During the last 8 ½ years there has been significant changes to how local authorities operate in New Zealand. It is important to revisit what has happened since there seem to be two relative certainties with each new Government:
- The Local Government Act will be reformed
- Depending on the composition of the next Government the priorities for local councils will be made to change through legislative means
During the last several years, there has been a succession of amendments to the Local Government Act 2002. In 2010, one of the changes was to Section 11, specifying what local authorities shall pay regard to in performing their roles and included:
- Network infrastructure
- Public transport
- Solid waste and its disposal
- Avoidance and mitigation of natural hazards
- Community infrastructure and facilities
This on one hand might have been viewed by some as a deliberate narrowing of local governments role, it was also interpreted by many as a necessary sharpening of the focus. This is particularly so when considering the nature of the Local Government Act 1974 and how this prompted the major reforms announced in the Local Government Amendment Act, 1989 where catchment boards and a slew of other authorities were replaced with city/district/regional councils.
More (much more)problematic was the 2012 repeal of nearly all references made in the 2002 legislation to “the four well beings” – social, environmental, economic and cultural. These had been included in the 2002 legislation and had formed the basis for the the Long Term Plan (Section 93). The redefinition of community outcomes was intended to reinforce the change in priorities, mentioning “good quality infrastructure, local public services and performance of regulatory functions”.
Then there is the case of Part 10. The original version dealt with Ministerial powers to scrutinize the performance of councils. This in itself is not a bad thing and transparency is essential to the successful running of one. Its provisions were somewhat restricted – a simple request for information, appointment of a review authority or a potential investigative commissioner. With the election of National in 2008, the provisions were significantly expanded to include the power to replace a council (see Environment Canterbury). The Minister can even call a general election (the basis of necessity for this eludes me in the context of a local authority unless it is of such a divisive nature or such high national importance that the New Zealand taxpayer needs to involved).
I can see further erosion of democracy happening if there is not opposition mounted. Thus these changes over the years are of significant concern. But changing the Government is not a one size fits all solution. Changing the laws about how local government elections work, improving public involvement in the democratic processes we go on about so much among other solutions are the best ways forward.