Monday, January 07, 2019

We need higher pay for local councillors

Everyone hates politicians. But sensible people recognise that they need to be paid - firstly, because they work hard for us, secondly, to prevent corruption, and thirdly, so that politics isn't the exclusive domain of the independently wealthy who can afford to do it as a sort of hobby. The latter is an underappreciated reason, but historicly one of the most important: we inherited our political system from the UK, where politicians were unpaid - a measure which would have excluded the vast bulk of the population even if they were allowed to vote (and this being Britain in the C19th, of course they weren't). Which is why "paid MPs" was one of the six demands of the People's Charter, along with universal suffrage and the secret ballot.

But while New Zealand got the message and pays its MPs (perhaps a bit too well, but better than the alternative), we haven't accepted it for local authorities. While large councils pay a decent salary, small councils effectively pay the minimum wage. And the result is what you'd expect: only rich people and pensioners can afford to do it, while young people and those with families are excluded. And the result is that their interests are excluded as well, while those of rich old people dominate. So public transport and playgrounds are sacrificed to keep rates low, while climate change is ignored because the rich old pricks either don't accept its reality or expect it to be someone else's problem (unless it threatens the value of their foolish coastal property investments, which case they will move heaven and earth to dump that cost on the young). And of course it sets a tremendous incentive for corruption, in bodies which perhaps have the greatest potential for profit (to point out the obvious, RMA planning decisions can be extremely lucrative, and that sort of corruption is pervasive in Australia).

This is a real problem. It undermines our democracy, and it results in poor, unrepresentative, and potentially corrupt policy choices. But fixing it would require accepting that local body governance was actually work, for which we should pay a proper wage rather than rely on potentially corrupt hobbyists. It would also require the status quo to yield some power. And that is not going to happen without a fight.