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Crude devices and the r-word

by 10 Apr 2009Regional governance0 comments

Brian Dollery

Did Anyone Ask Dollery: University of New England economics professor Brian Dollery literally wrote the book on the subject—Local Government Reform, and 11 others—but is not once quoted in the royal commission’s recommendations.

Worldwide, local government reform is notoriously unpopular. It invariably creates resentments that can linger for decades, and fails to deliver on promised cost savings. Consequently, experts such as Brian Dollery advocate amalgamating service delivery, leaving the councils to arrange their own small-scale amalgamations, in their own sweet time.

The Royal Commission on Auckland Governance clearly decided, from the overwhelming sentiment expressed in the 3500 submissions it received, that the Auckland region was ready for substantive change. But the failure of the Labour-led government to provide, in the commission’s terms of reference, for a referendum on Auckland governance options was high-handed. Even so, the commissioners might have emulated the 1986 royal commission, which recommended a referendum in spite of it not being specifically required to do so by its terms of reference:

We consider that [mixed member proportional] should not be introduced unless there is public understanding of, and support for, the change. What is essential in our view is a period of public consideration of this report during which the advantages and disadvantages of change may be discussed and debated. Thereafter MMP should be introduced only with the approval of a majority of voters at a referendum. Although a proper time should be allowed for public discussion the decision should not be unnecessarily delayed. We therefore recommend the referendum be held at or before the next general election after 1987. The referendum should be introduced on the basis of an Act of Parliament which makes it clear that the result is binding.

The 1986 commission’s terms of reference also charged it to consider:

To what extent referenda should be used to determine controversial issues, the appropriateness of provisions governing the conduct of referenda, and whether referenda should be legislatively binding.

Staggeringly ironically, the commission responded:

In general, initiatives and referenda are blunt and crude devices which need to be used with care and circumspection. Their frequent use would amount to a substantial change in our constitutional and political system. They would blur the lines of accountability and responsibility of Governments and political parties, and blunt their effectiveness. In our view, those elected to govern should be able to do so without formal reference to the people as a whole, provided they can be formally held to account at regular and frequent intervals, provided they are responsive to an informed public opinion…

A goodly number of other provideds follow. And although that much was music to Labour ears—Labour’s implacable oposition to trusting the people—irony was piled upon irony when the party promptly tried to bury the royal recommendations.

Meantime, as the disparate councils dig in to fight their respective rearguard actions against this royal commission’s recommendations—using lashings of the unwitting ratepayers’ money in the process—a referendum must be beginning to appear the rational, rather than radical, option for encouraging the region to own the changes adopted.

In October 2010, voters will be trusted to elect a mayor and council with unprecedented power to chart a new course for the region. In the words of the commission:

Auckland needs an inspirational leader, inclusive in approach and decisive in action. Auckland needs a person who is able to articulate and deliver on a shared vision, and who can speak for the region, and deliver regional priorities decisively.

The ticket controlling the council may be populist, regressive or green. In any event, it is most unlikely to be given a mandate to massively-hike rates. Set against this awesome responsibility, a referendum on the exact shape of the new governance arrangements would seem far from reckless.

A referendum would permit voters to rank the pragmatic recommendations of the commission, the government’s preference for local boards, and at least one other well-developed model.