David Hargreaves says we all need to be getting much more interested in local government

David Hargreaves says we all need to be getting much more interested in local government

By David Hargreaves

There's a couple of opposing, and I would say dangerous, dynamics in action within New Zealand at the moment.

The first of these dynamics is the growing apathy of large portions of the public towards local government - particularly when it comes to electing councils.

The second, and opposing force, is the move of Local Government New Zealand - strongly pushed by the lobbyist NZ Initiative - to give greater powers and autonomy to these councils that the public aren't interested in.

So, yes. As a country we are in general terms getting less interested in local councils - as shown by voter turnout figures, while those councils themselves want to be able to influence our lives more. This in my view is setting the country up for a potentially disastrous situation in future.

You see, I think there's every chance that these LGNZ moves, with the considerable weight of the NZ Initiative behind them, might get some traction.

But that would be at a time when, in my view, we are many million miles away from having local authorities that can even be properly trusted with the powers they have - let alone getting broader ones.

I opined on this subject previously last year when the LGNZ/NZ Initiative campaign was launched and do so again now on the basis that clearly this is a campaign that will not go away. 

I also note that LGNZ has launched a campaign to encourage more people to vote in this year's local body elections. 

We're not bothered

Depressingly, the LGNZ's media release did not seem to get much coverage and it's symptomatic of where we are in this country at the moment that already there's a kind of gearing up happening for (late) NEXT year's general election while other than a bit of sniping and chitchat around the Auckland mayoral contest, the fact that local body elections are THIS year is mostly escaping the public.

As I indicated last year, I think the idea of less central government control in essence is a good one.

But, and this is the huge but, the public need to have confidence that by devolving power then decisions will be made more soundly. And how many people in New Zealand would actually trust a local council over the central Government when it comes to decision making? And that's not to say that people have huge confidence in central Government decision making either - they just have even less confidence in local government.

Right now I think it would be a disaster to start devolving more power to our local authorities.

If the overall apathy towards local government continues to rule, however, then that's what might happen. And none of us should start shrieking and complaining about things going wrong if we didn't get involved in the first place.

Some figures

The statistics show us that as a country we take a reasonable interest in what goes in in the general election - in terms of bothering to cast a vote, anyway.

However, in terms of electing of local authorities - well, the figures tell us that we just ain't that interested and have become less so.

Note that the bottom line there is tracking the votes for city councils. That's right. They are worse than average.

And if one starts digging into the detail of some of these figures then the picture really does start to look even worse. 

Among the country's top five cities by population the turnouts in 2016 were as follows:

  • Auckland 38.4%
  • Hamilton 33.6%
  • Tauranga 38.3%
  • Wellington 46.2%
  • Christchurch 37.8%

So none of those places are governed by councils with a mandate from more than half of the adult population, while Hamilton's council was 'voted in' by just over a third of its adult population.

These figures suggest none of these councils can claim true legitimacy to make decisions on behalf of the residents - BUT, everybody has the chance to vote, so, anybody who didn't vote have themselves got no legitimate reason to carp about what 'their' council might be doing.

The oldies have it

The other truly depressing thing about digging into the details of voting patterns in the local body elections is that, according to LGNZ, the highest voter turnout in 2016 was in the 70-plus age group (89%) and lowest was in the 18-29 age group (34%). 

I don't know what those percentages equate to in terms of actual numbers of votes, but what they do tell you is that older people who have many more years behind them than in front of them are fully involved in voting for what councils decide to do in future - while very few of those people who will in coming years be affected by such decisions are having a voice. That's how you get poor quality, short-term, decisions that favour certain vested interests.

Now, it may well be that we could allow ourselves to get talked into a view that, oh, young people will get more interested if the councils have more power, and we'll attract a better calibre of local body politician if we devolve more power. But that would be dangerous. And it would make very big assumptions that I don't think we should make. But you could definitely see such a process of logic getting traction. We should not be tempted.

Oh, no. We somehow need to get more people involved in supporting local body elections and the whole political process, and we need to somehow get better people putting themselves up for councils - FIRST. Yes, let's get a healthy looking local authority set up first before there's even the remotest consideration of widening the powers of local councils.

How do we do that?

Well, that's the discussion we should be having. Not a discussion about devolving power. Don't try to run before we can walk. Let's get on our feet first.

Time for an overhaul

I think we should be looking at such things as whether we have the right numbers of councils. Would smaller be better? I know that hasn't been the trend. But is Auckland the 'super city' better than it was?

We should also be looking at what the 'core competencies' are of councils. Personally I've always been most interested in how well councils get water into my house and then take the waste away. I want a council that does that well, not a council that starts erecting vanity projects at the whim of its mayor.

I believe there's room for a thorough overhaul of how our local authorities are governed and run. (Another Government Taskforce?!)  And that needs to happen before any sort of nonsense is talked about giving what we have now more power. 

As a final word: For goodness sake VOTE in this year's local body elections.

We welcome your help to improve our coverage of this issue. Any examples or experiences to relate? Any links to other news, data or research to shed more light on this? Any insight or views on what might happen next or what should happen next? Any errors to correct?

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28 Comments

Too right. Whanganui DCs track record is towards incompetence rather than skill. There seems to be tension bewteen the professional council, who excel at incompetence, and the elected, who are playing at it. The result - exorbitant rates demands, and bugger all accountability. classic bureaucrat regulators - they protect themselves at the expense of the rate payer.

I totally agree with the sentiment of your article. As a generalisation - I think the difference in calibre of local versus central governance is that a MP's role is full time and the outcomes of their decisions have the ability to shape our society. Local councilors' roles are part time and who wants your epitaph to read "he who moved human waste efficiently". Our local councilors are paid about $26k, For that money expect amateurs with limited business or governance experience or worse a need for some sort of income they can't achieve elsewhere. Local council management have their own agenda which involves "seeing" through the election cycles and strong personalities hold sway over a councils direction..

Our councilors get paid $110,000 a year, any large qualitative difference has yet to make itself known.

I imagine they must get a lot of perks, special pension etc etc. Probably equivalent to a 150k a year job for a plebian.

The issue with LG can be simply stated:

  • they are run by unfireable and unelected staff,
  • to agendas devised, defended and executed by aforesaid staff,
  • using money compulsorily extracted from ratepayers and other unfortunates,
  • but with their sorry asses covered by elected councillors
  • who are universally regarded by staff as a changeable set of gullible buffoons seated around a distant table, useful only for 'setting' the level of rates and other Modest Fees,
  • on staff advice, mais naturellement.

Small wonder that Councils, and the election of yet mo' Buffoons thereto, are regarded with about the same level of Interest as most of us have with the installation of the latest tyrant in some Ugivsashitistan....

And in Ak, held to ransom by Towns and the legal team if they dare threaten to not approve the "budget".

Make it easier to vote. I want a website with everything in front of me, who are running, what they are running on, their background and then able to vote based on that online. If i have to learn whats happening from 5 different sources then go out to vote at a specific time then I will probably miss voting. Make it easy.

If they're an existing Councillor then showing how they voted in the past on each issue would be beneficial too.

Not voting my way of saying "no to all of the above". If a majority don't vote they should respect the peoples wishes and disband.

Getting invested in democracy is a mugs game. The only way to get what you want is to make more money.

Unfortunately it doesn't work like this.
The problem is that there are no prospective Mayoral candidates who would say things like "I will half the staff and contractor salary budget within 1 year. If I do not I will resign immediately".

There are some nice points in this article. On the face of it, localism has a number of attractions, but the information asymmetry between local government insiders and ordinary residents makes it fairly unpalatable to me.
At least central government gets some high profile scrutiny, although too often through the lens of the commentators' biases. Trying to finding out councillors' platforms is a a time consuming exercise which often ends in frustration.

Politics regardless of level (National/Local) is about money. You need money and the connections it brings to succeed.

So what we end up with is decidedly sub-par candidates.

It is the Trump/Clinton effect. When faced with two horrendous options, then it doesn't matter who you vote for as the result is the same.

If it doesn't matter who you vote for, then the next logical step is that it doesn't matter if you vote.

Want more interest - have better candidates.

In Auckland the mayoralty is the critical power centre (sets the budget) and the Labour Party will always win. They always win, because they contest the election and the opposition does not. Any complaints about lack of interest in local politics, please address them to NZ's useless opposition party.

I'm a mid range millennial and just took a look at my local Councillors on the Council website. One of them posts regularly on a local Facebook Community page, the other 10, including the Mayor I've never seen or heard of. Maybe they talk about their achievements in the local paper, but I stopped reading that a while ago when it became too hard to differentiate between articles and advertorials. We had our local A&P show recently, thought that would be a good chance for some publicity.

I moved to the district after the last elections so missed all the glossy pamphlets in in the mailbox.

What happens in 10-15 years when the Boomers move on and the largest voting base disappears, more influence by even fewer?

This is close to my heart, as some of you will know, as I'm pretty hot on re-setting our regional governance around performance & accountability, but in order to do so, need to restart the whole governance process from top to bottom. That includes central govt. I'm a big fan of the Swiss regional canton system with revolving prime ministers to boot. It's smart, it's local & it halves central govt at the same time. It's power to the regions, for the regions, by the regions but as discussed above, the quality of that system needs to be commercial, or close to it. Our democracy was once a great system but it is not in its current incarnation. It's been hijacked by the socialists, who i have to admit, have been smarter than we thought. Problem with socialism is its inefficiency which as we all know is between 30-50% wastage. I'm not sure how to go about it other than stand in my local area & spout forth re the above. I'm thinking about it seriously, i just wish I was 10 years younger that's all. Maybe this a great cause for interest.co.nz to push for other like-minded candidates to encourage each other so we're all on a similar song sheet?

Don't get me started on councils. Too many of them, too many staff and not enough productivity. And I worked closely with councils for 20 plus years. The staffing levels in some non productive Auckland CC departments is mind boggling. No wonder Goff can't stick with his mythical 2.5% rates increase, which doesn't of course count targeted rates or fuel tax, haha. His proposal now for annual 3.5% rises is appalling. Compound that over 10 years. And can someone explain why ACC is such an ardent exponent of the perils of climate change yet is allowing developers to build on the waters edge at places like Orewa and Omaha? Another rates ride to build a sea wall, perhaps. But that's typical of councils, amorphous entities with no focus. Amalgamation is no solution as the bigger they get, the worse they are. The answer is to take have national roaming agencies, national water agencies, national resource and planning agencies, national events and tourism agencies etc. Far too much duplication at present between national and local government. We are a country of five million, about as many as a large city. One government, a few national agencies and councils focused on making sure the street lights work and the bins are emptied.

You make widgets then the more you make to standard with the minimum of expenditure and especailly inflexible expenditure such as staff the better you are and your bosses shower you with money. On the other hand work for the govt (central or local) and your reward depends on how many staff you have.
So where is the incentive for a department granting building consents to ditch old rules or to adopt new technology that would reduce staff. I'm waiting for the day when a request to build in the morning results in a drone flying over in the afternoon taking pictures and samples and leaving boundary pegs in the afternoon. Start work the next day.

Anyone that believes his new 3.5% target will be sorely disappointed. My best guess is that it will be more like double that.

The abdication of the Herald re its social contract with its readers has given Goff and co carte blanche. Local issues aren't reported on, no one knows what's going on, and this disenfranchisement leads to a low turnout. Can't see Goff winning again, though. Little more than a somewhat arrogant has-been.

We need centralise further, not localise.

1) Combine local and regional government into unitary authorities
2) Require them via legislation into business case and regulatory impact assessment processes for all their spending.
3) Standardise the planning and infrastructure via national standards.
4) Require them to fund essentials (waste, water, roads) before vanity projects.

We dont have the population or enough people with the skills to support additional localism.

The localism desire is probably driven by two components:
1) democratic representation
2) desire for more money to spend – the productivity commission is looking into this. My personal preference is to allow local government to rate central government land to remove the distortion and potentially provide additional revenue. (although I think this is explicitly excluded from the productivity commissions scope)

Centralise further? After 30-40yrs of ongoing centralisation and all the resulting failures I would have thought that more of the same insanity would have worn thin by now...

David. LG voting is by way of postal vote. The EC provides the roll. The papers go to the last current address on the electoral roll. If you move and your address has not been updated on the electoral roll (as would be the case with many voters, particular young ones and renters), then you won't get the papers at your current address - so you are unlikely to vote.

https://www.elections.org.nz/voting-system/local-elections

This contrasts to a national election, where you can go to a polling booth and cast a vote regardless of whether your address on the electoral roll is correct or not.

It's one of the problems I suspect with lower voter turnout in local body elections, though I can't say I've actually seen any research done on it. I suspect a lot of people who rent properties, think they need to be a property owner (i.e., a ratepayer/a payer of rates directly) to vote - and that is why they don't get voting papers.

Hi Kate,
Just because you can cast your vote anywhere in a national election ( Special Votes ), doesn't mean they will be counted, although I'm sure most voters believe this. In 2017, 26,588 Special Votes were disallowed and in most cases it will have been because the EC couldn't find the voter. ( I've worked on many elections )Once again it comes down to the voter taking personal responsibility to manage their affairs. P and R are two words you rarely if ever hear mentioned by politicians, though we'd all better off if they did; and people took it.
As for this years local elections in Auckland, I am optimistic turnout will be up. A real mayoral contest between Gough (which has seen central government get more influence ) and Tamihere / Fletcher ( which will much more difficult for the COL to deal with). That should create something for the media to go to town over. That should generate more interest.

In 2017, 26,588 Special Votes were disallowed and in most cases it will have been because the EC couldn't find the voter.

What do you mean that the EC couldn't find the voter? Do you mean the person casting the special vote wasn't on the electoral roll in the first place?

My point about local body election turnout is that it might be much better if:

a) voters could vote at a polling booth - perhaps one set up in each council premises, and
b) if there was a nationwide TV campaign emphasising that one did not need to be a ratepayer to vote.

And yes, I'm hopeful too that there is a much better turnout in Auckland this year.

Yes Kate. 24,767 were not enrolled but cast a Special Vote. www.electionresults.govt.nz makes depressing reading. Anything that energizes voters to get more involved, I'd applaud.

The function of a council should be to deliver essential services and no frills.

I understand the definition of "essential services" was considered when the National government considered changes to the LGAs purpose to get rid of/replace the sustainable development/four well-beings clause. Many argued these "essential services" meant solid waste disposal (rubbish), water and sewerage reticulation/disposal and local road maintenance - and nothing else.

When the LAs submitted to the SC process - they pointed out all the other activities - local parks, local swimming pools, local museums, sports facilities like tennis courts and stadiums etc. and the Naional government didn't want to fund all that via central government - so they came up with this as the replacement for the sustainable development/well-beings clause;

The purpose of this Act is to provide for democratic and effective local government that recognises the diversity of New Zealand communities; and, to that end, this Act— ... (d) provides for local authorities to play a broad role in meeting the current and future needs of their communities for good-quality local infrastructure, local public services, and performance of regulatory functions.

The general consensus is that it (the changes to the LGAs purpose to get rid of the 'four well-beings') made little/no difference to what LAs do and spend their money on;

https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2888639

In short, it's an argument that has done its dash and got no where.