Possible human rights implications
Auckland human rights and environmental lawyer, Tim McBride, reflects on his current involvement as an elected member of the Devonport Community Board and his fears for the future of genuine community democracy in the Auckland region.
Before I was elected to the Devonport Community Board in the 2007 local government elections I thought I had a reasonable idea of how my community ‘ticked’ – how wrong I was. I had not appreciated fully the complexity of local government at the community level, or the importance of its close linkages with a vast range of local commercial, social, cultural and sporting organisations.
Embarrassingly, despite years of teaching aspects of resource management law I had also undervalued its pivotal role in promoting my community’s social, economic, cultural and environmental wellbeing; especially its critical role in enhancing my community’s amenities (eg, its parks, reserves and beaches), something many residents appear to take for granted.
All members of our community board are elected by our local residents. We are not appointed by North Shore City Council or by a particular Minister of the Crown to implement their agenda.
Being elected by the residents of your community really makes you feel accountable. They like to remind you of that, sometimes politely, sometimes less so.
I had barely shaken hands with my fellow board members – all battle-hardened local government politicians – when I was coerced into chairing its works committee. I remember saying at the time that it was like agreeing to be Minister of Health, ‘a recipe for a short political life’ – how right I was.
Our works committee attempts to deal with many of the local issues residents are passionately for or against – speed restraints, additional pedestrian crossings, better provision for cyclists etc – all seen by some motorists as unjustifiable impediments on their apparent “God-given right” to drive at a minimum of 50kph on local streets!
Under the proposed changes to Auckland’s governance currently before Parliament many of these local works issues will not be dealt with either by the not-so local board that replaces us or even by the Auckland Council. Instead they will be handled by one of the so-called ‘Council-Controlled Organisations (CCOs), with its unelected members initially appointed by Ministers of the Crown – so much for local democracy and accountability.
Local government politicians must have an in-depth local knowledge - really know the ‘nooks and crannies’ of their community. If they don’t they are unlikely to be effective. How will such in-depth local knowledge be possible under the new governance structure?
The current reforms appear to be being sold to us on the basis that they will deliver leaner, more effective local government. I remain sceptical. If recent polls of Aucklanders are any indication (eg, Herald on Sunday, 7 February 2010), my concerns are shared by many others.
I’m very concerned about the hidden costs that ratepayers in the Auckland region are already incurring as a result of the ongoing changes to the region’s governance structure. For example, it is clear to me that many council officers are already ‘treading water’ as their anxiety mounts whether they will have a job under the new structure. I have noticed a visible effect on both their morale and work performance.
It took 2-3 years for things to settle down after the last radical restructuring of local government in the late 1980s. Given the feistiness of many residents in my community I very much doubt that they will tolerate such a state of affairs again.
If the current proposals are cemented into place Aucklanders may well end up with a huge faceless bureaucracy – far removed from the people it is intended to serve. To many it may seem no different to a major central government agency (eg, ACC, IRD, WINZ).
The proposed radical changes to local government administration in the Auckland region represent the most audacious assault on local democracy in this area in living memory – the “death of effective local decision-making” in the words of a senior council officer with decades of experience in the byzantine world of Auckland local government.
Because of this I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that the changes currently being forced upon us have major human rights implications. As a human rights lawyer I’m committed to both the protection and promotion (ie, enhancement, not reduction) of such rights. This includes political rights.
While the proposed changes may not run counter to the strict wording of both national (NZ Bill of Rights Act 1990) and international human rights standards (UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966, which the then National government led by Sir Robert Muldoon ratified in 1978); they appear contrary to the underlying spirit and intent of these major human rights instruments.
At present local government electors in my area can vote for up to 2 members of the Auckland Regional Council; up to 5 members of the North Shore City Council; and for up to 4 members of our community board.
Cynics may well say – “How many politicians does it take to change a …?” However, in my brief time as a local government politician I have encountered surprisingly few situations where the “light bulb” analogy has any application. Quite the reverse actually – I have found many of the issues our Board has had to deal with surprisingly complex.
On more than one occasion I have gone to a meeting with a clear view of where I stood on a particular issue, only to be convinced to change my position after listening to the thoughts of other members – the advantages of transparent decision-making by elected representatives, with representatives of the news media present.
If the current Auckland governance proposals are cemented into place that will be reduced to an entitlement to casts their ballots for 2 of the 20 members of the new Auckland Council; and for 2 of the 5 members of the new local board – powers and functions still to be decided - for the area of the North Shore extending all the way north to Campbell’s Bay. This represents a considerable reduction in the opportunities for democratic participation.
By placing major decision-making responsibility for most of the key areas of local government in the Auckland region in the hands of CCOs - and as a consequence removing that primary responsibility from elected local government politicians – meaningful accountability to the community is considerably reduced. This in my view is the antithesis of what local democracy is meant to be about.
In its present form I predict that the so-called ‘super city’ governance structure may well be a hugely expensive failure. When this occurs it is likely that its administration will be converted into a government ministry – the Ministry of Auckland (MOA). This acronym may be shortened further by Auckland-hating public service mandarins in Wellington to FA (‘Forget Auckland’) – or some earthier alternative.