Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

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The Report of the Auckland Royal Commission

The report released on Friday 27 March into the future of Auckland's governance is not perfect. It sometimes reflects its authors' slender knowledge of the finer points of Auckland's local body history and politics. But it is much better than the proverbial curate's egg: the report is good in many parts. The one city idea recognizes several things. Auckland needs a unified voice that the 29 councils prior to 1989 never provided, and the eight councils since then proved themselves unable to deliver. As one wise old dog said to me many years ago, the most difficult thing with local government is to "melt the mayoral chains". Mayoral egos always get in the way of regional unity when there's more than one of them. The Royal Commission has recognized that, and its crowning suggestion is that there'll be only one mayor. The idea of six "local councils" with roles that are somewhere above current community boards', but much less than the current city councils, also looks sensible. Rates will go into the top of the pyramid where regional issues will be dealt with, hopefully by councilors more willing than many of those currently on Auckland's local bodies to act in the best interests of the whole. The Auckland Council will then devolve money and power to the local councils as seems appropriate. Elected on ward boundaries, the local councils should, with the aid of modern technology such as emails, faxes and texts, be able to keep in touch with voters on local issues of substance. Having mayoral and councillors' forums will also assist with keeping the local in local government.

The left wing City Vision Councillors' Preservation Society with their media apparatchiks like Brian Rudman and Bernard Orsman, are trying to destroy the integrity of the whole Royal Commission report because it hasn't devised a structure that perpetuates their elected positions. Lefties perpetually identify the good of the region with their personal interests. Friday's City Vision press release was a thinly disguised complaint that there might not be enough winnable seats for themselves in the new dispensation. When assessing the merit of their complaints one should bear in mind that when they dominated the last Auckland City Council, they gave us rate increases of 37% over a three-year period when inflation was barely a third of that! Many of them believe they have a right to spend your money and are better at it than you yourself. They may produce some arguments worth listening to, but those advanced so far cannot be taken too seriously.

The Royal Commission was hamstrung in part by a requirement in its Terms of Reference to pay heed to the Local Government Act 2002. That Act entrenched into law a number of flakey Labour fads that need revisiting. There are lots of questionable provisions in that Act which will necessarily affect the implementation of parts of the Royal Commission report. For example, for a city with the ethnic diversity existing in Auckland it is necessary to look carefully at those sections of the report requiring separate Maori representation. While the modern approach to the Treaty has tried to stress separate privileges for Maori, the bald fact is that Maori are now significantly outnumbered by several other ethnic groups within the wider Auckland region. On a one-person-one-vote principle those other groups might, with some justice, begin demanding their places in the sun. An ethnically blind system of representation would certainly be simpler, and more likely to guarantee equal opportunities for everyone into the future.

The powers and functions of local authorities also need scrutiny. What came to be known as "the power of general competence" in the Local Government Act has seen councils stray beyond core local activities and beyond the levels of competence of many of those who get elected to local bodies. In the long run this can have serious cost implications not only for business that provides 70% of the nation's jobs, but also for household ratepayers. The powers and functions need careful scrutiny by Rodney Hide. In the current Act there are also a lot of prohibitions on councils. They too are often more about Labour enthusiasms than the public's best interests.

So far, all the criticism of the Royal Commission report has concentrated on representation, and a perception by the City Vision Councillors' Preservation Society that their voice might be diluted. Notwithstanding this, when examined from a public-spirited viewpoint, there could be a devil or two in the Royal Commission's detail. On one count, the Royal Commissioners appear to have done well. Having a mayor elected at large with the power to nominate his deputy as well as the committee chairs should put a stop to the sort of farcical log-rolling by some of the newly elected after the last local elections where several immediately abandoned what they had stood for so as to advance themselves. As the Minister of Local Government in the 1980s who insisted on ward representation in big urban local authorities, I have always believed in wards. Yet there is a counter argument that needs weighing for the top Auckland Council. The voters in our MMP environment are now accustomed to more than one kind of representation. In order to achieve a genuinely regional viewpoint it is important that approximately half the councillors, plus the mayor, should be elected at large in order to balance the inevitable parochialism of ward representatives. However, there will need to be more clarity about the wards for local councils by this time next year. The Establishment Board ought also to review whether, as the report currently stands, there is need for more specificity about the functions to be delegated to the local councils. On investigation it may well turn out that such functions will change over time, and according to district, and that they ought therefore not to be too tightly prescribed in legislation.

There is one major problem with the report that will need very careful teasing out. The commissioners were right to identify difficulties in relation to redeveloping Auckland's waterfront. In fairness, however, without the overlapping jurisdictions of the Auckland Regional Council and Auckland City which has often used or threatened to use its planning powers to act as judge and jury in its own cause, there would have been faster progress on badly needed redevelopment. Is it necessary to establish this rather odd community board proposed by the Royal Commission to handle redevelopment in the new dispensation? Its boundaries extending through the CBD and into Newmarket make no sense, and all too many of the residents in the area are students or recent immigrants with little interest in, or knowledge of, Auckland's waterfront. Why should the views of the rest of Auckland be given less weight in the redevelopment of our waterfront than theirs? There is a real danger that the proposed community board could become the plaything for odd agendas such as those of Heart of the City.

One consideration needs to be kept in mind throughout the implementation phase of the report. With the Wellington region now beginning to contemplate one council, and the possibility that Canterbury could follow suit, it would be well to remember that whatever principles underlie the powers of Auckland's new council, they ought to be transferable to other areas. This means that the minister will probably need to advance two bills. The immediate one relates to the shape of Auckland and its Establishment Board. The second, and meatier bill ought to deal with any special powers needed by the Auckland Council, but also changes that are needed to local authority powers and methods of election in the 2002 Local Government Act.

All in all, however, there is much in the Royal Commission's proposed structure that commends itself. I hope that the Minister of Local Government, Rodney Hide, and the government, proceed with it, although not necessarily in every detail. There is time to achieve a new Auckland for the elections on 10 October 2010, but none to waste. There has been just about enough beating of gums by those with special interests to last us several lifetimes. Now is the time for action. The Royal Commission has provided a useful template.