Monday, February 23, 2015

God put the Rimutaka Hill there for a reason

(First published in The Dominion Post, February 20.)
On Monday night I went to a public meeting in the Masterton Town Hall.
The hall was full, which might have something to do with the fact that not a lot happens in Masterton on a Monday night and a meeting in the Town Hall provides an exciting diversion.

On the other hand you might say this was the beating heart of local democracy, even if most of the heads in the hall were grey.
The meeting was organised by Sustainable Wairarapa, a group of business people who believe the region stands to benefit from the Local Government Commission’s proposal to establish a “super city” encompassing Wellington, the Hutt Valley, Porirua, Kapiti and the Wairarapa.

To promote their case they enlisted former Waitakere mayor Sir Bob Harvey and Greg Moyle, who serves on the Waitemata community board in the Auckland super-city. The idea was that they would tell us how much better off Auckland was following amalgamation.
They might not have been the best choice. Here were two politicians from New Zealand’s biggest, most densely populated urban area presuming to tell the residents of a sparsely populated farming region at the other end of the North Island that joining a super city could only be good for them.

I would have been more interested in hearing the views of someone from Rodney or Franklin, two semi-rural districts that were either wholly or partly press-ganged into joining Auckland.
Even those two districts are not strictly comparable with the Wairarapa, which is rural heartland rather than a lifestyle belt, but I imagine their residents might have quite a different verdict on the benefits of amalgamation.

Besides, Harvey and Moyle are insiders, embedded in the system. It’s in their interests to talk up Auckland’s governance arrangements.
Harvey chairs Waterfront Auckland, one of the highly contentious CCOs (council-controlled organisations) that have caused so much ill-feeling among Aucklanders since the supercity was created in 2010.

He’s a sincere man and an engaging speaker with long experience in local government, but he can’t claim to know the Wairarapa.
He also seems to have an ad man’s faith in empty slogans. “You have to trust the future”, he said at one point, sounding like one of the billboards he might have created in his advertising agency days.

Moyle spent more time talking about himself than about the issue and admitted he knew nothing about the region he had come to advise, “apart from drinking a lot of Martinborough pinot noir”. He even struggled with pronunciation, referring more than once to “Waipara”.
All this leaves me in a bit of quandary. My wife and I have lived in Masterton since 2003. It suits us, as it does the many refugees from Wellington who have moved here.

I’m open to persuasion that amalgamation would be the best thing for the Wairarapa, as many respected business and community leaders argue. But no one has convinced me yet.
In fact, although not a religious man, I find myself slowly coming around to the view that God had a reason for putting the Rimutaka Hill where it is.

Much of the propaganda seems to hinge on what might happen to us economically if we’re cut loose from wealthy Wellington. We’re too small and weak, the argument goes, to survive on our own. The proponents of amalgamation have played the fear card rather too much.
I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t think it would be a good idea to merge Masterton, Carterton and South Wairarapa councils. But amalgamation with Wellington? That’s another proposition entirely. We’re different from Wellington culturally, demographically and economically. 

Most of all, I worry about what it would mean for representative government. The Wairarapa would have only two of the 21 seats on the proposed supercity council. The centre of power would be too far removed from those affected.
Do I trust Wellington-based councillors to understand what’s best for the Wairarapa? No, and it doesn’t help that when I look at the Greater Wellington Regional Council, which is the closest thing we’ve got to a super council, I see a coterie of former Labour and Green MPs – professional politicians who seem unable to wean themselves off the public teat.

Am I convinced that the democratic deficit will be made up by the proposed community boards? No. It certainly doesn’t seem to have worked out that way in Auckland.
Do I trust the Local Government Commission, with their misplaced faith in the virtues of Big Government? Not for a moment. They can’t even get their figures right.


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