Involvement in local affairs creates an antidote to public ire

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Newsroom Graphic by Jonathan Milne

Tim Wilson
Auckland, May 2, 2022

“People are angry.”

A local body representative (not Auckland) recounted this to me during a recent conversation about the phones at the Council. Probing the phone operator for more information, he asked, “How many of the calls you get are from angry people? Is it a quarter, one third?”

The response was that over half of the callers were furious.

Apparently such distemper is not limited to one Council; many Councils are hearing from disgruntled constituents on a regular basis. Yes, Covid, lockdowns, and mandates have played a part, but at present local democracy is dealing with multiple issues, and in some cases, isn’t doing a stellar job.

Auckland issues

Look at our biggest city Auckland; with an annual budget of $4.4 billion, it’s short $900 million. Tauranga is under centrally-appointed Commissioner management, and contemplating rate rises of 13.7%; that is almost double the recently announced inflation rate that has caused so much consternation.

Meanwhile, a trio of proposed measures are redefining the local landscape.

Tim Wilson

The most contentious is Three Waters, which is so controversial that it has had some local mayors lawyering up against the government. At the same time, the Resource Management Act 1991 is being divided into three different pieces of legislation.

Less well-known, but possibly as wide-ranging is The Future for Local Government Review, which is a rethink of our 78 local authorities. Its remit includes: Treaty partnership issues; funding; the relationship between central and local government; and much much more.

This review will set the tone for the next 30 years of local government in our country and is occurring at a time when faith in local bodies seems to be plumbing historic lows.

For example, public confidence in Wellington Council decision-making sunk by almost half last year, reaching a mere 16% from 30% the previous year.

The role of Local Government

So what’s the answer? Clarity about the role of local government will help; so the review is on the right track. But while much is up for revision, central government has not promised much in response. Indeed, the terms of reference state that the Government will “welcome the work of the Review but will not be pre-committed to the implementation of its findings.”

Central government promises to “respond to the findings… in due course.”

Of course committing to what you don’t know is unwise, but as responses go for an effort that will cost $9 million and is being billed as the biggest thing in local bodies for decades, it is somewhat light on calories.

In the meantime, what can citizens do? Well, engage. What is your big idea to improve local government? Make local-body voting mandatory? Give GST to Councils?

Here’s the link:

Mowing next-door’s lawn makes you a good neighbour; this will too.

As Professor Paul Dalziel has said, “Local government is one of the most important institutions our species has created for expanding human wellbeing.”

Want to fix the anger? Get involved. Without you local is merely low-cal.

Tim Wilson is Executive Director of Maxim Institute based in Auckland.

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