20 September 2022

Which wannabe busybodies do you want on your council?

Academics, journalists and politicians bemoan every three years how little interest there is in the local body elections in New Zealand.  The narrative being that if more people voted, then local government would be "better" and people being more "engaged" would result in bette Councillors, better decisions, better cities, towns and districts.

It's utter nonsense. There's a reason why most people aren't engaged with local government, because by and large, the things it tends to do adequately are taken for granted (local roads, footpaths, rubbish collection), and people have busy lives getting on with making a living, looking after their families, their homes, and living their lives.  

Local government has little to do with many issues, such as healthcare, education, justice, policing, but it DOES have a lot to do with areas that are in crisis, such as:

  • Water, fresh, waste and storm.  You may not agree with the Three Waters prescription of the Ardern Government, but local government in most of the country has mismanaged water infrastructure for decades.  Why? Because local government is dominated by socialists who don't believe in user pays, don't believe in running ANYTHING like a business and don't get excited about infrastructure that is largely out of sight.  It's no wonder central government is, essentially, taking water off them.
  • Housing. Councils stop housing being built, whether low, medium or high density. When it gets approved, it adds costs to that approval, because it is dominated by central planning types who think they know what's best for other people's land.  Councillors think they "build communities", when in fact it is they, facilitated by the Resource Management Act, that mean housing is scarcer and more expensive than it should be.  Central Government may have been monetarily incontinent, but the clot on housing supply lies squarely with local government.
  • Supermarket competition. Councils stop supermarkets being built. Again they are dominated by socialists who think supermarkets are awfully vulgar places where big companies serve common people who dreadfully arrive by car.  As with housing, Councils use the Resource Management Act to constrain supply and even listen to incumbent supermarkets that don't want competition, facilitating higher grocery prices for everyone.

Local government also attracts a particular type of person.  More often than not it attracts busybodies, planners, pushy finger-wagging types who think they know what's best, over what people actually indicate according to their willingness to pay. It particularly attracts socialists who see local government as a stepping stone to central government for Labour and Green Party members.  They all have a set of principles and views in common, being:

  • Rates should go up, beyond inflation, because Councils can always spend your money better than you can.
  • Economic development occurs because Councils write plans and set up bureaucracies to enable it, not because people choose to set up businesses in their districts
  • Councils should prioritise fighting climate change, because if they don't, then the consequences will be catastrophic
  • Recycling of as much as possible is a good thing, regardless of cost and regardless of whether the collected recycling actually gets used
  • Driving is a malign, public transport is good, cycling is divine, freight doesn't exist or isn't important
Take Auckland's leftwing contender for Mayor, Efeso Collins, who is promising to make public transport fully subsidised ("free" in socialist marketing parlance). Who is going to pay? Blank out.  What's the impact going to be?  Well if it is anything following the experience of Tallinn, Estonia, it wont be much (as it barely reduced car traffic, but cost a lot of money and significantly reduced the amount of walking).

However, look at the other side, the so-called "rightwing" Wayne Brown, who wants to move the Port of Auckland.  The Port of Auckland should be privatised, but no, Mr Brown knows best how to use the land and doesn't care about the location of New Zealand's number one import port. 

Look at Wellington where the choice is between the former NZ First aligned encumbent Andy Foster (who has been on Council 20 or so years), the existing Labour MP for Rongotai Paul Eagle (who was once a Councillor, but whom Labour isn't willing to rank on its party list, so little do they think of him) and the hard-left former Green Party chief of staff and spin merchant Tory Whanau. Do you want encumbent, a bit left or far left leading Wellington?  As Karl du Fresne pointed out, in reference to GWRC Councillor Thomas Nash, some of these people are "troughers", who think that the city and the world would be a better place if only there were more and more central planning, more taxes to spend on grand plans, more regulation of people and businesses doing what's "wrong", and endlessly bigger local government. 

So vote if you must, but the real problem is that local government has too much power.  It has stuffed up water, the only unreformed network utility (except in Auckland).  Local government used to manage local electricity distribution, but that was taken off it in the 1990s.  At one time it was responsible for milk distribution, which is why until the late 1980s buying milk OTHER than by kerbside bottles was unusual, and indeed there was no plastic or cartoned milk.

So pick candidates who want to get out of the way, of new housing, of new supermarkets, of enterprise and don't want to promise grand totemic projects that you have to pay for.  Don't pick those who think that local government can "do so much good" by spending your money and pushing people around.  Maybe pick those who actually have some understanding of the limits of the ability of local government.

If you get to ask them any questions then ask them this....
  1. How much do you want me to pay for (insert expensive promise)?
  2. Given how poorly Councils have performed in delivering water infrastructure why do you think it is competent in delivering (insert expensive promise)?
  3. Why wont people pay voluntarily for (insert expensive promise)?  
  4. Do you think Council has hindered the supply of housing and if so, what will you do about it? (if the answer is no, then, if you're in a major city, you know you're talking to an idiot). 
  5. What do you think Council is not good at and shouldn't be involved in?
  6. What have you learned from your own life and career that causes you are able to make a judgment on how to spend other people's money and regulate use of their land and businesses?
  7. Do you think your Council should have members on it that are not elected but appointed by local Iwi, because this is the "new democracy"?
As a footnote, the Taxpayers' Union has launched a guide on which it asks a bunch of useful questions of candidates, only some of whom have responded.  It infuriatingly asks for your postcode (who knows that?) to find a council name, not just the council names. However, some pertinent questions on rates, spending and curiously discouraging car use are answered, so make of that as you will.  I'm no fan of Three Waters as a solution, but the status quo in MOST districts is not good either, so make of that what you will either.

The Free Speech Union also has a guide to candidates which is more accessible. It asks various free speech questions and you may be surprised on its stance (it IS libertarian), on matters like transgenderism, abortion and drag-queen story time.  

Much more well publicised in the media has been FACT Aotearoa, which publishes its own list of candidates that it claims promote conspiracy theories and misinformation, again make of that as you will. 

Other lobby groups have their own perspectives,  I find them all mildly useful, if only because it can flag people having opinions I both like and don't like, and it may not be the view expressed by the lobby group. 

However, I'm largely quite pessimistic. People wildly enthusiastic about local government are generally the opposite of people I want in local government, because local government attracts far too many meddlers, regulators and planners.  

Try to pick the least worst and hope for the best, at least until there is a central government that keeps them on the leash.  You'll have to make some compromises.

When I get my voting forms, I might do a review of the candidates where I'm voting, and I might do a splattergun of identifying those who I have found who are good sorts and worth a tick, and those you should run a mile from..

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