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Gerrard Eckhoff

The Death Rattle of Local Democracy

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As the Local Government election drew out the last remnants of elector tolerance, it’s worth reflecting on why so many voting papers lay forgotten alongside last week’s shopping list.  For a few weeks every three years, we as voter/citizens are treated with deference and not disdain or as an encumbrance that clogs the machine of Local Government. We should now be grateful the woolly promises of “caring for people and the environment” (which abound in meaningless rhetorical futility) drift into nothingness. It’s a bit like saying you’re in favour of Sunday lunches with the family.  We should always judge our future local and central Government representatives by their application of sound personal judgment through past results and not by their stated nebulous objectives, seemingly as temporary as their now discarded billboards.

Local democracy may look like its working when all adhere to council  rules of engagement which now virtually prohibit any public conflict of opinion between councillors. Codes of Conduct and the demand for “group speak” preclude vigorous debate.  It is wrongly viewed that dissent around a council table should always be seen as dysfunctional. Nothing could be further from the truth. The ability to speak against and vote no in the face of majority support is an all too rare attribute in politics.

So what causes our expectations of and from our representatives to be set aside in favour of political expediency once their slippers are firmly placed under the council table. Too often it works this way. The hopeful chair or newly elected Mayor quickly visits or calls her/his councillors to congratulate them and indicates they would be very suitable as chair of one of the council committees –  if they endorse his/her vision for the next 3 years. Council committee chairs should be nominated and voted for by councillors only and not the Mayor or chair of a Regional Council. This process would ensure a distribution of authority within council.  The current method allows for an inner circle appointment system where an expectation of full support for the Chair from the new committee chairs is entirely predictable.                                                

Next comes the oath of office. “I………….. will faithfully and impartially and according to my skill and judgment , execute and perform in the best interests of this region , the powers ,authorities and duties vested in me, or imposed upon, as a member of the Council by virtue of the Local Government Act 2002, the Local government Official Information and meeting Act ,or any other Act .“ 

What is the point of the oath of office if appointed  members with voting rights can virtuously ignore this essential requirement? This oath of office is designed  to set aside parochial interests of the duly elected in favour of ensuring all our interests are equally considered. No longer it would seem.

Just prior to the Local Government election, the  Otago Regional Council voted (by majority) to appoint two representatives of Ngai Tahu with full voting rights onto the ORC Policy Committee only which deals with the allocation of fresh water and minimum flows. This recent decision from the ORC –  in the final days of its train wreck tenure – was as wrong as it was predictable. The question as to why we the people were never consulted over this appointment is obvious. Reserving seats for Ngai Tahu to the full council (and therefore every committee) would have opened up the council up to a petition to hold a referendum of the people of Otago – which could easily have been included in the Local Government election process.

It follows that if two appointments are commendable, why not appoint four or six  representatives of Ngai Tahu to the twelve-member council, to make the appointment process gain even more probity in the eyes of some. That is a surprise that awaits us all I suspect.

The question therefore is not whether a council has the authority to make this appointment but whether the council understands the future implications of this decision. The staff reported to council – that this decision gives tangible effect to the Council partnership with Iwi. Really? To what partnership do staff refer? Article 7 or 8 of the Treaty of Waitangi?

The idea of a partnership is simply a political construct devised to give vested interests of Government and Maori “standing” with the wider community while engaging in decisions that should always remain the prerogative of duly elected representatives.

We now also see political parties overtly endorsing candidates so that their philosophies are represented around a council table.  Does this appointment process end with the appointment of Grey Power, Fish and Game, Forest and Bird, along with all others who feel a need to be heard? It is now entirely  convenient for Ngai Tahu  representatives to maintain their allegiance solely to their Iwi and not the wider community – of which they are an important part.  It is also an affront to representative democracy as we expect it to function.  

When the corroded  institutions of Local Government fail to uphold the hard-fought principles of representative democracy – we see this gradual but constant  form of backsliding into history with barely a murmur – even at election time. Local Government rarely pays any price for being wrong.

Our democracy changes (see MMP)  but it has always depended on an unwritten acceptance of due process underpinned with consultation despite whatever the process and result might throw at us. The NZ National party won more votes than any other party at last the election – as did the American Democrats with Hillary Clinton yet both our democracies were resilient enough to cope with such results. For how much longer?

The greatest threat to representative democracy is not from those who overtly seek to destroy it such as Maori nationalists, but from those who administer and benefit from it while constantly undermining its value. Too often they are called councillors. The impact of elected councillors  who fail to understand the fundamental importance of this imperfect entity we call representative democracy will only serve to hasten the demise of a well- functioning local Government,  in favour of a miasma of the self- interested.

The death rattle has begun.