Some months ago Nick Smith raised himself in my estimation (to be fair, the only way was up) by declaring that the “power of general competence” granted local authorities around a decade ago by the then Labour-Alliance coalition government, with warm support from the Green Party, would be overturned. Rodney Hide, whose beliefs should have meant he was at the forefront of this, failed, and Nick Smith, who is typically considered to be one of the more centrist of the Nat Cabinet Ministers, embraced an agenda of local government sticking to “core services”.
Now setting aside what they are (and I think it could be very few), this has the promise to help keep local government out of private property rights, out of the way of businesses, individuals and keep rates bills from rising faster than inflation. It essentially would stop councils thinking they can grow functions as long as they can force ratepayers to pay for them.
When Labour, the Alliance and the Greens embraced “empowered” local government, it was part of a wider belief that the role of the state, including local government, should not be constrained by legislation if elected councillors wanted local government to do things. It was saying that when councillors are elected, they should have the widest mandate to “do as they wish” collectively, because accountability would lie at the next local election. All very well if you think of government and society as being a conglomeration of groups with interests that are all competing, which are gloriously tempered by democracy. Not very well if you think government is the body with the monopoly of legitimised force against individuals, which typically takes from the many to give to the few, and which regulates some for the satisfaction of others.
You see, those on the left of the political spectrum have a benign, almost warm fuzzy view of government because it can do things that they can’t do themselves – for them it is about forcing people to do things or banning them, or engaging in commercial or non-commercial activities that none of them could ever imagine being able to do so by choice. For me, it is about using the coercive power of the state to use other people’s money to pursue pet projects and to take rights or property from some less favoured individuals for the benefit of more favoured ones.
It is hardly surprising then to read the news that Wellington’s Green Party Mayor is upset about the proposed changes, and spouts the typical propaganda line used by anyone who thinks local government is representative. She talks about it constraining the “self-determination of communities”. Really? For a start, a community does not have a collective brain, it is comprised of individuals with their own views. As a result, a community is not a “self” so cannot have “self-determination”, because it is comprised of hundreds or thousands of “selves”. If thousands of people want to act in a particular way, they do not need local government if they are not intending to use force. They can fund raise, they can spend their own money, they can open up a business, or a charity or they can boycott one. Indeed, self-determination of the individuals in a community is very empowering.
Yet what Celia Wade-Brown means is the power to force people to pay for something they don’t want, or the power to ban people from doing or make people do things they don’t like.
The idea that people in a city are somehow “empowered” because a minority of them bother to vote for a cabal of councillors who are off the leash and able to do whatever a majority of them deem as being a “good idea”, is a nonsense akin to the absurd theory of the “vanguard party” of the people which represents the “general will”. (Remember your will if contrary to that, is at best meaningless, at worst dangerous).
For the leftwing gutter rag the Standard to support this view is unsurprising. Besides generating a headline that is sheer nonsense (if only it were true), it talks in glowing terms of local democracy, largely because statists like themselves think of government as doing “good”. It makes the false claim that New Zealand local government “has the lowest gathering of funds at a regional level in the entire OECD”, when the UK easily outstrips that (there being very low contributions from council tax). It raises the red herring that “attempts to change this with regional fuel tax and congestion charges” have been vetoed by National, when there is no evidence that any local authorities in New Zealand have wanted to do either (nor did Labour push for either outside Auckland). Nothing gets statists excited more than wanting new taxes and new ways they can interfere in the lives of businesses, property owners and individuals in the guise of “local democracy”.
It cites an article by Christine Cheyne of Massey University. The same Christine Cheyne who was an advisor to Prime Minister Helen Clark on local government and transport policy. Not surprisingly she will take the view that the status quo is just wonderful.
Local government should be constrained. Regional Councils were once just regional water catchment boards, they should return to this role. Territorial authorities were once simply land use planning agencies that also looked after local roads, parks and refuse collection, they should return to the planning function alone with the rest of the activities privatised by both sale and transfer to ratepayer shareholding owned entities. The monstrosity that is Auckland Council should be curtailed back in the same way. If local government is to have any function it can be as a local arbitrator and record keeper of property rights in land (and waterways and airspace). Nick Smith’s bill should turn the clock back to the situation pre 2002 in many senses (although it doesn’t have a clear vision for its role in transport, which is another issue). It isn’t enough but it is a good start, the next big step ought to be to deal with the RMA – but I’m not holding my breath for that one.
Meanwhile, you have until 26 July to make a submission on the Bill. Go on, encourage Nick, you know the other lot will be moaning and groaning for councillors to keep and strengthen their powers to tax, spend, borrow and regulate. The Labour Party, which treats local government as a training ground for its new generation of finger-pointing, do gooding, control freaks, is already prepared with an automatic submission website (which I wouldn't waste your time editing, because they wont forward submissions that disagree with their "we know best" point of view).