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Malcolm Aitken on Duncan Garner’s local government column

Malcolm Aitken on Duncan Garner’s local government column

by Malcolm Aitken
January 28, 2015

Duncan Garner’s Squeals of self-interest in the Dominion Post in early December supporting local government amalgamation in Wellington was entertaining and interesting. However the piece also, with respect and it is important we can have a lively, respectful debate on amalgamation demonstrates the dangers of a little knowledge. It’s full of presumptions and innuendo, with facts rather thin on the ground.

Mr Garner’s introduction, for one, begs many questions. He invites his readers to consider the supposedly outrageous fact that there are 95 elected representatives, in total, on the Wellington region’s nine councils. Well, okay, sure. But the proposed amalgamated model includes 82 elected members including the new super mayor, councillors with enlarged wards and Local Board members. I’m wondering how the same people, who would find 95 elected members abhorrent, might feel about 82, only 13 fewer (and, yes, that’s factoring in the difference between councillors and Local Board members. It’s all “bureaucracy”).

Furthermore, no context is provided. My understanding is that by international standards New Zealanders have a fairly average to low number of local body representatives per capita. We don’t have that many councillors. But, hey, why let the facts get in the way of righteous indignation.

Talking about the Hutt Valley and Wairarapa mayors, whom he rather patronisingly dubs “small town mayors,” Mr Garner warns us against taking their “squeals of self-interest” seriously. Prima facie, I can see his point. After all, yes these are the very people who stand to lose their jobs, their kingdoms too, if you will. But, hang on, isn’t there another very important issue at stake here. These “small timers” (read “annoying minnows that Mr Garner considers unimportant”) are mayors from parts of the Wellington region and the Wairarapa where amalgamation is not supported by the majority of people. Aren’t these small timers simply representing their populations, as inconvenient as this may be to the amalgamation juggernaut?

Mr Garner also says:

“This Government, if you haven't noticed, has been streamlining and cutting the public service. If you thought it was going to keep its grubby hands off local government then you were wrong.

“Ministers made it clear years ago that spending and debt levels across councils were way too high and this move has been part of the John Key-Bill English agenda for some time.

Well, Mr Garner, in case you haven’t noticed, although there is plenty of room for individual councils to improve their financial management, myths abound regarding the financial performance of New Zealand’s councils. For example, in June accountancy firm/business consultancy Grant Thornton noted in a report commissioned by Local Government New Zealand that, overall, the local government sector in New Zealand was in overwhelming good financial health.

The Auditor-General has praised local government financial management considerably in recent years and it’s local government 101 stuff that it’s not total council borrowing that’s so important but the ratio of council debt to assets and the ability of councils to repay their loans that are vital. Across our 78 councils in New Zealand, with rare exception, these figures look very good against internationally accepted standards.

Sorry to poop your party Mr Garner, but the situation is far less simple than you make out.

Here’s to more healthy argument on this important topic in the next few months but let’s make sure facts and evidence are par for the course, not the exception.


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