(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, April 27.)
Right now I’m glad I don’t live in Auckland. This, however, has nothing to do with the usual anti-Auckland prejudice exhibited by people living south of the Bombay Hill.
No, the reason I’m pleased not to be a resident of Auckland is that I would be seething with resentment at the way democracy has been hijacked under the city’s new governance arrangements.
The new “super city” was created in the name of efficiency. The rationale was that Auckland could never fulfil its true potential while it consisted of several municipal entities (Auckland, North Shore, Manukau and Waitakere, to name the main ones), each marching to the beat of its own drum.
Public misgivings about the forced merger of the old councils mostly centred on whether the mechanisms for democratic participation, such as community boards, would be adequate. But as the new council gets up to speed, Aucklanders are becoming acutely aware of other shortcomings.
For one thing, both the New Zealand Herald and Radio New Zealand have reported mounting concerns about secrecy. The new agencies responsible for services such as water and transport are not obliged to admit the public or the media to their meetings, or even to reveal their agendas.
Decisions on matters of such obvious public importance as passenger transport fare increases have been made behind closed doors. According to Radio New Zealand, fare increases weren’t even mentioned on the sketchy agenda issued to the media ahead of last month’s Auckland Transport meeting.
According to an Automobile Association spokesman, most of Auckland’s transport governance is being undertaken in “complete secrecy”. Even deputy mayor Penny Hulse criticises the agency’s propensity for making key decisions in private. So much for Mayor Len Brown’s promises of transparency.
Radio New Zealand also reported that Watercare, the agency responsible for Auckland’s water supply, has its head office in central Auckland but chooses to hold its meetings at a hard-to-reach venue in suburban Mangere, the clear implication being that the agency wants to discourage pesky members of the public from turning up and asking to know what’s going on.
Mayor Brown lamely explains all this by saying that many appointees to the new agencies come from commercial rather than public sector backgrounds and aren’t accustomed to demands for public scrutiny. We heard the same excuse when government departments became state-owned enterprises back in the 1980s and enthusiastically adopted a private-sector culture, seizing on commercial sensitivity as an excuse for avoiding public accountability.
For all his talk of openness, it was Mr Brown himself who opposed a call from nine councillors for public debate on a funding package for the new Auckland Council’s Maori Statutory Board.
You can understand Mr Brown’s sensitivity, because this is where things get really scandalous.
Back in February, the council’s strategy and finance committee approved (in a closed meeting, of course) a budget of $3.4 million for the non-elected Maori board. Predictably, there was a public uproar. But when the full council cut back the allocation to $1.9 million – still several times more than the $400,000 ratepayers had been told the board would cost – the nine-member board had the chutzpah (I don’t know the appropriate Maori word, so the Yiddish one will have to do) to take legal action against the council. At the public’s expense, of course.
To its shame, the council capitulated. And when the matter came back before councillors this month, Mr Brown ensured that it was dealt with out of public view, no doubt to minimise political embarrassment.
The council’s PR spin doctors sold the outcome of that meeting as a compromise under which the council would split the difference between what the Maori board was demanding and what the council had offered. But as Herald columnist Brian Rudman pointed out, once all the extras were added up – support services, office accommodation and so forth – the final budget was only $300,000 short of the outrageous original demand.
The ratepayers, in short, were comprehensively shafted.
That much of this happened in secret is only the lesser part of the scandal. Far more outrageous is that a non-elected board of Maori advisors – chosen by an unaccountable “iwi selection body” and meekly rubber-stamped by a National government anxious to stay onside with the Maori Party – has been able to bully an elected council into doing things its way, and to hell with the cost to ratepayers.
But hang on; it gets even worse. Two representatives of that non-elected Maori Statutory Body will have full voting rights on council committees – in other words, equal power with elected councillors.
This is a travesty that even the Left finds offensive. MP Phil Twyford, the Labour Party’s Auckland issues spokesman, said it went against a fundamental principle of democracy. And the Left-leaning Rudman wrote that he couldn’t think of any model of democracy in which government appointees, not elected by the people they purported to represent, shared voting rights with elected representatives.
I agree. Mind you, Labour wanted dedicated Maori seats on the council, similar to those in Parliament – and that would be an intolerable distortion of democracy too.
Should we non-Aucklanders be concerned? Yes, because once special rights for Maori are entrenched in Auckland they will set a precedent that will be applied elsewhere.
Maoridom, citing special status as tangata whenua, has already succeeded in uncoupling itself from normal democratic principles. The creation of dedicated Maori seats on the Bay of Plenty Regional Council in 2004 – modelled on the anachronistic Maori seats in Parliament, whose existence has become even less defensible since the advent of MMP – effectively created a parallel electoral system that specially favours Maori.
Local Government Minister Rodney Hide ruled out a similar arrangement in Auckland, but Maori have ended up wielding disproportionate power anyway. Maori opinion carries more weight than non-Maori in Auckland’s new governance arrangements, yet there is less accountability; in fact none. A fundamental and long-standing democratic nexus has been severed.
Where this will lead, in an increasingly multicultural society, remains to be seen. At some point the burgeoning Maori sense of entitlement may collide head-on with the rising expectations of other ethnic groups such as Asians, who will soon outnumber them.
As Rudman pointedly asked last week, what will John Key and Mayor Brown say when the Chinese knock on their doors and ask for guaranteed council seats like those awarded to Maori? Through their willingness to accede to Maori demands, today’s politicians risk piling up potentially ugly problems for future generations to untangle.