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Dunne Speaks: Words Count Minister

Just three weeks ago the Minister of Local Government received the interim report of the Future for Local Government Review which the government had earlier commissioned.

Predictably, she welcomed the report the way Ministers usually do, with the standard statement of warm platitudes and pious hopes about what it might lead to for the future.

She said, “Our system of local democracy and governance needs to evolve to be fit for the future. New Zealand is changing and growing, and there are some significant challenges presenting … with issues like COVID-19, future population growth, and climate change.” All very worthy, and hard to disagree with.

The Minister then went on to say, “… local authorities can be innovative and collaborative, and there is a breadth of opportunities for local government and the role it can play in contributing to the wellbeing of all of us living in Aotearoa.” She concluded that “local democracy is vital to the fabric of New Zealand society” and that the report “… is a starting point for strengthening our local democratic participation, empowering communities to have a voice in local decision-making, more collaboration between central and local government.”

A casual observer might have been forgiven for taking from those remarks that the government was genuinely looking to achieve the partnership that all governments say they want with local government but rarely achieve, and that her words could be believed. However, actions she and her government have taken since then show not only that the government has no interest in working constructively with local government, but also that the Minister’s words were no more than waffling poppycock that cannot be taken seriously.

Barely ten days later the Minister of Housing stood at the same “podium of truth” with collaborators from the National Party to announce mutually agreed new housing development plans, which cut right across the current district and local plans of many Councils up and down the country. From the reaction of a number of Mayors it was clear they had little knowledge or warning of what was coming, even though they are now the ones expected to pick up the pieces to make this joint Labour/National declaration work.

There was nothing in the two old parties’ proclamation about “strengthening our local democratic participation” or “empowering communities to have a voice in local decision-making” as per the Minister of Local Government a few days earlier, even though she would have known at the time what was being planned. To rub salt into the wound, the joint statement from the old parties made it clear that they would be moving quickly to legislate their decisions into place.

Local government, already wary from numerous past experiences over many years of engaging with central government, would have seen this as one more reason why Wellington cannot be trusted, no matter who is in power there. The Minister of Local Government, so soothing and pious when the Future for Local Government Review report was presented, was nowhere to be seen – or heard.

But this was only the start. What fluttering shreds remained of her credibility were completely ripped away by her announcement yesterday that the controversial Three Waters reforms, which have divided local government, will proceed. In making the announcement there was no reference to the “local democracy”, “opportunities for local government” or strengthening “local democratic participation” and “empowering communities” that the Minister seemed so fond of when the Future for Local Government Review was released.

Her rationale for proceeding with the Three Waters reforms was no more than “they may not be popular, but they are necessary.” Such a glib statement is no justification for one of the most controversial asset steals of recent times, aside from the implicit but untested assumption that central government knows best how to manage water resources.

Now, there is little doubt that the management of water resources in New Zealand does require a shake-up, but it remains highly questionable whether placing everything under centralised state control is the best way of achieving change. Big centralised, government-controlled agencies have not always worked well in the past and local government clearly thinks a state monopoly will not work in this instance either, but its views might be tainted by vested interest so also need to be treated with some caution. The group with the biggest stake of all in the management of water resources – local communities – have not yet been consulted at all at this stage, so it is unclear what they think of the idea.

The obvious opportunity for hearing what the public – or at least the portion of it that bothers to vote – thinks will be at the next local government elections now less than a year away. But the last thing the Minister of Local Government and her colleagues want is the local body elections to become a referendum on the Three Waters plans, hence the decision to proceed at this point.

The unfortunate reality is, as with the housing changes also, that central government holds all the cards. Local democracy, it would seem, is fine but only up to a point, The clear message from both the housing and Three Waters changes is that when it comes to the big decisions, central government will do what it wants, regardless of other views. Local councils and people can talk and rage all they like about what is happening, but it is effectively too late once the major decisions have been made.

The same pattern is being demonstrated with the health reforms and many aspects of the Covid19 response where the default position has been throughout that everything must be controlled by the government. One has only to look at the cumbersome, incompetent, unfair, callous, and unworkable MIQ system or the ineffectual sealing of internal borders to see how good this government is at running things!

So, where does all this leave the Minister of Local Government? She has single-handedly torn up her credibility over the last three weeks. She now risks becoming the modern embodiment of Alice in Wonderland’s Mad Hatter: “When I use a word… it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

Given that she is also the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and there are difficult emerging foreign policy issues ahead where the precision, clarity, certainty, and veracity of words will matter, a Mad Hatter making it up as they go along is the last thing we need.

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