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Speech To The Society Of Local Government Managers

Chris Carter: Speech To The Society Of Local Government Managers Annual Conference


Warwick Bennett (President of the Society of Local Government Managers), distinguished guests, conference delegates.

Thank you for your welcome and introduction. Thank you all for the opportunity to speak to you at the beginning of your annual conference. I certainly appreciate your willingness to adjust the programme to accommodate my visit.

Four weeks ago I was elected by my caucus colleagues to be a member of cabinet. The Prime Minister then selected me to be Minister responsible for Local Government as well as the portfolios of Conservation and Ethnic Affairs. I was delighted to be chosen to administer these interesting and challenging portfolios, especially Local Government.

I believe a strong and effective partnership between local and central government is critical in helping deliver services for all New Zealanders. My primary objective as Minister will be to strengthen that partnership through dialogue, personal contact and where necessary legislative initiatives.

I don't have a background in Local Government but I think that is an advantage. Prior to becoming a Member of Parliament in 1993 I was a teacher for 16 years. However coming to this portfolio fresh means that I have flexibility and an open mind and no particular axe to grind.

What do I want to achieve as Minister of Local Government?

I want to facilitate close partnership between central and local government. A partnership that promotes economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being for all New Zealanders.

I want local and regional councils to have the powers and flexibility to fulfil that role and at the same time be responsive and accountable to their own communities. That's what real democracy should be about.

Most of all I want to be a responsive, open minded and approachable minister. Someone who is prepared to get out and meet those involved in the local government sector.

This is a government led by a Prime Minister who is very approachable and responsive.

I want to follow Helen Clark's excellent example by being open, pragmatic and sensible. Of course there will be issues and viewpoints where differences will occur. You of all people know that reaching consensus always means compromise. I want to send out a clear message to you this evening that I am an approachable and open minded person. I will listen to as many opinions as possible on any particular issue before making my final decision.

As part of my strategy to get out and familiarise myself with the local government sector I am trying to get to meet as many people as possible.

On the day I was appointed Minister of Local Government I tried to telephone as many Mayors and Regional Council chairpersons as I could reach. I have since written to them all, pointing out that I value open lines of communication and personal contact. In that letter I signalled my intention to visit as many councils as possible over the coming months.

The programme of council visits has begun, with visits already to Christchurch, Waitakere City, Taupo, Rotorua and Auckland City I've found it to be a most worthwhile experience.

In particular, I've found discussions with experienced local government politicians very helpful. It's quite clear to me that there is a wide range of issues, projects and developments underway in the local government sector right across the country.

The Local Government Bill is the major piece of legislation facing our sector. It is an important step forward. The current Local Government Act is well past its use-by date.

The Act has evolved as a mix of old, often highly detailed and prescriptive provisions and more modern generally flexible accountability-based ones.

Through a process of almost continuous amendment, the Act has become more and more incoherent over time resulting in legal uncertainty and administrative difficulties. Of course you are only too familiar with this. As local government practitioners, trying to provide the best possible advice to your councillors, it must be with some trepidation that you turn to the 900 page tome for guidance.

Rather than hindering local authorities as the current Act does, the Local Government Bill seeks to provide for greater flexibility and certainty, and allows councils to respond effectively to the changing needs of their communities.

At the same time, the Bill will provide ratepayers and electors with a greater capacity to involve themselves fully in the decision-making processes. The balance between empowerment and accountability is critical.

The Local Government and Environment Committee has also been briefed on the Bill. As you may be aware, the membership of that committee has changed significantly. Since the election, it has been helpful for the new members to gain an overview of the Bill, and an outline of the key issues, as they pick up the reins.

I welcome the appointment of Jeanette Fitzsimons as chairperson of the select committee. Jeanette has done a very good job in that role in the previous Parliament.

It quickly became clear to those who had dealings with that select committee, whether as politician, official, or member of the public, that Jeanette Fitzsimons has worked hard to come to grips with the new local government legislation. I am sure that she will continue to serve Parliament well in that role as the Local Government Bill continues to make progress.

I believe a strong and effective partnership between local and central government is critical in helping deliver benefits for all New Zealanders. The Local Government Forum is a significant step in helping to strengthen that partnership.

You will all be familiar with the Forum between Central and Local Government, established as an initiative of the Prime Minister and the government. The Forum has proved to be invaluable in providing a positive venue for local and central government to dialogue.

As with any initiative of this type, there are the immediate benefits that result from dealing with particular issues, but there are also the longer-term benefits that accrue as a result of ongoing relationships.

Prime Minister Helen Clark is a very enthusiastic supporter of this forum.

I want effective working relationships with the Local Government sector. I acknowledge the special role of SOLGM as the officer organisation contributing expertise at a level of detail across a wide range of practical issues. One good example of that is the SOLGM Financial Management Working Party.

This group meets four or five times a year, and along with the very experienced SOLGM members, is attended by representatives from LGNZ and central government.

Members contribute to the work of the Institute of Chartered Accountants, and serve on a number of working parties. It's important for both ICANZ and local government that that each sector is fully informed about current finance-related issues.

The Financial Management Working Party is duplicated by other professional groupings within SOLGM. These sorts of relationships work well in keeping lines of communication open, and in providing a platform for information sharing and problem solving.

The second area in which working partnerships are evident is the Local Government Reform process.

In particular, I note SOLGM's involvement in working parties for electoral reform, rating reform, and the review of Local Government Act. Thank you to all those people who have contributed many hours and days to these processes.
Many issues were debated and resolved through various working parties, and the experience of those working in the sector was invaluable in testing and refining proposals.

It would not have been possible to meet the very tight deadlines without the contributions of your members.

The third area of working partnerships is the implementation of new legislation such as the new Rating Act.

A joint SOLGM, LGNZ, central government team spent a great deal of time earlier this year developing and preparing training materials for a targeted audience consisting of elected members, council staff, valuation service providers, and legal advisers. A very successful series of seminars has recently concluded, and I have been advised that attendance was double the expected number.

A similar approach was taken with the Local Electoral Act. A joint SOLGM - central government team has continued with implementation of the Act. The team is actively involved in implementation of the STV option for local authorities, including development of STV regulations, information to assist councils on their decisions, and STV publicity material.

The third implementation project will, of course, be the new Local Government Act. Whilst this legislation has not yet been enacted, work is already underway in terms of planning for its implementation. I understand that some seven or eight working groups have been formed - each with members from SOLGM, LGNZ, and other central government agencies along with the Department of Internal Affairs.

The successful implementation of the new Local Government Act will be a major undertaking, requiring the ongoing contributions of many organisations.

An effective partnership can only be of benefit to the local and central government sectors - and therefore of benefit to all New Zealanders.

In conclusion, I would like to acknowledge the initiatives you are taking in relation to training and skill enhancement within the local government sector. I note that, for example, that just over a week ago the SOLGM Business School ran a seminar on advanced policy skills for local government managers and officers. That seminar, too, was far more popular than was envisaged by the organisers.

I'm aware of the development that takes place under the SOLGM umbrella in relation to chief executive's, and other professional groupings such as engineers, finance staff, planners, and so on. It's important for your own professional development that these sorts of initiatives continue - but it's also important for the communities in which you work.

If you are more skilled and your professionalism is strengthened, then you are able to give better advice to your elected representatives, and they in turn are able to better serve their communities.

Be encouraged, then, in your endeavours to find solutions to issues that meet the needs of the communities you serve.

Finally, thank you again for the opportunity to speak to you. May I express my best wishes for your conference. I hope that as it follows its course, you will find it enjoyable, and you will be stimulated and challenged.

Please don't hesitate to contact me should any issues come up that you feel I need to be aware of.

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