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The Column: "Newman Online"

The Column: "Newman Online"

Weekly commentary by Dr Muriel Newman MP

Managing Assets, or Managing Lives?

This week, Newman On-Line looks at upcoming local government elections, and asks whether we will soon simply see local councils mirroring the Government’s attempts to run people’s lives.

Today, voting papers are being posted out for the local government elections. The results of these elections will largely determine whether or not the Labour Government’s plan to increase the governance of New Zealand – by widening the role of local government – will be progressed.

If new Mayors and Councilors are elected – who no longer view local government’s role as one primarily focused on the maintenance and development of core infrastructure but, instead, embrace Labour’s concept of promoting the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of local communities – then long-suffering ratepayers will, over time, be forced to pick up the cost in escalating rates.

Without a doubt, local government plays a very important role in our daily lives. It has considerable power to assist or hinder economic growth and development and, with assets of almost $45 billion, it rivals the capital value of New Zealand’s listed companies.

Over the past decade, local body rates have risen relentlessly, at twice the rate of inflation. But, more recently, a raft of new regulatory functions – including liquor licensing laws, gaming laws, prostitution laws, building laws and RMA changes, to name but a few, that have been passed onto local bodies by central Government – have put further upwards pressure on rates.

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While local government has always been susceptible to the influence of interest groups, the new freedoms inherent in the power of general competence – which Labour passed onto local authorities in 2002 – now provides even greater opportunities for councillors to push their special agendas.

The power of general competence essentially enables local government to extend its influence far wider than the provision of the core services that have traditionally been regarded as the essential role of local councils. In essence, that means that councils will no longer be constrained to stick to their knitting – maintaining roading, water, rubbish, sewerage, parks, reserves, and community assets, as well as their regulatory and enforcement services – but will be free to pursue any agenda that meets their fancy.

Such agendas might include running ratepayer-subsidized businesses, as well as a greater commitment to provide low-cost housing and other social services. In being involved in these activities, council may find itself in the insidious position of competing unfairly with its own private sector ratepayers who are being forced to fund this unfair competition.

Ratepayers should be concerned that new council powers in the hands of spend-thrift mayors and councilors would also give councils the ability to create major new ratepayer funded ‘black holes’ – costly projects providing dubious benefits, which push up rates. And they need not be great white elephants like the Manukau City Events Centre, which has already exceeded its budget by $40 million. They could well be innocuous sounding strategies that significantly extend the power, control and cost of local government.

As I look through some council district plans – with my traditional view that councils’ are providers of core services for ratepayers – I am dismayed to see a host of such strategic outcomes. Just as it has become a nightmare for central government to monitor and measure the effectiveness of some of its costly, but ill-defined and racially based, strategies – such as ‘capacity building’ in the community, or race-based funding for health services – so too it will be for local government.

For example, how on Earth can a council’s objective of having “residents being proud to live in one of the ‘hottest’ towns in New Zealand” ever be measured?

Why should local ratepayers be forced to fund “a vibrant, efficient and attractive library service that assists in raising literacy levels and is the envy of New Zealand and recognized world-wide?”

Surely it is the role of central government to raise literacy levels, and for local ratepayers to fund a local library that provides an effective book-borrowing service without having to even think about competing with the best libraries in the world?

Labour’s requirement that local authorities make special provisions for Maori is also a major concern of ratepayers. Many councils have now incorporated special performance measures for Maori – Maori customer satisfaction rating levels, enquiry measures for Maori matters, Maori liaison officers and committees, relief for the non-payment of Maori rates, special payments for Maori consultation and, in some areas, special Maori seat quotas.

These special race-based privileges are not only divisive, but place an unfair burden on others. As a result, ratepayers are increasingly looking for representatives who can withstand the onslaught of this type of political correctness that has already captured central government and is threatening to permeate local government as well.

Essentially, this election is about how far Labour can go in devolving central government responsibilities onto local government, shifting the cost burden onto local ratepayers in the process. If the majority of candidates elected have grandiose plans, then central government will have been successful in creating a new tier of central control at local level – transforming the traditional role of local government from one of managing community assets, to the socialist role of managing people’s lives. I hope that is not the outcome.

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