Now here’s a surprise (or on second thoughts, perhaps not): one of the two presenters on Radio New Zealand’s flagship news and current show appears not to understand why a functioning democracy depends on accountability mechanisms.
Interviewing Manawatu District mayor Helen Worboys, one of 23 mayors who have formed an action group to resist the Three Waters project, Morning Report co-host Susie Ferguson wanted to know what was the point of their opposition.
Worboys’ answer (and here I’m paraphrasing): The councils the mayors represent want to retain control of the water infrastructure that their communities have built and paid for. They believe they can come up with smarter and more acceptable ways of reforming water management and want the government to hit the “pause” button until they can put forward alternative proposals. Having paid for the assets, their communities want a say in how they’re run, but under Nanaia Mahuta’s master plan there will be no line of accountability back to them. (If I could interject here, that’s surely the key objection to the Three Waters project. It’s not so much about whether there’s a need to impose uniform standards and bring inadequate infrastructure up to standard; what’s at issue is the process by which this would be achieved, which involves transferring control to opaque, unelected and remote “entities” with no lines of accountability to, or even direct connection with, the communities whose water assets they’ll be appropriating.)
Ferguson didn’t quite seem to get any of this. As long as water assets remained in public ownership, she asked, what did it matter who controlled them? To which Worboys explained that the issue of ownership was actually quite a big deal. “The government says we will still own them, but they won’t sit on councils’ balance sheets.” (You might call it a Clayton’s type of ownership, then.)
Worboys again made the point that communities would have no voice and there would be no accountability. To which Ferguson, by now sounding slightly impatient and querulous, demanded to know: “Why does that matter?” Good grief.
After Worboys had patiently explained – again – that it indeed mattered to communities which had invested in good infrastructure that met the required standards, as in Manawatu (which Ferguson had wrongly suggested was one of the poor-performing councils that Mahuta is using as an excuse for her radical master plan), Ferguson – now sounding positively obtuse – insisted: “But you still haven’t explained why the ownership matters.”
At this point you could have forgiven Worboys for getting impatient herself, but she tried again. “Because we want a local voice in what happens to our infrastructure ...” Ferguson then imperiously talked over the top of her, again demanding to know: “Why?” Worboys' answer (and I’m again taking the liberty of paraphrasing her) was that every council’s situation is different and they want the right to make their own decisions, specific to their own needs and circumstances – a right that will be denied to them once they’re absorbed into an amorphous entity with 21 other councils, as would happen in Manawatu’s case.
It’s the accountability thing that Ferguson seemed either unwilling or unable to grasp, and it’s worrying – to put it mildly – that someone in her position professes not to see the massive accountability deficit that arises when control over billions of dollars’ worth of assets is transferred from councils, which are directly answerable to local voters, to remote bureaucracies appointed by a political and tribal elite accountable to … well, who, exactly? We don’t really know. (Coincidentally, Three Waters is based on a model from Scotland, which is where Ferguson came from. Former Far North mayor Wayne Brown explained here why the government would have learned more from Madagascar.)
Ferguson gave the impression she saw no harm in a bullying government using its power to push through radical changes, unmandated by voters. Her line of questioning could be summarised thus: "What's the problem? Why are you getting in the way?" But accountability lies at the heart of a functioning democracy. Take it away and we might as well also dispense with Parliament, councils and all the other institutions that are supposed to be ultimately answerable to the public. Come to that, there’d be no place for programmes like Morning Report either, because they depend for their existence on acceptance of the notion that in a democracy, people in power must be held accountable.
But then, democracy is notoriously untidy and inconvenient. How much cleaner and more efficient it would be if we delegated all power to an unelected central authority that knows what’s best for us. There’s even a ready-made name for it: the Politburo.