LGNZ Conference - PM's Speech
LOCAL GOVERNMENT NEW ZEALAND
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
9 am, Monday, 16 July 2001
Thank you for the invitation to speak at this opening session of your annual conference.
This is the third consecutive year that I have addressed the conference, and a lot has changed in that time.
When I came as Leader of the Opposition two years ago, I said that Labour in government would want to develop a new relationship between central and local government.
For many years the relationship between the levels of government had been strained, with central government foisting far reaching change on local government with little regard to local government's views. Local government had also become a target and whipping boy for lobbies like the Business Round Table.
In December 1999 Labour formed a government with the Alliance, which shared our view that a fresh start and a stronger relationship with local government were both desirable and possible.
I was conscious in appointing Hon Sandra Lee as Minister of Local Government that she had considerable experience in the sector as an elected member and was passionate about it. I knew that we needed a very committed minister to undertake a substantial programme of change together with the sector.
Since the election Sandra has immersed herself in local government issues and is now responsible for driving through major legislation to improve its ability to function. Sandra will address you shortly on her work. I want to say now that she has my total confidence in her grasp of the portfolio and the inherent detail of the many issues it generates. I believe she will make an enormous difference for the better for local government.
Back in December 1999 we began planning how to develop a collaborative relationship with local government. Labour had proposed an annual forum between the Prime Minister and ministers on the one hand and representatives of Local Government New Zealand on the other. It became clear that an annual meeting would not be enough to do justice to the developing relationship. So, the forum is being held twice a year with a huge agenda before it.
Now, with three forums behind us, I must say that the process has greatly exceeded my expectations. Both parties to the forum have approached it with good will and through it we have been able to develop new ways of working.
At an early stage we set out to define the issues the forum would need to address. From the beginning they included the fundamental review of the Local Government Act and the long overdue rewrite of the Rating Powers Act; issues in the environment and transport portfolios; and regional economic development. On all these issues there has been an enormous amount of interaction with local government.
In addition local government identified its interest in social policy and social cohesion and its desire to see better linkages with central government policies and agencies.
All these issues have been under review at each of the three meetings of the forum. What is important is that the establishment of the forum has led to open working relationships between central and local government and our officials. An enormous amount of interaction takes place between officials on an ongoing basis.
The process of reviewing local government policy and legislation is a good example of the way of working we have developed. It is a process based on mutual trust and confidence. Every paper which has come to Cabinet on the funding powers review and on the Local Government Act review has been seen and commented on by Local Government New Zealand before it comes to the Cabinet committee.
That means that ministers discuss policy options with full knowledge of the views of Local Government New Zealand and it means that Local Government New Zealand is always in the loop. I understand that this is an enormous change from past practice!
No one would expect this process as such to produce complete agreement. After all there are issues where central and local government have traditionally had different perspectives, - for example on rating exemptions. The degree of agreement we have been able to reach, however, has been very wide. In some instances in the funding powers legislation, the arguments for opting one way or another are very finely balanced and need to be aired before the select committee hearing evidence on the Bill.
The strong working relationship we have developed has enabled us to deal with a couple of quite contentious issues in an orderly way. For example, the private member's bill seeking to exempt educational establishments from certain rates has been very controversial. Much discussion has been going on about how to modify its effects without exposing the education vote to too much risk.
Similarly very thorough consideration is being given to the situation many local government organisations have been placed in by the Court of Appeal decision on rating apportionments. Local Government New Zealand has been fully involved as the Cabinet has wrestled with this issue, and the dialogue is continuing.
I believe that the way our government is working with local government is in itself empowering for local government. Indeed empowering local government to work for the well being of its communities is at the very heart of the changes we seek to make. The new Local Government Act will be an empowering piece of legislation. No longer will there be a detailed prescription in statute of what local government can and can't do. That legislative strait-jacket has held local government back.
It is intended in the new legislation to express clearly the purpose of local government. We propose that its purpose should be to enable local decision-making by and on behalf of citizens in their local communities to promote their social, economic, cultural, and environmental well being in the present and for the future.
This definition is designed to fit with local government's critical role in sustainable development. The government is presently working on a sustainable development strategy for New Zealand as a whole. We are defining sustainable development as being about meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. We are applying the concept of the triple bottom line to ensure that environmental and social considerations get weighed alongside economic factors in decision-making.
Our aim is to see New Zealand as a world leader in sustainable development. Strong partnerships between central and local government, the private sector, NGOs, and Maori and all our communities will be needed to achieve that. Local Government New Zealand will be involved in the development of the strategy. We want to be able to make a strong statement on the New Zealand approach when I address the World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa in September next year, a decade after the Rio Earth Summit. I know that many councils in New Zealand have taken a strong interest in the Rio Summit and its aftermath, and we look forward to working with you on the New Zealand-wide sustainable development strategy.
A top priority for the government has been the promotion of regional economic development. Jim Anderton is working tirelessly in support of regional strategies. Under the Regional Partnerships Programme, funding for strategy development is being disbursed. The government's interest has led to many local interests coming together to work with their councils on plans for the future. A lot of energy is going into this work and we believe that alongside the many other initiatives of central and local government to grow the economy, it will be successful.
Local government has taken a great interest in the changes central government is making in health, housing, and employment policies. Often government agencies have not linked well with local government. This government wants its departments and agencies to be open to and to work alongside local government in the interests of local economic and social development. The solutions to intractable problems like poor housing in some rural areas, for example, will require central and local government and community action.
Our government is ambitious for New Zealand. We have set our sights firmly on returning New Zealand to the top half of the OECD across a wide range of economic and social indicators. Achieving that will require not only smart and active central government, but also smart and active local government, business, and communities.
Our country has swung between extremes of policy and direction in recent decades. We went from the pre-1984 heavy handed regulation to deregulation and a hands off approach to the economy. The results of neither approach have been impressive. New Zealand has simply failed to turn in the consistent economic performance at high rates of growth which are necessary to sustain first world living standards.
This government is taking a different approach and in the process creating a new role for government in the 21st century. We see government as a leader, a co-ordinator, a facilitator, a broker, a partner, and often a funder and provider as well in the critical task of economic and social transformation.
The nations which are prospering today are those which have the capacity to create new knowledge and to apply it to new and existing industries. We know New Zealand has the capacity to be one of those nations, and we are now running to catch up.
Instead of the New Zealand economy riding the commodity cycle, we want it to catch the knowledge wave. Strong economies must make their luck by educating and upskilling their people; by investing in science and research; by inventing and applying new technologies; by constantly innovating; and by being enterprising in everything they do. That is the kind of economy we want for New Zealand.
Social inclusion and social cohesion are also imperatives for our government. New Zealand cannot hoist itself back into the top half of the league of developed nations if a significant minority of our people are left behind – poorly educated and housed, unhealthy, poor, and only in occasional employment. Our aim must be for the rising tide to lift all boats. That is why economic and social policy must be integrated and why the social investments we are making in education, housing, public health, and superannuation are so important.
I thank Basil Morrison and other past and present officials of Local Government New Zealand for the work you have done with our government to build strong working relationships. We do see local government as an essential partner in the economic, social, and sustainable development of New Zealand, and look forward to working with you in the future.
Thank you also to the many mayors, councillors, and local body officials present who have hosted me and other ministers over the past year and a half. Your interest and assistance has been much appreciated.
I wish you a very successful conference.