Tuesday, August 13, 2019

We need to clean up local body politics

Peter McKenzie has a piece on Newsroom this morning about how local body politics is awash with property developer cash. 70% of all the donations in the 2016 Wellington mayoral election came from property developers. And its pretty obvious what they want in exchange:

That’s particularly important in local government, according to Rashbrooke. “Local government is pretty weak in New Zealand. The one thing they have huge influence over is urban planning - what to build, and where, and with what restrictions.” It’s the kind of decision-making that can have a huge impact on a property developer, says Chapple. “It benefits the donors because the Wellington City Council is making decisions under the regional plan that greatly affect their bottom line.”

It’s the kind of decision-making which will have a huge impact on Cassells’ bottom line in particular. Cassels and his companies have been the driving force behind the controversial $500 million Shelly Bay development in southern Wellington. The Shelly Bay development has had to secure approval from Wellington City Council (WCC) at multiple points over the past five years, including to secure Special Housing Area status in 2015 and to purchase or lease WCC land in Shelly Bay in 2017. After a lengthy court battle, the Shelly Bay development is still trying to get approval to proceed.

Cassels made no identifiable donations to candidates in the 2013 WCC elections; he only began to do so after the Shelly Bay development started making its way through the council approval process.

There's a name for this: corruption. And its not just a Wellington problem. Back in 2007, newly elected Palmerston North Mayor pushed through a private plan change for the benefit of a trust run by one of his donors. It was later revealed that another trust run by that same donor had bankrolled 95% of his campaign. Naylor pinky-promised he wouldn't vote on issues affecting his donors again, but it didn't matter - the donor had already got what they wanted. The nexus of power and poor oversight around local government and zoning decisions invites corruption - just as it does in Australia.

What to do about it? There are obvious measures. Greater transparency - down to $50 or $100, rolling disclosure so we can see who is being bought and when, a cap on individual donations to limit the power of the rich and encourage fundraising from small donors. There's also just outright public funding (used in Canada) or "Democracy vouchers" (used in Seattle), where everyone can assign money to a candidate of their choice. To that, I'd chuck in outlawing local body members from discussing or voting on issues where donor's interests may be impacted - making such donations effectively self-defeating.

Politicians will complain, but ultimately this is a question of who we want our local body politicians to work for: us, or property developers. Of whether we want our local government to be honest, or corrupt. And the answer to those questions ought to be obvious.