Dec 1, 2010

All Politics is Local

                                          Protesters demand Maori representation on the Supercity

Discussion around local government (LG) in New Zealand is terribly thin. Mainstream political discourse does not pay particular attention to LG in a meaningful manner. LG appears to be a topic reserved for political scientists and amateur enthusiasts - this is a shame. I think we need to have a conservation about the style of politics in LG and how it affects outcomes, we need to look at the make-up of LG and ask whose interests are been served, we need to debate the place of Maori in LG and we need to look at how we can address the problems presented by LG in its current form.

Local governments are a component of the executive branch of government and are completely subordinate to central government (CG). In New Zealand local government is the only form of government outside of CG. There are three levels of LG; regional, district/city and community. In their simplest form they can be described as an institution performing public functions.

Politics in LG differs significantly from the style of politics practised on the national stage. LG is characterised by political consensus as opposed to political conflict. This is primarily due the absence of party politics which is often viewed as unnecessarily divisive. Essentially the political independence of representatives in LG allows for a non-partisan approach to issues facing the community. This gives rise to a predisposition for pragmatism in preference to ideology. So far so good, right?

The make up of LG should be a concern for Maori and proponents of diversity. The make up of LG largely determines whose interests will be served. Currently, LG is dominated by land owners and business owners who are overwhelmingly white, middle class and male; arguably as ratepayers they could be seen as having the most tangible interest in LG, however more often than not their interests dominate council priorities at the expense of the rest of the community. With this sort of makeup in LG there is a greater focus on material projects such as sewerage systems and roads whilst a reduced focus on the provision of amenities such as parks and pensioner housing. For example, consensus is more likely to come about on issues such as rates rebates for business owners whereas consensus on issues such as pensioner housing will be a lot harder to reach given the makeup and interests of council. This is where consensus politics fails in my opinion. Without diversity of opinion and perspective, a one eyed approach if you will, consensus will only be reached on issues that are within the understanding and interests of the decision makers. Consensus politics also makes it hard to identify who is responsible for certain policies. Therefore, voters find it difficult to punish or reward candidates. This translates to poor electoral accountability in my opinion.

So how does consensus politics affect Maori? Often LG fails to adequately address Maori issues and take into account Maori views. This failure is often masked by consensus politics and the lack of large scale controversies that would follow such behaviour if it occurred on the national stage. Councillors can easily dismiss Maori issues and views on the basis that a consensus has been reached and no controversy will ensure because, usually, the only media taking note is the local newspaper.

Often the views of LG are informed through the prevailing beliefs of the community. Perhaps this is largely good for the community but I do not think it is good for Maori. Many communities are rather unsympathetic towards Maori concerns and views. Their understanding of Maori issues is largely informed by their, and I do not mean this harshly, narrow worldview. Sadly, Maori issues are not approached with any great insight or perception and councillors usually reflect this superficial understanding. Furthermore, unlike an electorate M.P, LG politicians usually only interact, in a political capacity, with like minded people, for example their church group. Therefore, their political judgements are informed by people with similar beliefs and backgrounds. This is not conducive to representative government.

Maori are continually excluded from local government and this exclusion is the chief cause of voter apathy. The representation of only a certain section of the community is undesirable. This problem could be addressed through the creation of Maori seats in LG. Maori seats give effect to the Crowns treaty obligation to act in partnership with tangata whenua and acknowledges their special status and role as kaitiaki. Maori seats also ensure diversity of viewpoints in LG. However, I am not in favour of Maori seats on all Councils – I favour having Maori seats only on regional councils and the Auckland supercity. The model pioneered by the Bay of Plenty Regional Council has been a success and should be emulated.   

To conclude I think consensus politics is advantageous – the absence of partisan bickering is more so. What is needed is greater diversity in LG. It would also be good to see an improvement in candidate’s election statements. Election statements are notoriously vague - you cannot make an informed vote based on what is written in them. NZ also needs to see a move towards LG candidates making electoral commitments so those who are elected move into office with mandated policy. The current crop of LG politicians are better described as managers than governors – bereft of policy, basically caretakers.

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