Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

The rush to impose the ‘Super City’ proposal on Auckland

March 31st, 2009

So, as John Key explained at his press conference yesterday, Cabinet will have reached a decision by April 6th about the Royal Commission’s Auckland “Super City” proposal – because, according to Key, that’s the timeframe that needs to be followed in order to get the new city framework in place for the local body elections of 2010.

Now hold your horses. Set up a Royal Commission. Get its key proposal. Put it to the public in a referendum to let them decide. Isn’t that the way it should be done? After all, that’s the sequence for how the transition to MMP was managed. This time, we’re talking about the future of the biggest city in New Zealand, and abridging the democratic rights of 1.4 million people – and they’re not going to be allowed to vote about this at the ballot box?

At the press conference, Scoop raised two fairly basic questions – given that Key had just said that this new structure will create the context for Auckland’s prosperity for the next 50 years, aren’t the local body elections of 2010 really a self imposed deadline? And doesn’t a massive report advocating a new and revolutionary political structure for Auckland for the rest of this century deserve more than oh, a week of consideration? Apparently not.

Clearly, the government is intent on putting this proposal into place. After all, if the public were given the chance for a referendum, they might choose the wrong option. And if they did vote to retain the regional identity, interests and relative autonomy of Manukau, Papakura or Birkenhead then… it would become almost impossible to put in place the Super City concept, and later privatize its services and key assets. Brilliant strategy, really. Because you don’t have to privatize state assets – you just have to peel off Auckland as a state within a state, and privatize its assets and service delivery.

The Plan

What retired judge Peter Salmon and his colleagues have recommended in the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance is a structure that scraps most of Auckland’s local councils and community boards, with only the Waiheke Island and Great Barrier Island community boards escaping the purge.

In its place will arise one super city council to rule them all and in its decisions bind them – led by a Lord Mayor who will hold extensive powers. This ‘inspirational leader, inclusive in approach and decisive in action’ will not only make the trains run on time. He will be able to appoint the deputy mayor and committee chairpersons, propose budgets, initiate policy and establish and maintain – in the final grandiose touch – an ‘appropriately staffed’ mayoral office. This new Super Council would the sole entity with the power to set rates.

Below them would be six local councils responsible for a limited range of core services – such as liquor licensing and brothel policies, dog control, gambling, hearing and deciding resource consents, building consent processing and looking after local parks, roads, footpaths, events and graffiti removal. Yet to fund even their core work, local councils will be entirely dependent on the Super City council who – remember – will have the sole power to set rates, and dispense or withhold funds as they see fit.

The scale envisaged is immense. The super council will consist of 23 councillors, ten elected from the community at large, 10 from wards. Three councillors will be Maori, one of whom will be appointed, presumably by my liege, the Lord Mayor.

This means that some of the local councils will represent up to 400,000 people, with local wards serving up to 40,000 people per councillor. No wonder Rodney Hide is murmuring impotently about the possible loss of local democracy and identity. In an era where Big Government is supposed to be such a bad word, this proposal will entail a centralisation of power unimagined by any left wing activist with Stalinist tendencies. This Queen St Kremlin will rule from Wellsford in the North all the way south to Papakura, and envelop a population of about 1.4 million people. As the Dom-Post has calculated, the assets the new Lord Mayor and his band of 23 will command will be bigger – at an estimated $28 billion – than the assets of Fonterra and Telecom combined.

Interestingly, the Royal Commission – and a hat tip to No Right Turn for this – has explicitly not recommended the single transferable vote form of proportional representation for the creation of the super council. Instead, it has advocated an FPP system – essentially a system of block voting – which readily enables slates of candidates from one major party to achieve landslide outcomes (and thus sweeping powers) with as little as 30% of the overall vote. Here’s how the many weaknesses and very few strengths of bloc voting have been described:

The block voting system has a number of features which can make it unrepresentative of the voters’ intentions. Block voting regularly produces complete landslide majorities for the group of candidates with the highest level of support. Under block voting, a slate of clones of the top-place candidate is guaranteed to win every available seat. Additionally, like first past the post methods, small cohesive groups of voters can overpower larger numbers of disorganised voters who do not engage in tactical voting, sometimes resulting in a small minority of voters electing an entire slate of candidates by merely constituting a plurality.

While many criticize block voting’s tendency to create landslide victories, some cite it as a strength. Since the winners of a block voting election generally represent the same slate or group of voters, there is greater agreement amongst those elected, potentially leading to a reduction in political gridlock.

Oh, and as NRT points out, the Royal Commission has also advocated that these wise mandarins should be elected for longer, four-year terms of office, to avoid being swayed by such trifles as election year concerns. Accountability can be so vexing. In other words, it is not merely that the Royal Commission report guts local communities of the power to govern themselves and to fund the priorities of their choice and hands it to over a highly centralised elite. The voting system being advocated will virtually ensure that a minority slate will gain landslide, disproportionate victories – and face little meaningful opposition around the Super City council table, for extended terms of office.

In sum, what is being proposed for the local government sector in Auckland – and there are already calls for Wellington to emulate it – will re-create the elected tyrannies of the Lange-Douglas years. Incredibly, the needs of rugby and the drive for faster Internet have both been invoked by the Royal Commission for the changes being proposed, which will include the appointment of a new Minister for Auckland, and an Auckland sub-committee within Cabinet.

There is a pressing need, the Commissioners allege, to ‘maximize the long term legacy benefits’ of the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Well, back on planet Earth, Auckland is just realizing what the ‘long term legacy benefits’ of the existing council’s involvement with David Beckham will cost them and similarly – thanks to the global recession – the long term legacy benefits of the Rugby World Cup are currently looking like a super sized bill for taxpayers, in order to bail out the competition.

So far, the NZ Herald – which felt moved to front page editorial outrage by the alleged authoritarian implications of the Electoral Finance Act – has been much fairly low key about the authoritarian aspects of this revolution in local government. It has been left to one or two of its columnists (Brian Rudman mainly) to voice the community concerns. Yes, the Royal Commission does recognise that sweeping metropolis-wide elections will run the risk of seeing local elections dominated by celebrities with name recognition and corporate sponsorship – but ironically, it cites the existing local election law spending cap of $70,000 per candidate as a prime safeguard against the wealthy “effectively buying their way into power as a result of greater resources”.

Some safeguard. Given that block voting will foster the election of slates of candidates, much of the likely corporate spend will be lavished on “party” or “slate” advertising, and thus fall outside the cap – which an incumbent Lord Mayor and super council could move to vary in any case. With the help of their Auckland minister and sub-committee in Cabinet if legislative change be needed to do so.

Ironic, really. Such spending caps, which the mainstream media was treating as anathema to democracy when part of the Electoral Finance Act only a year ago, is now being touted in order to sell this highly dubious package to the public.

IMHO both the Key government and the Herald are misreading the public mood on this one. People do care about their communities. Auckland, like most allegedly faceless urban centres, is an intensely tribal place. People in Mt Eden, in Mangere, on the North Shore, in West Auckland and in Otara believe in their community uniqueness and treasure it. In the face of the recession, the values of community and of local responses should be being valued – not jettisoned, as obstructions to progress.

This really is the worst possible time to suppress the diversity that makes Auckland so vital. Good governance does not require such authoritarian solutions, and the bestowing of sweeping, dictatorial powers on the likes of John Banks. In particular, the heart of a recession is not a good time to be putting the setting of rates – and the power to decide what level of services those rates will fund – into the hands of a tiny corporatist elite.

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    1. 14 Responses to “The rush to impose the ‘Super City’ proposal on Auckland”

    2. By bob on Mar 31, 2009 | Reply

      This has the potential to totally destabilise the government as the areas most likely to backlash are all areas that swung strongly to National last election. The local councils are likely to become bases of mini opposition to the new regional and federal governments. I would expect some dissension from the Auckalnd Nat members and minor parties if this becomes a super stuff up, not a good thing with MMP.

    3. By VCD on Mar 31, 2009 | Reply

      Keysolini’s Super Privatisation program.
      Its Super!

      The NZ Government really are suppose to work for us .
      We have forgotten that that is what they have been paid for.
      The placing of corporate interests above public interests is the ultimate CONFLICT OF INTEREST.

    4. By Jum on Mar 31, 2009 | Reply

      Rodney Hide was placed perfectly, don’t ya think.

    5. By Mike on Mar 31, 2009 | Reply

      Classic problem, reaction, solution.
      Problem – inefficiency and bureaucracy
      Reaction – wind people up about it
      Solution – rush in a dictatorship

      Good call VCD

    6. By Swampy on Apr 1, 2009 | Reply

      Your appeal for a referendum is a political stunt. The public already have had their say at the Royal Commission. It is like a select committee for a Parliamentary Bill. There is no need for further public consultation, the lawmakers should just go ahead and implement it without wasting more time and money.

    7. By Mike on Apr 2, 2009 | Reply

      I question whether enough Aucklanders will rally to present a popular opposition to this plan. Or will they, once more, display the collective apathy that has led to their regional structural problems? Most opposition seems to be led by city councillers.

      Another aspect of popular feeling may be a variation of the “celebrity MP” syndrome. That is, a super-council will mean Auckland (or at least its quasi-elected representatives) wields far more power at a national level: a massive tail wagging the dog. This might well appeal to many Aucklanders in a weird ego-boost kind of way, as seems to happen with voters in the electorates of Peter Dunne, Rodney Hide, Jim Anderton, and (RIP) Winston.

      “We’re so much bigger, stronger, tougher – now us Aucklanders will get the respect from Wellington and the rest of the country we deserve.”

    8. By Penny Bright on Apr 5, 2009 | Reply

      Wednesday, April 8, 7.30 – 9.30 pm, Auckland Trades Hall Auditorium, 147 Great North Road, Grey Lynn
      PUBLIC MEETING TO STOP THE SUPERCITY! We call upon the citizens of Auckland to organise and oppose the Royal Commission Proposal for the ‘Supercity’ on the basis this new structure will not benefit the majority of Auckland residents and ratepayers. A Public Meeting has been called to organise direct action by all those who want to stop the Royal Commission’s ‘Supercity’. Lisa Prager AucklandWatchdog, Ph (09) 360 3397. Penny Bright Media Spokesperson for Water Pressure Group, Judicially recognised ‘Public Watchdog’ on Metrowater, water and Auckland Regional Governance matters. Ph (09) 846 9825 / 021 211 4 127

    9. By Chris on Apr 5, 2009 | Reply

      The simple answer to Auckland’s ‘problems’ is to re-empower the Auckland Regional Council. Giove it all the powers it needs, and in the words of the recent report, tell Auckland City and the others very clearly, thatthey are subservient to the power of the ARC FULL STOP!

    10. By bob on Apr 7, 2009 | Reply

      John Key is playing with fire with this one. If the reforms are associated with the policies of ACT (2.3% of the national vote) alienate everyone except the residents of Remeura and the recession really starts hurting the ghost of Ruth Richardson, Roger Douglas et al will be re-incarnated.
      Thanks for the Royal Commission Helen.

    11. By Mary Hart on Apr 8, 2009 | Reply

      Centralising power and control eliminates democracy, accountability and transparency thus big business will use the recommended FPP vote to enlarge and expand their control over public life to reshape Auckland to suit themselves. Big business will monopolise the planning process to relax the planning laws by curtailing public consultation, centralising decision-making and insisting on a presumption in favour of the developments they want. Not only will our few remaining public services be plundered by privatisations aka ppp partnerships but our natural rural environment – harboursides, green spaces, and green fields which contribute much to Aucklander’s sense of pleasure and ease of life come under an immediate and very real threat from big business engineering the removal of all planning obstacles for unrestrained development.

      .

    12. By Jo on May 5, 2009 | Reply

      We cannot please everyone all the time every time.I really feel fear mongering about the …….”.

      We are New Zealanders First and last and if people in charge are FAIR to the people and environment -No one needs complain and the public should not be incited to riot?

      I believe in less bureaucracy /red tape /not being politically correct and the BIG Picture,and I hope This idea will help those concepts.
      We voted for MMP-Some strongly feel we were wrong….(I sometimes question my vote)
      Now some of us are not for supercity-Are we Right in our fears??

    13. By Matthew Hodgetts on May 31, 2009 | Reply

      Even if we get seats on the “Super city” for Maori it will still be a highly corporatised Council that will immedatediately move to user pays and privatisation of the wider Auckland Assets.The Treaty of Waitangi stands in the way of this corporate takeover as it has in the past.Us Pakeha will get another “super” taste of what its like to have your assets ripped away from you like Maori lost their land and other assets.This can be seen as another wave of colonisation,this time affecting not just Maori but the wider community as well.It is Corporate Rule over Democracy and the Royal Commissions plan was nearly as bad as the current National?Act plan.
      The National party will feel the wrath of the greater Auckland electorate after they have been hung with the same Anti-Democratic “Super city” rope.No Tax cuts just Priviatisation and user pays.Act have a support base of 2.3% so they shouldn’t be to worried about the political backlash of the “Super-corporate” stealing and pludering of Aucklands assets.Why the rush to get the plan implemented? Because if Auckland has time to wake up to this we would reject it outright.A referendum at the least should be taken as National promised to consult with Auckland over the “Super-city” Plans.However under the light of day like the Multi-lateral agreement on investment (an earler attempt at a Corporate take over)this Super city plan would be completely rejected by Auckland Voters.

    14. By Pare Jonathan on Jun 28, 2009 | Reply

      Hurray and 3 cheers for those who stood up against the Super City select few.

      At least we the People of Aucland can have a Say with who and how our City is adminitered.

      go hard Auckland residents..

    15. By samuel welsh on Jul 21, 2009 | Reply

      as long aas it works

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