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Brash: A New Direction for Local Government

Don Brash
Leader of the National Party
Wednesday July 27

Address to Local Government NZ Annual Conference
Christchurch Convention Centre

'A New Direction for Local Government'

It is good to join you at this exciting time in the electoral cycle to outline our plans for Local Government under a future National Government.

Your conference theme of ‘national goals, local roles’ correctly identifies the need for a close and co-operative relationship between central government in its national goal-setting and local councils which play such an important part in attaining those goals.

A future National Government will need a close and constructive working relationship with local government to achieve the ambitious goals we have for New Zealand.

I acknowledge that in the final years of the last National Government the relationship between central and local government was not all that it should have been.

I intend to take a lead role myself in developing the important relationship with local government. That is why I have attempted to meet, whenever I am travelling around the country, as many mayors and councillors as possible. I am also committed to retaining the regular forum between local government leaders and Government Ministers so there is a whole-of-government approach to the interaction between central and local government.

I came to politics out of a deep concern at the widening gap in average after-tax incomes between Australians and New Zealanders. The past five years has seen that gap grow from $5,000 per year to $9,000. It is scarcely surprising that in the past year we have seen, on average, 630 New Zealanders each week depart permanently for Australia. And the trend line of departures is increasing month after month. Unless we do something to arrest the trend, too many New Zealand families will live with the sad reality of their children and grandchildren deciding to depart the land of their birth, and find their futures somewhere else.

The contest in the 2005 general election is between an incumbent Labour Government that is prepared to wave goodbye, with the white flag of surrender, as increasing numbers of our brightest and best depart these shores for good, and a National Party which is determined to put in place the building blocks for a more prosperous, more competitive New Zealand, able to offer a decent future for our children and grandchildren.

I have, in numerous speeches, made clear some of the key building blocks for a more successful New Zealand:
A world-class education system, based on good standards and honest assessments.
A tax system that encourages hard work, skill and a spirit of enterprise.
A welfare system that focuses the community’s resources on those who, through no fault of their own, are unable to care for themselves, and not on those who choose not to provide for themselves and their families.
Law and order policies that match the community’s justified intolerance of violent criminals.
And an end to the Treaty grievance process so that we can all look forward to a shared future, as equals, regardless of our ethnic origins.

Inherent in many of our key policies is a determination to remove the shackles – the crippling taxes, the growing compliance costs – which are slowly strangling our prospects for a better performing economy.

I have made it clear that an incoming National Government will give the very highest priority to dealing with these challenges. But it would be remiss of me today were I not to lay down a challenge for you as the representatives of local and regional government.

An incoming National Government will place changes to the Resource Management Act at the top of the legislative agenda. We will give the greatest urgency to dealing with the infrastructure issues, in terms of both legislation and funding, which are such an obstacle to economic development.

In short, we will deal urgently with the framework issues that are properly the preserve of central government.

But today I must remind you that many of the processes that determine the pace of both public and private sector investment are the province of local and regional government.

And today I challenge you to match the zeal and commitment of an incoming National Government in dealing with your part of the decision-making process.

I want to signal to you my desire that see us elevate our respective roles in this regard to the top of the agenda in the regular forums I hope we will hold. An incoming National Government will be intent upon delivering on the bold commitments we will be making in relation to key infrastructure projects.

It will be vital that those projects are not delayed by slow and inefficient consent processes.

It is a simple fact that consent processes take far too long in this country if we are really serious about improving our growth performance.

An incoming National Government will make the necessary legislative changes.
But improving the operation of those processes is in your hands.

And today, I want you to know that an incoming National Government wants to work closely with you to improve our overall performance in this regard.

Last November, National issued a discussion paper on our policy for local government and distributed it to every newly elected councillor and mayor throughout the country. Over 200 submissions were received. There have been dozens of meetings and much discussion on its content with councils and other key stakeholders. This is the first time an alternative government has had such an extensive process for policy development. We thank you for the feedback.

It has shown a real sense of frustration from councils all around New Zealand that the Government is dumping extra responsibilities on local government with little regard to the cost for the ratepayer.

We saw it with the new gaming laws, dog laws, new Treaty requirements, the introduction of STV, the new prostitution laws and the extensive new consultation and audit requirements of the Local Government Act. The latest is the poorly conceived Building Act.

It is no wonder the Government is able to boast of a $7.5 billion surplus when they will collect $14 billion more in tax this year than was collected in 1999. And they have done so while simultaneously transferring responsibilities and costs onto councils.

It is not just these extra responsibilities that are adding to the rates burden. There is real concern in your sector about the costs arising from new central government standards. It is too easy in areas like drinking water and air quality for central government to prescribe a compulsory new standard and then leave councils to pick up the tab.

National’s broad approach to local government policy is, as much as possible, to let locally elected community leaders get on with the job of providing good quality services at least cost to your communities. Our worry is that, far too often, central government has become overly prescriptive vis-à-vis local government in ways that don’t work and which just add costs for the ratepayer.

That is why National will reduce the duplicate consultations and planning requirements on Councils through amendments to both the Local Government and Resource Management Acts.

The current provisions are cumbersome and costly. It is not that the National Party thinks consultation is unimportant, but rather that we see it as a mistake to try and prescribe such requirements in law.

Every elected official walks a line between being accused of being a dictator who consults too little on the one hand, and being a ‘handwringer’ who consults too much on the other. The law can never take the politics out of politics and councils, and neither should Parliament make the decision over the extent of consultation appropriate to every issue.

This problem is no better illustrated that in the Resource Management Act over plan changes. The Ministry for the Environment advises that on average these take seven years because of the extensive consultation and appeal rights.

On Monday, Nick Smith and I announced an extensive reform package for the Resource Management Act at the Western Springs Speedway in Auckland. We chose this venue because it illustrates graphically the problems councils have with the Act and how the current government has compounded the problem.

The Western Springs Speedway is caught by an ill-advised provision in the Auckland District Plan regarding noise control. If enforced, the rule would close the 75-year-old speedway. The Residents Association, representing just 78 people, received a $29,000 grant from the Labour Government’s RMA Objector Fund and used it to override the Auckland City Council and enforce the district plan rule.

The Auckland City Council wants to revise its plan because it never intended to close the speedway; but the speedway will be long gone with the years it will take to progress a rule change. This is wrong. A National Government will streamline the process so councils can get on and make or change the rules without all this red tape.

There is also a real frustration felt by mainstream New Zealanders that this Government keeps backing minorities over these sorts of issues. That is why National will scrap the Legal Aid Fund that has been used all over the country to stop roads and new timber mills, as well as to fight the upgrade of council facilities.

I find it ironic that Labour criticises our Resource Management policy, saying it will disempower councils.

Under Labour’s policy of providing legal aid to objectors and a cumbersome process for changing plans, councils are powerless to fix a local problem. It is not councils that are empowered by Labour’s approach, but minorities who don’t like a council decision. There are examples all over New Zealand where councils are trying to build better museums, roads, waste water systems and community facilities but are held to ransom by a small minority because of Labour’s policies.

One of the things that concerns the National Party is the amount councils have to spend on lawyers to defend their district and regional plans. This is a waste of valuable ratepayer money. Part of National’s RMA reform package will be to give greater weight in law to council decisions, so they are less prone to being overturned in the Environment Court. This will strengthen local democracy and save ratepayers millions in legal fees.

National is also determined to ensure that our resource management and local government laws do not take New Zealand down the road of separatism.

The National Party does not support Labour’s new law that provides for separate seats on councils for Maori. Already these have been introduced on the Bay of Plenty Regional Council and are now being considered by the Rotorua District Council. Racially based seats will be abolished by a National Government.

We also take offence at the provisions of the new Local Government Act that require councils to consult with iwi and their communities. It is an insulting provision that implies that somehow Maori are not part of the community.

The Resource Management Act has 34 provisions that provide for a special status for iwi. They will all go. So will the vague references to the Treaty of Waitangi in the Local Government and Resource Management Acts. Nobody has been able to explain what they mean. These changes are not a signal that National wants councils to ignore Maori or any other group. We simply wish to make plain that all New Zealanders must be treated equally before the law and that councils have no greater or lesser obligation to consult iwi than any other group in your communities.

A National Government will also be making changes to the roles of local government. It is in the interests of the efficient governance of a nation that each of the parts – local, regional and central government – knows their function. Only central government can provide that clarity.

The National Party is concerned that the Local Government Act makes a council’s role so broad in meeting the social, environmental, economic and cultural wellbeing of communities that they are being set up to fail. It is just unrealistic that your councils can do all of this with just 2% of the country’s GDP.

The dispute between Auckland City and the Auckland Regional Council over density of housing in Panmure is a classic example. I do not blame either council but can’t help thinking of the ratepayer that has to pay the lawyers and advisors on both sides of this debate. The fault is that Parliament has not provided clarity as to the respective roles of councils. The next National Government will provide that clarity.

National will also be making changes to the Local Electoral Act. The debacle over the use of STV made a mockery of New Zealand democracy. We had Afghanistan holding a poll on the same day for the first time in their history able to deliver results weeks before ours, despite having more than 20 million votes to count and little more than donkey trails for communications.

National will reduce the confusion and complexity of local elections by requiring they be conducted under First Past the Post. This is a clear case where the KISS principal – Keep it Simple Stupid – needs to be applied.

The National Party is on record as expressing concerns over soaring rates bills. The 38% average increase since 1999 is an increase of more than twice the increase in the general price level over that period. We want to work with local government to get costs down and that is why as a matter of urgency we will establish a working party with Local Government New Zealand to systematically review compliance costs.

We want to have a hard look at the audit costs that you are compelled to pay and which have also increased dramatically. We believe we can make significant savings and improve the quality of financial information by having consistent standards for financial reporting across all councils and we will be requiring Audit New Zealand to present a consolidated annual financial report on local government to Parliament.

We will not be proceeding with compulsory nationwide micro chipping of dogs next year. The issues of dog control are radically different in a rural community like Southland as compared to South Auckland and this decision will be left to each council to decide.

The Building Act is the latest piece of legislation to impose huge additional costs on councils. The changes are a mess and have already required a major rewrite by Parliament. There are huge delays in getting building consents and the complex requirements for council accreditation will only make the problems worse. National will be outlining a new policy direction for building in a separate announcement.

One of the biggest issues facing your communities is that of transport. Let me take this opportunity to signal our commitment to dealing with both the legislative and funding obstacles to much faster progress in this area.

Many of you will be aware of our commitment to spend an amount equal to the full sum collected in petrol taxes on roading initiatives. That commitment will result in an extra $100 million in roading expenditure next year, a new $200 million in the following year, $300 million the year after, and so on, with the result that by the end of our second term in office, all of the $600 million currently collected off the roads but spent elsewhere, will be spent on roading projects. Over the coming weeks, we will have more specific announcements to make in relation to roading initiatives.

Finally, there is significant interest here and elsewhere in our communities in the issue of local government re-organisation. National’s policy in this regard is not driven by the assumption that big is necessarily better. If one looks at resident satisfaction surveys, participation in elections and rates, there is no evidence that big is beautiful. Some of our most effective and efficient councils are quite small.

But National is concerned about the duplication and conflict that exists between district and regional councils. We believe the unitary councils in Gisborne, Nelson, Tasman and Marlborough work well, and we are interested in exploring the relevance of this model to other districts. However, we are also very mindful of the need for whole catchment management, and believe regional councils do have an important role where there are significant cross-district issues. We believe we can make the most gains by providing greater clarity about the roles of regional and district councils.

In short, we believe in horses for courses. We will not embark on a wholesale change in structures, but rather work with regions on a case-by-case basis where there is a need for reform.

Ladies and gentlemen, the choice which lies in the hands of the New Zealand people in 53 days’ time will have profound consequences for us all.

We must choose between a party which says New Zealand can and must do better, and a party which says this is as good as it gets.

We must choose between a party which says that to lose 630 New Zealanders a week to Australia is not just careless but verging on criminal waste, and a party which says that it’s no big deal.

We must choose between lower taxes and a culture which encourages hard work, skill and enterprise, and higher taxes, huge bureaucracies, shameful waste, and the slow strangulation of the goose which lays the golden eggs to fund our public services.

We must choose between a commitment to an education system driven by good teachers and good standards which show no fear of parental choice, and an education system with poor standards, no parental choice, and no leadership.

We must choose between a nation in which every New Zealander is equal before the law, regardless of race, and a nation which is on the slippery slope to separatism, with different rights and different responsibilities depending upon your ethnicity.

Fundamentally, we must choose between a New Zealand that wants to get ahead, through the efforts of New Zealanders who want to get ahead and one which is intent upon asking the world to stop, because it is all too hard, and we want to get off.

I came into politics because I truly believe that we can make this a great country.
I hope that, in 53 days time, we will have the opportunity to work towards that goal together.

ENDS

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