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Dr Muriel Newman

An Amalgamation Agenda

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Noosa imageNoosa, a seaside township of some 30,000 residents on Australia’s Sunshine Coast, was established as a local authority in 1910. In 2008, following the recommendations of the Local Government Reform Commission, it was disestablished by the Queensland Government and amalgamated into a Sunshine Coast Council. A total of 157 councils were consolidated into 73 during Queensland’s reform period.

Noosa residents were deeply unhappy about the forced amalgamation and the removal of local democracy. They vowed to fight back, and in the lead up to the State Government elections in 2012, they, along with three other Queensland communities, won the right to de-amalgamate.

The “de-amalgamation” vote in 2013 was supported by over 80 percent of Noosa residents. They rejected the forced amalgamation agenda of the central planners, who saw super-councils as the way of the future. The other three Queensland communities also succeeded in their battles to restore local democracy.

In Canada there were similar controversies over forced amalgamations in Toronto and Montreal. In both cases the provincial governments were attempting to reduce the number of local bodies to save costs. Amalgamation was extremely unpopular in both cities, particularly in Montreal. In 2006 residents forced de-amalgamation and just four years after Montreal’s amalgamation, at a massive cost, the city de-merged into 15 municipalities.

Not all countries believe bigger local government is better. France has developed economies of scale for infrastructure such as roads and water (five water companies manage supplies for the whole of France), but not for local government. There are around 130,000 local bodies and a Mayor for every 300 or so residents. In Switzerland, one of the most successful economies in the world, where great emphasis is placed on both efficiency and democracy, the average Swiss Commune (local authority) has two thousand residents.

Assessing amalgamation proposals in New Zealand is the responsibility of the Local Government Commission. Established in 1947, the Commission is an independent statutory body with three members appointed by the Minister of Local Government. The present Chairman is Basil Morrison, a former Mayor of the Hauraki District and President of Local Government New Zealand, who is also a member of the Waitangi Tribunal.

In 2012, the National Government changed the Local Government Act to facilitate amalgamations. Previously the consent of each affected council was required – now it merely needs a council, or indeed a lobby group within a local authority area, to lodge an amalgamation proposal to trigger the process.

Since the law change, the Local Government Commission has considered three regional amalgamation proposals – for Northland, the Hawke’s Bay, and Wellington. In each case, the Commission has recommended abolishing the existing councils and replacing them with a single unitary authority, multiple community-based boards, and two powerful Maori advisory bodies. The Commission is clearly running an amalgamation agenda that is heavily weighted in favour of Maori sovereignty demands.

In Northland, the Commission has recommended abolishing the Far North District Council, the Whangarei District Council, the Kaipara District Council and the Northland Regional Council, replacing them with a single unitary authority. The new Northland Council would consist of a mayor and 9 councillors, along with 42 community board members. In addition, two powerful Maori committees would be established – a Maori Board with the power to assign representatives onto council committees, and a Maori Advisory Committee on Resource Management, which the council must consult on all resource management issues.

The Hawke’s Bay proposal follows the same template – the Wairoa District Council, the Napier City Council, the Hastings District Council, the Central Hawke’s Bay District Council, and the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council would all be abolished and replaced with a new unitary authority. The new Hawke’s Bay Council would consist of a mayor and 18 councillors, along with 37 community based local board members. In addition there would be a Maori Board and a Maori Advisory Committee on Resource Management (the Hawke’s Bay Regional Planning Committee).

Unsurprisingly, the Local Government Commission has used the same template to recommend the same format for Wellington. Nine councils would be abolished – the Masterton District Council, the Carterton District Council, the South Wairarapa District Council, the Upper Hutt City Council, the Hutt City Council, the Wellington City Council, the Porirua City Council, the Kapiti Coast District Council, and the Greater Wellington Regional Council – and replaced with a single unitary authority. (Some properties in the the Tararua District would also be managed by the new council.) The Greater Wellington Council would have a mayor, 21 councillors, and 60 community based local board members, along with a Maori Board and a Maori Advisory Committee on Resource Management (the Natural Resources Management Committee).

Don’t forget that submissions on the Local Government Commission’s Wellington amalgamation proposal close at 4pm on March 2 – the submission form and more details can be found on the Local Government Commission website.

A TDB Advisory report that looks into the issue of local government re-organisation shows that the evidence used to defend council amalgamations is weak. While some economies of scale may be achieved by taking a regional approach to capital intensive network operations such as transport and water services, such cooperation does not depend on the councils being amalgamated. And when it comes to the labour-intensive services provided by councils, experience shows the savings arising from local authority amalgamations are insignificant or nil. This suggests that those seeking efficiencies and cost savings should be focussing on regional cooperation and best-practice, rather than amalgamation.

This was also the conclusion of the Productivity Commission’s review of local government regulation: “The Commission found that the size of the local authority did not seem to be a factor in the extent councils followed adequate regulatory decision-making processes. Rather, leadership, culture and organisational management are the key driving factors.”

A 2005 report by Professor Paul Rouse of Auckland University, points out that while the United Nations strongly advocates amalgamation and larger units of local government, larger councils are associated with higher spending. In comparison, the increased levels of public scrutiny and personal accountability of elected representatives in smaller councils, leads to lower levels of overall spending.

In most cases of forced local body amalgamation, the net benefits being touted do not materialise, as any proposed savings become dwarfed by the cost blowouts of the amalgamation process and the increase in the size of the council bureaucracy.

To the residents living in the regions where amalgamation is being considered, the loss of local democracy and council representation is a key concern.

On an international scale, New Zealanders are grossly under-represented by local authorities. As a result of the Labour Government’s forced amalgamations in the late eighties, which saw the number of councils reducing from over 800 to 86 (there are now are 78), New Zealand has one of the highest ratios of population per council of most western nations.

While England has the biggest councils, with an average of 123,000 residents per council, at 67,000, New Zealand ranks in second place. In comparison, Australia has 37,000, Sweden 29,500, Holland 20,500, the US 9,000 and France 1,300 residents per council.

When it comes to direct representation, New Zealanders are even worse off with an average of 5,000 or so residents to each elected council representative. In comparison, in the UK on average one councillor represents 2,600 citizens, in Denmark 1,000 citizens, Sweden 650 citizens, Spain 600 citizens, Italy 400 citizens, Germany 250 citizens, and in France just over 100 citizens.

As many Aucklanders can testify, forced amalgamations can be very disruptive, with detrimental outcomes in terms of an escalation in rates, a decline in services, and a loss of local representation. It’s hardly surprising that the public at large are against amalgamations.

In Northland the Local Government Commission received more than 1800 submissions on their amalgamation proposal, with ninety percent opposed. In the Hawke’s Bay almost 800 submissions were received with over 80 percent opposed.

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator is Phil Barry, a director of TDB Advisory, a boutique corporate finance and economics advisory business with expertise in council amalgamations. In his critique of the Wellington amalgamation proposal, Phil reminds us of the statutory responsibilities of the Local Government Commission:

“The Local Government Act 2002 prescribes three key criteria that should govern the Local Government Commission’s decision-making process on local government restructuring:

– promoting democratic local decision-making;
– the cost-effective delivery of services; and
– improved economic performance in the wider economy.

“Given the three criteria stated in the Act, it is hard to see how the Local Government Commission could reach its preferred option of a supercity for Wellington. In terms of the first criteria, promoting local democracy, a government that is bigger and more remote from its residents can hardly help. Indeed, if the Commission’s proposal for Wellington were to go ahead, New Zealand would have almost half of the country’s population governed by two councils. In terms of the second criteria, the cost-effective delivery of services, the Commission’s preferred option ranks a lowly fifth out of the eight options it assessed. And finally, in terms of wider economic efficiency, to the extent that councils can influence regional economic growth, it is council policies rather than the geographical boundaries we place around the council that are likely to be the determinants of success.”

While the Local Government Commission is meant to carefully assess the suitability of amalgamation requests, it is clear from the three proposals released over recent months that in spite of strong local opposition to the creation of ‘super’ councils with powerful Maori boards, under the Chairmanship of Basil Morrison, the Commission is intent on pushing its agenda. Some have even described the Chairman’s reassurances that amalgamation will only go ahead if there is ‘demonstrable’ community support as “weasel words”, since it has become clear that demonstrable community support has nothing to do with popular community support – it merely needs to be demonstrated that someone within the community supports amalgamation!

Concerns have also been raised about the independence of the Commission, and in particular the strong links at least two of the three board members have with Maori: Mr Morrison is a member of the Waitangi Tribunal, and Anne Carter is a Council Member of Te Wananga o Raukawa and has a background in the public service included working for Te Puni Kokiri.

Given the Commission is a permanent Commission of Inquiry it is also surprising that none of the members have judicial experience. Typically governments appoint retired judges to chair such reviews since they have had a lifetime of experience in dealing with people involved in difficult issues and they know how to do so in a respectful manner. It is time for the Minister of Local Government, Paula Bennett, to address this matter.

A change of leadership is even more relevant given the residents and ratepayers of three large regions of New Zealand – covering 20 councils and around 800,000 citizens – are about to challenge the Local Government Commission’s amalgamation agenda. While residents in each of the regions covered by the amalgamation proposals will no doubt want a poll, they will also make it very clear that the lack of respect the Local Government Commission has shown towards public opinion is simply not acceptable.


Since the Local Government Commission is a permanent Commission of Inquiry, do you believe the Chairman should have judicial experience?

Vote x 120

*Poll comments are posted below.


*All NZCPR poll results can be seen in the Archive.


Click to view x 120


No, just a bit of common sense would be a big help. Sam
I feel our democracy is being destroyed (if not already so) by stealth. There is obviously a hidden agenda which involves using Maori to take over everything. Simon
Support a review as long as it ensures education with a view to teaching those subjects that will help gain employment. Less cultural issues and warped history subjects. No teachers to be involved in the review — only those who have to deal with school leavers and have to employ them. Alan
It sounds like local body voters are only there to pay the rates, with a diminishing chance to vote on crucial issues. Sounds like Basil Morrison needs to removed; we are heartily sick of all the Maori bias & dominance that that this country continually bows to, without majority voter decisions. Monica
Another rort. Paul
All Momentous decisions affecting New Zealanders should be headed by experienced people capable of managing ,conducting & guiding a selected group of enquiry in an objective and independent manner.. Judicial experience is the only obvious option. Elizabeth
Yes. Basil Morrison is a politician. He has no judicial experience and it shows in the way he conducts the hearings. Rather than it being an inquiry, it is more a sermon about the way things should be according to Basil Morrison. JD
Hopefully a judge would have more impartiality. Peter
Yes, or why not have the local street sweeper on the commission? Phillip
What an absolute farce!! Democracy my behind. Denis
I am aghast at the voting power of the Maori bodies proposed -what happended to 1 vote 1 person. Tony
The amalgamation agenda is driven by elitism and feudal politics. Democracy defeated such a system in the middle ages and as such “government” is not concentrated into the hands of a vested interest few. Chinese expansionism will welcome the opportunity to gain control, influence and manipulation over fewer public officials. Big projects are not free but must be paid for by ratepayers or voters. The Chinese want to gain control of our strategic assets (Those Left) and control these big projects. Anyone who believes that the money for such projects will come with no strings attached are immature. The so called “Super-City” concept is an agenda that refuses to accept NZ must live within its means. The Auckland example should be sufficient to identify that the “Super-City” concept is a failure. The way to defeat the agenda is by Referendum. We should work immediately to force the agenda to the people and remove the drivers of it who refuse to accept the will of the people. Frederick
But remember, there is an awful lot of rat bags in the legal profession. I am sure Miss Collins would attest to this. Let alone “Tinkerbell”. Wiremu
They should appointe a range of good business people, not Buracurats, or Judges, also it is time for Northshore & Rodney to break away from the Super City, which is being run with out elected Council members having a say or it seems the Mayor, look at from page of Hearld Sat 21st Nov. Geoff
Yes. There is a higher chance of a decision being made fairly, without bias and without a private agenda. Diana
If the Local Government Commission has any good reason for its existence, and that is doubtful, its membership should be carefully chosen to be strictly impartial and to abide meticulously to the stated aims. Rob
Absolutely. Basil Morrison continues to ‘misinterpret the new reorganisation Law as we will see come the judgement on NAG’s appeal and the obvious rejection of his reccomendations in the 3 proposals he has presided over so far. Bill
I agree they should be a retired Judge and a non racial New Zealander! Kerry
It would be appropriate to have at least someone who would give the appearance of being impartial heading the commission. A judge usually fits that bill to most parties satisfaction. Gary
The commission’s methodology and bias is yet another example of PDF (pseudo-democratic fascism) that is steadily engulfing NZ at all levels of government. Paul
Absolutely, nothing less is acceptable. Carol
Essential. Ronald
The present Chairman of the Local Government Commission, has a strong bias! to enforcing Maori Boards, in every instance, whom have never been voted into Councils, by the Ratepayers, that are forced to pay their Huge Costs! and fees. He should be dismissed! Michael
We are being bulldozed, not listened to. Is this the Waitangi Tribunal’s agenda? Elaine
Absolutely. We have seen difficulties with heads of Commissions who may not have been appropriately qualified, and should not perpetuate or repeat those errors in the future. Maggie
It is very important that we have confidence that the chairperson can be impartial. What is happening where is the local in local government. Bryan
However I think whole commission should be abolished. Peter
What difference would judicial experience make in a PC world, don’t the Waitangi Tribunal have this yet don’t even take the oath! George
Not only judicial officers have a lifetime of exercising independent assessment lof evidence and independent decision making,but are unlikely to haveany particular personal bias in tihs area,nor would let such influence their decisions. Politicians may use their personal & political bias to forward these interests. Douglas
This process is Mickey Mouse I am afraid. Martin
Most definitely yes, in view of the far reaching, potentially cripplingly expensive and racially explosive nature of the Local Government Commission’s agenda. Les
No they should just have common sense most Judges in this country haven’t a clue and in my opinion need a severe lesson on what is wrong and right. Joh
Yes, if the findings are binding then an understanding of law and the consequences is essential. Dave
Yes Alan
We have enough nit wits on these commissions, councils, parliament, tribunals, must have Maori blood in them etc with out any qualifications,. they should be elected by the voters withing the catchment. The chairmanshould bea QC of sound knowledge and independent elected from a panel nominated Govt. (Even then I’m suspicious) and the voters and have their say as well and if not to their liking the Govt., make further recommendations or better still leave it up to the Law Society, but not the Chief judge as on the odd occasion feel she/he is approached by the “yes Minister”. Robert
Basil Brushes aside all suggestions that he is anything but impartial. Haaaaa! Larry
Yes if not what? James
Yes – with impartiality being the bottom line, rather than someone with their own barrow to push as seems to be the case now. Scott
A good Judge will listen to all concerns and advantages and finally decide what is the best option advantagingg the majority of people in the area. Auckland is an example of very bad decision making. It is becoming a most unliveable city. Mary
Big is not better when it comes to local bodies as is shown by the Auckland experience, where outlying areas have lost out in services and have substantial rates increases & loss of local democracy democracy. Vote against it. Brian
Clearly they should have its a no brainer. JB
I am so sick of ordinary Kiwis, such as myself, who’s family goes back many generations in NZ, should have keep watching out back, from a small population minority people who seem to have race based agendas, thinking only of themselves. It is pure apartheid based on lies, fabrications and distorted concepts. Graeme
Absolutely. David
But more importantly the commision must not have biased members on it. It appears that it is biased to all things Maori and quite frankly I am sick of all this push for Maori. Mike
But definitely no bias towards any Maori inclusion. Bill
It is important to include higher levels of relevant experience, and also goes to address what appears to be currently vested interest and/or prejudice. Laurie
Not sure actually but we need to get rid of local government and get rid of the idea of rates. K
Absolutely. Fiona
It is obvious that some of the current membership of the Commission of Inquiry have a conflict of interest and lack objectiveness without have regard to the local majority wishes. Keith
More Racist rubbish creeping to god zone by part Maori. Greg
It seems that the Commission despite its clear mandate to the contrary is ideologically driven rather than work for the benefit of the local communities and the rights of the people of New Zealand. Pieter
A retired judge would consider all circumstances, and go with the majority. A binding referendum should be held in each part of the country concerned. Ron
Out with the biased agenda, too. Paul
Common sense makes this the obvious vote. Shirley
And he or she should not be a member of the Waitangi Tribunal either. Terry
That won’t improve LGC performance. Hon Peter Salmon, retired HC Judge, chaired Commission recommending the Auckland monstrosity, including recommending two seats elected from Maori roll. LGC has a bias towards amalgamation because that’s its essential raison d’etre. It should be abolished altogether. Gary
Would mean neutral and impartial decisions. Audrey
It needs to be scrapped, and re-constituted. Graham
Probably the Chairman should have judicial experience Ray
Definitely. Integrity and impartiality are necessary prerequisites for this position. Steve
Basil Morrison is a bully and should be replaced. John
Yes, the commissioners should be open minded NOT pushing an agenda. Roger
A retired judge with an ability to look at the situation from all points of view would be preferable to politicians. Janice
Amalgamation is a dog. The Commission should listen to what the public want. Leave things as they are! Phil
Replace the vested interests on the Commission. David
Pushing a Maori agenda should NOT be the role of the commission. They should all be sacked! Margaret