Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Non-local government

The new Minister of Local Government, Nick Smith, has issued a report on local government in New Zealand that has sharply divided people along partisan and ideological divides. That was inevitable, given the staunch conservatism of Smith as well as his National Party acquiescing to the insignificant, and essentially non-existent, Act Party. They will nevertheless win their fight, setting the stage for the next Labour-led government to fix the problems National-Act (or, N’Act, as they’re often known) will create.

The report is the result of a promise that the ruling National Party made to the rightwing Act Party as part of their confidence and supply agreement. National had no reason to promise anything: The one and only “Act Party” MP is a former National Party cabinet minister who is a dyed-in-the wool Tory for whom not supporting a National-led government is biologically impossible, no matter what. National agreed to Act’s demands because they want to blame someone else for the unpopular things they wanted to do, anyway.

They frame it as a way of reigning in both expenditure and debt of local councils, both of which are worthy goals that people of all political stripes support. As always, the devil is in the details.

N’Act will begin by fundamentally altering the mission of local government. The Local Government Act of 2002 (LGA) gives councils responsibility for “social, economic, cultural, environment well-being” of their people because they’re closer to the people than Parliament is, so ought to know better what’s needed. Smith says this created “unrealistic expectations” and then trots out a list of red herrings to prove how this has led to “bad” things: “The problem is illustrated by councils setting targets for NCEA pass rates, greenhouse gas emission reductions and reduced child abuse in their communities. These are very real and important issues but are not the responsibility of councils.”

In the larger sense, he’s right—about those red herrings—but central government refuses to act, leaving local councils to fill the void. Also, having an aspirational vision for the future of a city isn’t by itself a bad—or costly—thing. One would have thought that the democratically elected representatives of the people ought to be able to set a direction for their council, a vision of what sort of city people will be living in.

To ensure that local councils do as N’Act demands, that is, limit their work to “core responsibilities”, they will amend the LGA to change the purpose of local councils to “providing good quality local infrastructure, public services and regulatory functions at the least possible cost to households and business.” Roads and rubbish, basically, with everything else in the “nice to have” basket. The “least cost” is supposedly to remind councils to be frugal, but is clearly meant to ensure councils do everything on the cheap.

And to make sure that councils can’t do more than the “core responsibilities,” they’ll impose a cap on how much rates can go up to no more than the rate of inflation with some sort of allowance for population increase and maybe a bit more if there’s some sort of natural disaster. Because, as everyone knows, no costs EVER rise faster than the rate of inflation, ever!

So, if construction costs rise faster than the rate of inflation, for example, local councils will just not pay the increased price—yes, I’m being sarcastic. What would really happen is that councils will decide how many months or years a street has to wait for its potholes to be fixed, which broken sewers will be replaced in that year, which parks will be mowed that month—those are the sorts of real-world decisions councils will be faced with in N’Act’s rates-capped world.

If all this fails and councils disobey the N’Act government, then they’ll impose control from Wellington, beginning with overseers all the way up to a coup, dismissing the duly elected government and installing a dictator. National has already done this, dismissing the Canterbury Regional Council because it wouldn’t give as much irrigation water to farmers as National wanted them to, appointing an overseer for Christchurch City (and threatening to dismiss the government there, too, and installing a dictator), and seizing control of Auckland’s part of the Rugby World Cup because of transport problems created by the structure THEY set up in the first place.

The point is, this N’Act government has a history of anti-democratic actions and clearly would have no reluctance or hesitation to impose their will, voters be damned.

Much of this will sound familiar to Americans, because that’s where the nuttiest of their ideas come from. Wingnuts in America have already implemented property tax caps (the equivalent of rates caps) and overthrown duly elected governments to install dictators (most notoriously in the state of Michigan). Before it’s crushing electoral defeat last year, the former Act Party used to greatly admire the politics and ideology of the US’ elected rightwing, especially the wingnuts. That legacy lives on.

So, where does this leave us? N’Act has the votes to get its way. Unless a couple National Party MPs die or resign in disgrace, they have the votes in Parliament to do as they please until the next election, in 2014. Of course, the next government, which will probably be a Labour-led government, will have the votes to do what it wants—including undoing all the damage that is about to be done to New Zealand.

But how much better would it be if instead of going off on a far-right ideological bender this government would take the time to research and propose sound proposals. Unfortunately, that would be impossible for them because doing the appropriate thing would leave no way for N’Act to benefit their rich mates and big, foreign-owned corporations in. This will be a long 2.75 years.

Update 21 March 2012: Today Nick Smith resigned all his ministerial portfolios because of two lapses of judgement regarding his actions despite a personal conflict of interest in his former role as Minister of ACC. Whoever the new Minister of Local Government is, he or she will certainly carry on National's anti-democratic and boneheaded agenda.

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