Winners and Losers: The 2019 Local Government elections

Congratulations to all ward representatives, Councillors and Mayors elected. It has been fascinating watching the results coming in from around the country. Commiserations to those who lost their races and now return to regular day time work.

Particularly interesting for me in Canterbury has been the election of our first democratic council since the Commissioners took over the 2007-2010 council in March 2010. They leave behind a province struggling with fresh water issues, transport and land use. They leave behind a council whose permanent staff has not only drastically changed, but also missing a lot of local knowledge particularly in the planning and policy sections. Four of the 6 councillors that stood in 2016 have been returned. The other 10 are newcomers.

I am not surprised Lianne Dalziel has been re-elected Mayor of Christchurch. Whilst she was not my preferred candidate, her campaign was the strongest. Runner up Daryl Park was unrealistic in having a policy platform of zero increases in rates. Mr Park also did not score as well as many others did on matters such as housing, transport and drinking water supply. Green candidate John Minto is widely considered too radical and and came third.

Around the big cities in New Zealand I see that Phil Goff has taken Auckland for a second term. Paula Southgate has won Hamilton. Ms Southgate lost the 2016 election race by a razor thin margin of just 6 votes to Andrew Turner, who she outed comfortably. A 35 year old Green Party candidate named Aaron Hawkins has taken Dunedin. It is Wellington that people are watching. One term Mayor Justin Lester is trailing Andy Foster in a race that will be decided by special votes, of which there are about 5,000 to count. That result will be a few days away. An Andy Foster victory would make Justin Lester the first one term Mayor in Wellington in decades.

The West Coast Regional Council has two female councillors joining five others around their council table. This may be a backlash for the denial of climate change that permeated the previous council. Greater Wellington Regional Council has few changes.

In terms of District Council races, I am interested to see what the composition of the Westland District Council is. After a horror three years with two big flood events, two cyclones and much criticism over the Franz Josef flood protection works and their failure to implement Plan Change 7 concerning the Alpine Fault, no doubt ratepayers will be looking forward to a more responsible council. In Canterbury the Waimakariri, Kaikoura, Timaru, Hurunui Districts all have new mayors. The Kaikoura District Council, struggling in the aftermath of the 2016 magnitude 7.8 earthquake faces a difficult three years trying to stay afloat whilst repairing the damage and conducting regular business.

To all those who have voted, in my book you retain your grumbling rights for another three years. To all those that did not, if you now get a council that uses rates in ways you did not want them to, stiff cheese.

Time for a new Mayor in Christchurch

In 2013 I supported the election of former Labour M.P. for Christchurch East, Lianne Dalziel. Ms Dalziel was the clear cut front runner in a mayoralty race after incumbent Robert (Bob) Parker decided he was not going to stand again.

At the time Christchurch was struggling back to its feet following the worst disaster in the city’s history and one of the biggest disasters in New Zealand’s peacetime history. The Christchurch City Council was a ship in disarray, off course with the senior officers bickering at the wheel. Its Chief Executive Tony Marryatt was in disgrace for his almost Nero-esque management of the City Council during the 2010 and 2011 earthquake emergencies. Secrecy at a time when the public needed open transparent decision making more than ever was rife.

When Ms Dalziel came to office, Raf Manji who had expertise in finance was given the finances portfolio. He had the messy and difficult job of accounting for finances that the council knew were going to require hefty rates increases in the near future, whilst balancing the bill for the massive damage caused by the earthquakes to city infrastructure. Mr Manji thought that Christchurch should not invest in social housing for vulnerable tenants as the cost of doing so on top of the already massive bill for earthquake repairs would cause a financial blowout. The Council instead committed to overhauling the heating and insulation in the existing stock of flats.

Until about the start of last year I thought Ms Dalziel had led the Christchurch City Council fairly well. Transparency had improved. Many of the major rebuild projects were starting to see some progress – the Town Hall restoration was underway; the construction of Te Pae was about to start, and much of the infrastructure repairs had been completed. The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority had wrapped up its work andĀ  The council treasury books, whilst still messy had a clear order to them at least now had priorities.

Yet at the same time, it was becoming obvious that the City Council had a listening issue. People were becoming frustrated by the obsession with cycle lanes around the city, especially on roads which they were not suited for. Some of the suburban revival projects were no closer to starting than the day they were announced – often several years earlier. Frivolous unnecessary expenditure was going on art works like something in the middle of the Avon River, which to this day I am convinced just collects rubbish.

I also note that New Brighton, which could be a pretty grim, run down part of town even on the best of days once again seems to be slipping under the radar. Sure its demographics have changed with the earthquakes. Sure it sits on the edge of the old civilian red zone, and in fairness I have heard that the new salt water pools are being constructed, but wasn’t there meant to be some sort of community redevelopment plan? You never hear about it if there was.

But more recently some of Ms Dalziel’s pronouncements have begun to concern me. She admitted a conflict of interest over her husbands involvement with a Chinese water bottling company, but did nothing to remove him or herself form the discourse.

With long time activist John Minto and businessman Darryll Park both vying to become Mayor, the 2019 race is looking a lot tighter than in 2016. The former wants free public transport, but has not really said much about his spending priorities. The latter wants to have zero rates increases should he win, but has never spent a day around a council table. I am not entirely sure now who I want to win, but Ms Dalziel is looking tired now as a leader and a fresh injection of ideas is needed and some knowledge of council procedures would be useful too.

Disinterested public ignoring local Government elections

With just under three weeks before voting papers being mailed out for local government elections, candidates are out in force. Flyers and pamphlets are landing in peoples letter boxes and campaign signage has gone up. But how many people care?

That is an interesting – and important – question. The reasoning that has existed all along has been that that the bigger the turn out in local government elections of electors, the clearer the mandate – or lack of – that will be given. But how well do people in New Zealand understand local government elections and how important do they think local government politics are to them and their communities?

If we look at Christchurch in 2019, we see a council dealing with major issues. Some of them are ongoing earthquake recovery issues, that might persist for another decade but gradually lessening in importance. Some are ones that have sprouted out of an apparent lack of accountability over council spending, misguided priorities and concerns about how our infrastructure should be managed.

There are several candidates standing against incumbent Mayor Lianne Dalziel who has said that she wants a third term. Ms Dalziel believes that she is standing to see through unfinished projects that started under her watch. She is challenged by well known activist John Minto who envisages a city with free bus transportation (which has actually been introduced in Dunkirk, France. Businessman Darryll Park who has held a number of executive positions, including South Island Manager at Air New Zealand is also standing.

In Christchurch City Council all of the wards have multiple candidates standing. This is in contrast with several smaller electorates where a single candidate has stood, and effectively won their seat simply by declaring their candidacy. This includes Waipa District Council in the North Island where the Mayor Jim Mylchreest has been re-elected unopposed simply because nobody else in the district is standing for Mayor. Likewise Waitomo District will get three new councillors unopposed for lack of competition in their wards.

It bothers me that people are so disinterested in local Government elections that in some cases nearly half a council can be elected unopposed, as has happened in Waitomo. Yet at the same time, in a small rural electorate with only a few thousand people and a largely rural rate payer base, I am not dreadfully surprised. Despite a smorgasbord of issues to keep them occupied it seems that drinking water, transport, rubbish collection, civil defence and all of the other issues that councils have to deal with are simply not sexy enough to elicit contenders.

And like many others I am not sure what one does to make that interest grow. A compulsory course in civics to make sure people understand the how the electoral system works only goes so far, and despite it being an offence to not be on the electoral roll, I do not know many are not enrolled, but I suspect it is in the thousands.

But in the big cities the campaigns are rumbling along. Auckland Mayor Phil Goff is facing down 20 challengers; Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel has 12 challengers; 14 are challenging Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull; Hamilton Mayor Andrew King has 7 including three of his current city councillors.


University readings resonating with life

I am currently studying towards a Postgraduate Diploma of Planning from Massey University. The Diploma which will take me two years to do part time has a core paper called Planning Theory, which I have to do. And as I work my way through the readings of the paper I have found that several of them resonate to varying degrees with life as we currently know it.

Take the paper Public participation in planning: An intellectual history by Marcus Lane (2005) which has a significant segment on Sherryl Arnstein’s 1969 paper called The Ladder of Participation as an example. Arnstein was a social worker somewhere in the United States, where she witnessed the effects of civil planning including the disconnect between planners and the communities their work impacted on. She describes an eight rung ladder which is a bit like the property ladder – the most disconnected are not even on the ladder. Of those who are, the ones on ladder rung no. 1, 2 and 3 are the most disadvantaged with those who choose to participate in the public planning process simply being manipulated by having the terms of their engagement controlled by authority. Those on rungs 4 and 5 are consulted about matters of the day, and might have input, but in reality it is but a token gesture. But the real power, which includes the ability to set down the rules of engagement, determine what subject matter shall be up for discussion and – not quite admitted to, but certainly implied – what happens to the public input after statutory consultation ends is reserved for those on rungs no. 7 and 8.

The ladder of public participation (Arnstein S., 1969)

I cannot help but wonder about how well Arnstein’s Ladder of Participation could describe New Zealand in 2019.

Lane (2005)also goes into depth about three planning models. The first, the blueprint model, which western countries have largely transited away from, but which many former Communist states are still beholden to are large scale, top down exercises. They were not as the former Soviet bloc nations found out in any respect designed for public input. This is consistent with positions 1, 2 and 3 on Arnstein’s ladder. No.’s 4 and 5 are best described by synoptic planning, where public input is tokenistic. Synoptic planning is subject to criticism – much justified – though it is still a potentially viable mode today because it allows some input, provides a means to address the issues and tries to address the problems that enter into all planning such as the trade off’s, actions taken and so forth.

Another one by Joe Painter (2006)examines the Prosaic geographies of stateness, in which he explores the mundane acts and processes of everyday life. Painter argues that the act of passing legislation in itself is not all that powerful. The power is in the actions of the agencies and individuals tasked with giving effect to it – the Police who decide whether to arrest a suspect and charge him/her; the nurse administering medication in a hospital or the doctor writing the script; the clerk who has to write the letter telling the owner of a property whose pool has no fence of their legal obligations and so on. It turns out that the mundane and the ordinary have more clout than one thinks by their collective and individual actions.

The theory of planning can at times be dry, but for one to understand how the bureaucrats we entrust with planning the use of our resources and amenities reach the decisions they do, we need to understand the nature of the profession they work in.

A return to study

Rather than write a piece about politics, or some other aspect of society today I thought I would look at my journey through tertiary education and how it has both benefited and frustrated my attempts to work in local government. It sheds light on

I became interested in local government because of my father working for North Canterbury Catchment Board and then later on for Environment Canterbury. I was interested because I realized that whilst utilities are boring to most people, their maintenance and well being is critical to our well being. From that I deduced that I could either sit back and hope that someone else looks after them for me and for everyone else, or I could take a proactive route and find a way of working for the agencies that are delegated responsibility for them.

After about 2002 I gave on my original goal of working on active volcanoes. My mathematics was not brilliant, and I was struggling with geology at undergraduate level. I figured out at the end of my undergraduate degree that I would need to go back and study something at postgraduate level, but I did not know what.

As I have high blood pressure I had to take a more measured route, and after a short break I went back to study in 2005 for a Postgraduate Diploma of Science in Hazard Management. I could not do it full time, did not qualify for Honours due to my G.P.A. Students then that did Honours and passed were pretty much a shoo in for job they picked, as indeed some of those in my year were talking about job offers they had picked up before they had even finished their academic study. I finished my Postgraduate Diploma of Science at the end of 2006.

After a 18 months full time work at a super market I picked up a job at Environment Canterbury in 2008, which whilst casual would last 2 1/3 years and give me a significantly greater insight into local government, where I have the most desire to work. During that time though, something happened in terms of the qualifications and experience needed. I have found in more recent years with a flood of graduates coming out of universities with recognized planning qualifications that my ability to get a job in a city/district/regional council somewhere is not flash unless I have a formal qualification.

This lead me to enrol at Massey University in 2013. No particular qualification was selected because I was just wanting to see if I still had the willingness to learn new stuff. I did, but I quickly realized I would have trouble funding it, and very reluctantly backed away. Three years and a botched attempt at returning in the second half of 2016 followed. I decided after that to enrol at Open Polytechnic which offered a Graduate Diploma of Sustainable Management.

Aside from being my biggest academic success to date, the Graduate Diploma opened my eyes to things such as environmental economics, theĀ  role of the media and also issues around conducting high level research. I was able to test my ability to conduct such research in an assessment that was 80% of a paper and 20% of the entire diploma.

I believe that whilst many of the candidates are probably sincere in wanting a council planning job and may know stuff I do not, I wonder what sort of grounding they had. Did they do geography and get an appreciation for humans and the environment in a spatial and temporal context? Did they do any biology or environmental science and realize that there is more truth in Sir David Attenborough’s words than we think? Would they be there because they really genuinely believe in the mission of their organization or would it be just a proverbial vehicle for them to help drive until they found something better and more suited them. Whatever the case, I wish them the best, but at the same time I wonder.

Some of the decisions that are taken by elected councils come across as questionable, or give the impression that elected officials have taken on a mind of their own, there is a catch 22 situation involved. They have to maintain a degree of fiscal responsibility when planning budgets for each year, yet at the same time it is necessary to ensure that councils are adequately staffed and resourced for the work their permanent staff are expected to do. A half baked policy is more likely to be the output of a planning staff that lack either competent staff to do the job or the knowledge/skill base necessary. Given the number and complexity of the problems dogging elected councils around the country, maybe it is time to look at how and who they hire.

Now I am back for a Postgraduate Diploma of Planning from Massey University. I still have the same interest in council planning process that I had when I was doing GEOG 444 at University of Canterbury. I still believe that if given a chance I can make an honest go of a job. And if not, it won’t be for a lack of trying to get a foot in the door. Or for attempting to get relevant qualifications!