Monday, February 23, 2009

Toxic maelstroms in the council chamber

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, Dominion Post, February 17.)

I WAS ONCE, in a professional capacity, an occasional attendee at meetings of the Wellington City Council. It struck me then as a deeply dysfunctional group of cranks, bullies, egotists and grandstanders.

There were one or two councillors whom I concluded were deranged and possibly a risk to public safety if they were allowed onto the streets unaccompanied.

I remember thinking that if the citizens of Wellington bothered to attend these meetings and saw how their representatives behaved, they would be horrified. They certainly deserved better.

Municipal politics can be toxic maelstroms, and Wellington wasn’t alone in this. Porirua City Council in the 1990s was a shocker too (and may still be, for all I know).

Several of the Wellington city councillors who sat around the table then are still there today. Tragically, people keep voting for them simply because their names are familiar.

Whether this helps explain the present kerfuffle over the location of the proposed indoor sports stadium, I can’t be sure. But feuds and personal agendas are certainly nothing new in the council chamber.

Of course there were sane, level-headed councillors back then, as there are now.

Andy Foster, the councillor now being pilloried for opposing the Evans Bay stadium, was one of them – a councillor who was conscientious about doing the hard yards, tried to avoid vendettas and seemed genuinely concerned for the betterment of the city.

Kerry Prendergast, now the mayor, was another who had her feet on the ground and stayed focused. It’s sad that these two, who were then usually on the same side, have ended up acrimoniously at odds.

* * *

IF THE National-led government did nothing else, it would earn our undying gratitude simply by placing a freeze on bureaucratic restructuring.

Since August last year we have had a new government organisation called the NZ Transport Agency. This absorbed the functions of Land Transport New Zealand and Transit New Zealand.

The creation of the “super agency” attracted very little public comment or analysis, which illustrates how resigned we have become to constant organisational change in the public sector.

A brief look at the new agency’s history makes the brain spin. Land Transport New Zealand was previously the Land Transport Safety Authority. It changed its name in December 2004, at which time it also merged with another agency called Transfund.

The pulling together of Transit and Land Transport New Zealand reversed a split that took place under National in 1998, when Transfund was created because of concerns that Transit wasn’t giving enough roading money to local councils.

So what was once rendered asunder has now been joined back together again, at God knows what cost. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Labour justified the latest merger by saying it would provide a “more integrated and cost-effective approach” to transport planning and funding. Hmmm … heard these phrases before?

The creation of the new agency will reinforce the impression that the public sector is run by headless chooks, flapping around the barnyard in a frenzy of activity that expends a lot of energy for no purpose.

* * *

I REALISE I’ve wrongly been giving John Key credit for the unfamiliar, Zen-like calm that has characterised domestic politics over the past couple of months.

It’s true that Mr Key’s sunny disposition and willingness to engage with disparate political interest groups has had a sedative effect, helped by the fact that the new leader of the Labour party, no matter how hard he tries to be a pitbull, is almost grotesquely reasonable.

But the real reason things seem so blissfully peacefully, I realised while watching the TV News last Saturday night, was that Winston Peters has left the political stage. By doing so, he has, at a stroke, reduced the rancour quotient to virtually zero.

At a party meeting in Auckland, Mr Peters evaded the media by leaving through a side door.

I wholeheartedly approve of this new approach. Invisibility suits him very well.

* * *

I KEEP hearing economic commentators scolding us for not realising the severity of the economic crisis and acting accordingly. But what do they expect us to do? Dress in sackcloth and flagellate ourselves with barbed wire? Stop laughing, going to movies, listening to music or doing any of the other things that give us pleasure?

Would they prefer that we all draw the curtains, eat dry bread and gruel and sit around in darkened rooms feeling miserable?

Bugger that. Getting on with life is surely the best possible response to the financial meltdown. There are enough people around the world talking themselves into a depression without New Zealanders joining in.

Wellington at the weekend was buzzing. I can’t think of a better antidote to all the prophecies of doom from the economic Cassandras.


Truth Seeker said...

With respect to the economy, we're stuffed either way. If, like me, you saw the crash approaching from 5 years out, you will be debt free and have your capital safely tucked away in a gift-owned bank waiting for some measure of sanity and stability to return.

If you didn't see it coming and loaded up on debt based on assets with (temporarily) inflated values, then you should be cutting spending and reducing debt. That's assuming you don't default on some or all of your debt, of course.

Either way, demand falls and unemployment spreads like
wild fire. The only trajectory open at present appears to be downward.

John said...

Liked your last item in particular, Karl. You or your regular readers may be interested in seeing more of the same here: