Every Labour Minister of Local Government till recently had served as a councillor of some sort. He/she understood how local authorities functioned. In the days before MMP and party lists, service at the local level was a tried and true way of winning political promotion. Local government matters to people, and generations of ministers talked of making systems efficient while restraining costs. "King Dick" Seddon in 1895 was the first to preach the need to re-structure. There were too many councils, he said, and they cost ratepayers too much. The governments of Savage and Fraser thought the same, but were unable to come up with a political formula that would convince voters. Then came Henry May's attempted reforms in the early 1970s, and a few years later a pale replica under Allan Highet. The changes of 1989 constituted the first substantial re-structuring of local government since the abolition of the provinces in 1876. Designed by Sir Brian Elwood and his colleagues on the Local Government Commission, they amalgamated many territorial councils, abolished ad hoc authorities, and enhanced the role of regional councils. Together the new system re-defined functions and delineated lines of funding and accountability. It made for easier planning, and contributed to cost containment, until the Resource Management Act of 1991 began lifting costs once more.
Last week Parliament went into urgency to pass a new, rewritten Local Government Act. Sadly, it's no triumph. The old legislation badly needed re-writing. Between 1984 and 1990 when I was Minister of Local Government, the redesigned regional and territorial structure was created using the 1974 legislation. In the early 1990s, Warren Cooper, then John Banks fiddled with this new structure. Legislation that was a cumbersome vehicle at best, began to look like a yard full of battered stock cars pointing in opposite directions. In came the new Labour-led coalition in 1999. Hopes rose. But instead of setting out to redirect those vehicles with life in them, Sandra Lee had a bee in her bonnet about the powers of local authorities. On the one hand she would give them a "power of general competence". On the other, she would tightly restrict the freedom. Moreover, she would impose on councils a need to consult so widely that costs were bound to rise, and some issues might end in litigation costly to ratepayers. In any event, by the time Lee's legislation surfaced there were many more urgent issues requiring attention. Her bill didn't deal with them. The big problem had become the confusing and conflicting powers of regional and local government, and the organisational difficulties flowing from Cooper's diminishing of the Auckland Regional Council in 1992.
Ad hoc authorities had bedevilled local government in Auckland prior to 1989. They emerged once more. The Regional Services Trust which morphed into Infrastructure Auckland, and the Auckland Regional Transport Network Limited, the likes of which the 1989 legislation disposed of, stymie decision-making on urban transport in a manner that older Aucklanders recall from Dove-Myer Robinson's heyday. Why the Labour Government spent New Zealanders' money re-purchasing Auckland's rail corridor for a new system of rapid transport when it hadn't yet devised a legislative structure that would make it work, is a mystery. Poor ministerial co-ordination allows this "Auckland disease", as some call it, to continue. It's a miasma emanating from Wellington. It can only be cured there.
There was hope that the change of minister in August would result in a re-think of Sandra Lee's "power of general competence" where central government's sticky fingers are rather too evident. There was an expectation, too, that Chris Carter, being an Auckland MP, would realise the urgency of fixing the structural muddle that has crept back into Auckland. But it was not to be. After little more than tinkering, he pushed ahead with Lee's Bill. This ministry is light on talent, often thinks it knows best, and when in doubt, some instinctively take advice from the wrong people. Select committee members, with or without the minister's consent, seem to have included clauses in the Bill limiting Auckland Watercare's powers before consulting all shareholders. This became the subject of last week's major ministerial embarrassment. After weeks of deliberation, Carter bowed and bent before a series of mini-tornadoes whipped up by Auckland's special interests. When cornered by one lot, he flipped till cornered by the other lot, whereupon he flopped back again. That Carter ever contemplated giving veto powers to one local authority in a disputatious region of seven, reveals inexperience. Jeanette Fitzsimons was right when she observed that it wasn't good government, and that lobby groups had played too prominent a role with this bill.
Let's hope Chris Carter at last takes counsel from someone who understands local government. Sir Brian Elwood retires shortly as Chief Ombudsman. He commands respect from all within local government. Maybe he could be persuaded once more to undertake an urgent review of regional government's powers that could, amongst other things, address Auckland's needs?
Michael Bassett was Labour's Minister of Local Government 1984-90.