Thursday, January 23, 2014

Is it right?

At last night’s Paihia meeting on the Unitary Authority which is proposed to replace four large local bodies, I let off a little steam.
Before the meeting I had privately cautioned chair Grant Harnish that he should restrain me should I try to speak. And I managed to restrain myself for most of the evening. But after the wishes of the meeting became clear and someone accidentally delivered me a perfect “hook”, not even the anxiety on Grant’s face nor the inconvenience of an overwhelming hot flush could stop me. I jumped up and expostulated against the basic assumption that in this day and age we need “local” government that is becoming less and less local.
This morning I was reading Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities on my phone. I came across an inconspicuous phrase which he used to describe how people just blindly accepted the horrors of inhuman justice in the law courts and gallows of 1775. The phrase was, “Whatever is, is right”
Last night, people seemed to be saying, something like that. They were accepting the Far North District Council is, therefore it must be right. So there was not a lot of energy to ask, “How shall we change the basis of representation?”; “How should we alter the boundaries?”; “How can we get better decision-making?” Though plenty of people wanted to know how much it would save, or whether people in our region would have to share in the huge debt in Kaipara; and where would they go to discuss building applications.
There was no mention of the little elephant that I saw in the corner of the hall. It was taken for granted that Local Government of any kind is, therefore it must be right. I reject that.
It seems to me that when a review comes along, we should ask ourselves “Do we actually need a model of democracy that was appropriate for England in 1888?” The NZ Local Government Commission is not charged to ask that basic question. The present Councillors don’t ask it. Last night’s meeting certainly wasn’t set up to discuss it. And my intemperate outburst probably didn’t help anyone to even see the issue.
The 1888 English County Councils were given authority to manage all aspects of health, welfare, schools, police and every kind of social services for people in their regions. Today, in this country, almost all those functions are overseen by central government. District and Regional Councils manage merely Water, Waste, Ways, Whatever and, oh, yes, Welcomes. Almost all of these could be managed just as well on a national basis. Then we could establish truly local government in local communities where there is passion and drive and enthusiasm.
The Unitary Authority proposal didn’t get the thumbs up in Paihia last night. It has a long way to go through the tortuous, expensive and fragile process of fine-tuning the system that is. The Commission may go ahead and tweak the system; it may not.
But perhaps, some day, the underlying question will be addressed.

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