Magazine article New Zealand Management

Politics : An Open Paddock with Few Horses Yet

Magazine article New Zealand Management

Politics : An Open Paddock with Few Horses Yet

Article excerpt

Byline: Colin James

Back in the 1980s political theorists talked up 'subsidiarity' - a clumsy French word depicting a future of government decision-making and action moved from central governments closer to where people lived and worked.

A Canadian coined an even worse word: glocalisation. The world was becoming more globally connected and interdependent but at the same time also more local: Kelloggs side by side with farmers' markets tells the story.

These theories fitted business theories about trends away from mass production to personalised work and customised consumption, made possible by computerisation.

Apply these modish theories to politics and logically you get a lift in the importance and relevance of local government - and, in due course, more interest in the triennial local elections (due next month). Local politicians would grow in stature.

Not so fast.

A Labour party keen to capitalise on the National party's strange estrangement, while in government, from its conservative mates on local councils, got passed a new Local Government Act in 2002 which made local councils responsible for their communities' "social, economic, environmental, and cultural wellbeing".

It turned the previous law on its head by permitting councils to do whatever they were not expressly prohibited from doing. Until then, reflecting the centralist nature of our politics after 1877, councils could do only what the law explicitly said they could.

Since the law was complicated, convoluted and voluminous, expansive councils resorted to some ingenious interpretation. The "people's republic of Christchurch", bane of the Business Roundtable, was born.

After the 2002 act was passed one mayor talked excitedly of at last being able to "gallop round the paddock". Conservatives had visions of wild horses.

Not so fast.

Labour ministers, for all their sweet talk of collaboration and earnest six-monthly forums, kept councils on a short financial leash. The new permissive powers in theory did not come with new sources of revenue in practice.

Councils were left with rates, revenue from council owned businesses, some specific grants and cost-recovery for some services - and, recently, the prospect of two regional petrol taxes. Even though Finance Minister Michael Cullen expressed a personal view that rates were outmoded and inadequate and even though a fair number of his fellow ministers (not least present No 3 Steve Maharey) cut their teeth in local government, Labour-led governments since 1999 have not contemplated widening the revenue floodgates. …

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