Saturday, April 20, 2013

A roomful of teddy bears could hardly do worse

(First published in The Dominion Post, April 19.)

WELLINGTON could save itself a truckload of money by getting rid of its mayor and 14 councillors and replacing them with teddy bears.
Would the quality of governance be affected? Not a jot. The council bureaucrats would continue to run things just as they do now.

The people’s elected representatives are obviously not in control at the Town Hall and it’s an elaborate charade to pretend that they are. That’s clear from the fact that councillors had no idea 150 infrastructure jobs were being outsourced.
Even more comically, council functionaries didn’t bother to inform the mayor that they were proposing to spend $350,000 tarting up a temporary office for her. That shows how much regard the bureaucrats have for their elected overseers.

It’s all eerily reminiscent of an article published in The Dominion more than 20 years ago, in which an investigative reporter named Al Morrison – now better known as the director-general of the Department of Conservation – exposed the existence of a brotherhood of senior council officials known as the Order of the Rabbit.
Their purpose was to keep councillors in their proper place – in other words, in the dark. Those aspiring to join the said order had to swear they would maintain a tradition of regarding all councillors as “a pack of bastards”.

In this respect, Wellington is hardly unique. In local government, real power often resides with the managers. But in Wellington’s case, it’s a lot more obvious than usual.
Hence my suggestion that the council abandon the fa├žade of participatory democracy and replace the councillors with stuffed toys. Meetings would be over faster, the bickering and point-scoring would cease, ratepayers would be saved more than $1.3 million a year – which is what they pay the mayor and councillors – and council officials would be free to get on unhindered with what they do anyway, which is running the show.

It would have the added benefit that most of those around the council table would be better looking.
* * *

ON A LESS flippant note, perhaps local government could learn something from the United States Constitution.

No one can serve more than two terms as US president. A similar rule in local government would clear out a lot of dead wood.
Under the present system, people can keep winning re-election ad infinitum. Councils become self-perpetuating, if often highly fractious, oligarchies.

The more often a councillor is elected, the more likely he or she will be elected again next time – not necessarily because they have done their job well, but because voters recognise their names on the ballot paper. 
The cunning ones soon learn the tricks of political longevity: they turn up at the right functions, make sure they’re prominent in the media and take a populist position on controversial issues. This can be more rewarding than hard graft behind the scenes.

In Wellington’s case, Helene Ritchie is the standout survivor, having first been elected in 1977. Other long-serving councillors are Andy Foster (1992), the mayor, Celia Wade-Brown (1994), Stephanie Cook (1995), Bryan Pepperell (1996), John Morrison and Leonie Gill (both 1998), and Ray Ahipene-Mercer (2000).
Admittedly, it can be useful to have councillors who have been around a while and know the ropes. Besides, some long-serving councillors are conscientious and hard-working. But there are others you couldn’t trust to feed your cat.

The trouble is, voters often can’t tell which is which.
Wellington is a dynamic, creative city that deserves a council to match. Unfortunately many of the incumbents give the impression of having run out of ideas and energy years ago and now merely keep their seats warm.

* * *

WHO WOULD have thought that animism, the belief that inanimate objects possess a living soul, could be taken seriously in a 21st century court of law in secular New Zealand? 
Such beliefs are generally associated with primitive tribes untouched by civilisation. Yet when a helicopter pilot appeared in the Timaru District Court charged with unlawfully hovering on the summit of Aoraki/Mt Cook, the Department of Conservation told the court – in what was laughably called a “summary of facts” – that the mountain represented, to Ngai Tahu, “the most sacred of ancestors, from whom Ngai Tahu descend and who provide the iwi with its sense of communal identity, solidarity and purpose”.

Ngai Tahu are of course entitled to believe they are descended from a mountain, just as they are welcome to believe in Papatuanuku, the earth mother, and others in the pantheon of Maori mythology. And if the chopper pilot knowingly broke the law, he deserved to be pinged.
But isn’t it taking cultural sensitivity to the point of absurdity when a government department advances superstition as “fact” in a court of law? It invites ridicule.

Oddly enough, the people most likely to nod approvingly at such mumbo-jumbo are those who are most contemptuous of religion in any other form.


Jigsaw said...

I have a friend-well qualified and an intelligent woman, now in her late 70's non-religious but when anything of this animism nature comes up - she is a absolute believer. Fascinates me that we have a whole section of middle class New Zealanders who seem able to suspend their normal levels of bullshit detection as soon as anything connected with this topic arises. How did this happen? Worse still, to give any voice to another opinion brings derision and cries of racism.

Richard McGrath said...

Good grief! Helene Ritchie is your ultimate career politician then, isn't she? Involved in Wgtn City Council politics since 1977 - bloody hell, that's 36 years at the trough. Term limits are a great suggestion.