Democratic Battle: Dad vs Daughter

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Volume One

Local Government - can it be done better?

DAD

I know it sounds old-fashioned but somethings are just better the way they were.

Let’s take the move to remove local body politics from politics and make the management of our towns and cities a job for professional management.

I understand the argument that a business as big as the Auckland Council for example, should not be entrusted to retired public servants and your local tree activist who wants to get paid for their stirring.

Auckland Council have dipped their toe in the water by shelling out many of their key departments to Council owned entities to run. Of course this immediately begs the following questions: does transport run better controlled by one of these? Do the ports run more efficiently? Does the job of promoting the city tick many of the yes boxes? Yes, buses are bigger and flasher and trains have better paint jobs but do they run on schedule more often? No.

...that’s what happens when you put management of our local bodies in private enterprise hands. In a flash the thing that skyrockets are the pay packets
— Mark Bennett

Ask those in West Auckland, or those left bus-less after a major sporting event or a single train break down, how quick Auckland Transport (AT) was to respond and how they feel? And AT certainly don't do anything about the loutish and intimidating behaviour.

But that's what happens when you put management of our local bodies in private enterprise hands. In a flash the thing that skyrockets are the pay packets.

So let's look at how the politicians do then.

Let me put up just one name: Sir Dove-Myer “Robbie” Robinson. He was a politician through and through but let's just take a quick scan through his achievements:

Mangere sewage treatment plants;
Stopping raw sewage being dumped in the Waitemata;
The Aotea Centre;
A bus system that really worked using the roads and not tearing them up and destroying business for a light rail service to the airport - huh!

Given half a chance Robbie would have set up a rapid rail system under ground in 1975.

He ran the water and sewage networks that actually worked without a Watercare to be eventually sold off in sight. And through it all he was a local body politician who never hesitated to stump off around the hustings every election.

Imagine anyone from these Council owned entities doing that (just ask someone from St Heliers how difficult it was to get a representative from AT to attend a local meeting to discuss the removal of their car parks)! No, that wouldn't have happened with elected politicians...they wouldn't have dared!

But Mayor Robbie would have turned up, listened, and done something about it because he loved the city and its people and not just loved the pay packet.

Give me politicians any day to run our towns and cities. Any day.

Opinion - Mark Bennett

DAUGHTER

A lot of huffing and puffing happens around the lack of voter turnout in local body elections but very little of this huffery-puffery results in meaningful action. Words are used - inspire, turn out, “youthquake” - and glossy, social media based ‘things’ are created - but ongoing and substantive engagement in the off years? Yeah, nah - I see very little of it.

While I love political engagement and all things democracy, I avoid assisting interactions with local government like the plague. Why? Because I know that if you want a real policy lever pulled, it can usually only be pulled by central government.

So what is local government in New Zealand? It is a heaving beast of 78 local, regional and unitary councils, of “about 1600 elected members” (NZ’s Local Government, Local Government New Zealand, accessed online). So many, the website overview doesn’t articulate the exact number. The elected members employ a Chief Executive to run the everyday business of the council, and from there the chain of command flows.

...it has long baffled me that the Prime Minister gets paid $459,739 per annum, while my local council Chief Executive gets paid $440,000.
— Holly Bennett

This chain of command has a pivotal role in how our local communities thrive (or survive). Yet we - voters - are ambivalent. We don’t turn out, we don’t get involved, and we aren’t widely consulted. Pet projects are floated and turned into legacy items, and yet we demand very little accountability.

Take CE pay which is set by our elected members: it has long baffled me that the Prime Minister gets paid $459,739 (Schedule 1, Parliamentary Salaries and Allowances Determination 2016, accessed online) per annum, while my local council Chief Executive gets paid $440,000 (Hamilton City Council, CE Salary, accessed online). The person responsible for the wellbeing of 4.9 million - and with all the meaningful levers - gets paid $19,739 more than a person responsible for a catchment area of just 141,612 (Statistics New Zealand, 2013 Census).

This galling stat is just the start.

Broadly speaking wastage is rife in the local government system, and you should care: the money comes from ratepayers - why is it that our Members of Parliament should be the only ones subject to a press-pack? Put some of these regional leaders on the black and whites at Parliament (side note: this is a literal space in Parliament with black and white tiles where reporters ask MPs questions) and you will see how grossly underserved we are by many local representatives.

Be under no-illusion: there are many amazing people doing many amazing things in local government. But to those people - many unelected - I say you are probably undervalued and carrying the burden of a lot of subpar work being done around you.

So is there a case for this to be changed? Of course, and it starts with us: voters. If you want it to change, you need to care. Don’t be spoon-fed what they tell you, ask questions. Lots of questions.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and a bit of constituent-led sunlight on a fair few of these Councils would be great for democracy.

Opinion - Holly Bennett