, hearing and deciding resource consents, processing building consents, regulating gambling, liquor licensing and brothel policies and also managing and maintaining local parks, roads and footpaths. Only the Auckland Council can set rates (similar to property taxes in the US), but Local Councils can request rate rises for specific local projects. All existing community boards will be abolished, except for Waiheke and Great Barrier Islands. The Auckland Council is advised to set up a committee dealing with the Auckland waterfront, and another dealing with the city centre.

There would be one Mayor elected by all Aucklanders who would be unlike any other mayor in New Zealand, but arguably less powerful than mayors of cities in other countries. The Mayor would propose the Auckland Council budget and initiate policy (thought both must be approved by the Auckland Council). He would also appoint the Deputy Mayor and committee chairpersons and would run the executive Mayoral Office.

The government’s initial reaction questioned whether there was enough democratic representation, and I would heartily agree with that. It seems to me the Royal Commission’s proposal attempted to strip away layers of democracy in the interests of promoting regional focus and efficiency. I think they went way too far.

The Auckland Council would be made up of 23 Councillors: Only ten elected from wards (8 urban, 2 rural). A further ten would be elected “at-large” from throughout the region. Two would be elected by Māori voters registered on the Māori electoral roll with one more Māori Councillor appointed by mana whenua, defined as “local Māori with ancestral ties to the land”. This structure would be an undemocratic nightmare.

Having only ten Councillors elected from wards would mean that they’d “represent” tens of thousands of people. The ten “at-large” councillors are proposed so they’ll have a region-wide focus, rather than focusing on a single ward. The reality would be that certain regions or parties could come to dominate those positions, and they’d end up being every bit as parochial as the Royal Commission apparently assumes ward-based councillors would be. Electing councillors Auckland-wide, like the Mayor, also means the Mayor would have ten potential political rivals on the Auckland Council. That suggests the same sort of infighting, game-playing and political self-interest we’re trying to get away from.

The Māori representation is an issue in itself. First, I need to say that I’m extremely uncomfortable with race-based representation of any sort. However, as the tangata whenua, and the specific partners with the Crown through the Treaty of Waitangi, a case can be made for Māori having such representation. Even so, appointed seats are definitely undemocratic, and I don’t support that. Add a third elected Māori seat if need be, but no one should be simply appointed to the Auckland Council.

I suspect that the government will pay the most attention to the next layer of government, the Local Councils. These councils will vary in size, but in all of them members will be chosen by wards. They’ll select a chairperson from among them who will be replaced as a ward representative by the next-highest polling candidate in that ward. I’m not sure that the answer to increasing democracy is reinstating community boards—quite frankly, I have no idea what they actually do. Perhaps the answer is more Local Council members (so they represent fewer people), or maybe there should be more local councils.

On balance, I think the Royal Commission was on the right track, and with a little tweaking to increase democratic participation, it could work. But we don’t need to have even more public consultation on the entire thing. After a year and a half, thousands of submissions and reports commissioned from various experts in particular areas, the last thing we need is more expensive re-visiting of the same issues. Yesterday the Prime Minister said that they wouldn’t do that, which is positive. Certain aspects of the implementation may get further consultation, but the plan as a whole is pretty much settled.

One final thought for now: Many people assume this whole thing is about saving money. While it probably will save some money, especially though combing “back office” functions and other efficiencies, that’s not the main objective. Instead, the whole point is getting Auckland functioning as a unit, finally addressing the regional problems that have held it—and New Zealand—back. The new Auckland has the potential to be one of the leading cities in this part of the world, but that can never happen while it’s being held back by petty, parochial, squabbling local politicians. The people of Auckland deserve better, and so does New Zealand.

1 comment:

Lord Byron said...

Sounds like the IL-Iowa Quad Cities. Four cities on the Illinois Side and two on the Iowa side have a hard time cooperating. It took years to get a single strip of pavement through the IL side to have the same name in all communities! Chambers of Commerce are unified on each of the sides of the river and an inter-state economic development group exists.
I'll be watching and hope for the best in Auckland.