Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Entrenching the democratic defecit

When the Minister of Local Government initially responded to the report of the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance, he noted that he had "some concerns about whether the report provides for adequate local representation". Today, the government released its response [PDF] to the Royal Commission, and we can see what those concerns were: he thought they had too much! While the government has rejected the Royal Commission's plan for 6 local councils responsible for service delivery (but lacking any independent funding to actually do it, making them simply a DHB-style blame sink) in favour of "20 to 30" similarly powerless community boards, they have also decided to retain the worst feature of the proposal: at large election. Meanwhile, they have also decided to reject guaranteed Maori representation, and shrunk the overall size of the council from 23 to 20 members. So, even fewer representatives, elected by an unfair voting system which massively magnifies pluralities into majorities. This isn't democracy - it's a virtual dictatorship. All of this is "justified" on the basis of the need to "attract people and investment". You couldn't get a clearer example of the right-wing philosophy that democracy is hazardous to economic growth if you tried.

(Oddly, the key decisions to retain at-large election and reject Maori representation are not mentioned anywhere in the government's official press releases on the issue; you have to dig for them. Were they hoping we wouldn't notice?)

It gets worse. The government will be appointing an "Establishment Board" to implement its decisions and manage the transition. The existing councils will be required to cooperate with it and their power will be "constrained during the transition period". So, all of that stuff councillors ran on and got a democratic mandate for in 2007 goes out the window by central government fiat. For the next 18 months, Auckland will effectively be governed from Wellington.

This is a fundamentally undemocratic structure, imposed by fundamentally undemocratic means. So of course the government is refusing to let the people have a say on it. It is apparently more important to put changes in place before the 2010 local body elections than to ensure that those elections will be meaningful and produce a local government with democratic legitimacy. Which makes it clear what is actually going on: a power-grab by the right, altering the democratic structure of our largest city for partisan political advantage. That's not something we should tolerate.