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Not government policy – yet

3 Nov 2022

| Author: Chris Trotter

When the release of a government-commissioned report causes citizens to recoil in dismay, something is very wrong. The whole point of living under a democracy is that governments elected under its rules should find it very difficult to dismay the electors. Democratically-elected politicians should always be close enough to their voters that surprising them – or being surprised by them – becomes both rare and difficult. Government by consent doesn’t leave a lot of room for shock and awe.

The dismay occasioned by the release of the proposals of the government-appointed panel set up to review the future of local government in New Zealand confirms two things. The first is that it could not have been authored by persons accountable in any meaningful sense to the voters. The second, closely related to the first, is that many of the proposals are profoundly and dangerously undemocratic.

Appointed by Cabinet from a list supplied by Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta, the panel is made up of Jim Palmer (chairman), Penny Hulse, Antoine Coffin, Gael Surgenor and Brendan Boyle. Judging from their brief CVs posted on the review’s website, the group’s political praxis veers more in the direction of top-down bureaucratic governance than towards the norms of bottom-up democratic government.

Certainly, no democrat could endorse the panel’s most controversial proposal: that persons appointed by ethnically-defined, non-elected entities should be afforded all the rights and privileges – including full voting rights – historically reserved for the democratically elected members of local authorities, such appointees to be immune from all the usual democratic sanctions.

It is this proposal – traducing, as it does, the core values of New Zealand’s democratic electoral system – that identifies the ultimate purpose of the panel’s review of local government: to commence the slow, necessarily piecemeal and intentionally opaque process of fundamentally rewriting the New Zealand constitution in ways intended to give effect to a particular, but far from uncontested, reading of te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Responsibilities redefined

This is how the panel expresses its mission: “Local government is responsible for facilitating democracy – ensuring that it reflects our increasing diversity, embodies Tiriti-based partnerships, and seeks out innovative ways of ensuring the voices of the whole community are heard and reflected in local decisions. Internationally, citizens’ participation in local government decision-making has evolved considerably and practices should be improved and updated.”

Note the stunning reversal and redefinition of political responsibility contained in that first sentence. Not that local government is the product of democratic engagement by local citizens but that among local government’s many pressing responsibilities is “facilitating” democracy.  Not, it is important to note, upholding, protecting, or (God forbid!) practising democracy, but for making democracy “easy, or easier”, presumably by steadily relieving citizens of the awful burden of having to elect their local representatives. The other thing our local authorities are there for, according to the panel, is to “ensure” that democracy reflects “our” increasing diversity – except that reflecting diversity forms no part of the democratic rules of engagement.

Citizens elect representatives – not reflections. Democratically elected politicians are there to actively articulate, implement and answer to the public will, as expressed through the electoral process. They succeed or fail according to the effectiveness of their actions, not on account of their race, religion, gender, sexuality or class.

Notwithstanding this generally accepted understanding of democracy, we are left with that worrying word “ensuring”. To “ensure” that something happens implies the elimination of choice, as in “to make certain that (something) will occur or be the case.” Or, to put it in practical political terms, if the electors fail to produce a “diverse” council, then one will be imposed upon them. By whom? Central government? The Local Government Commission? The courts? All of the above?

Democracy’s next responsibility is to ensure that the councils’ decision-making architecture “embodies te Tiriti-based partnerships”. Was so much ever assumed in so few words? Most obviously, the massive assumption that the Treaty of Waitangi is, indeed, a partnership and that the character of that partnership is precisely defined in, and attainable by, law.

In the absence of such legal precision, it is impossible to envisage how “democracy” might give te Tiriti corporeal form, not least because “democracy” itself is not a body to be commanded but a principle and a process to be honoured. Nevertheless, the panel is clearly of the view that if democracy is not up to embodying the treaty, then its principles and processes should be set aside.

More equal than others 

Enough? No, the panel has still more to ask of the democracy it facilitates. On top of generating diversity and embodying the treaty, democracy must also seek out “innovative ways of ensuring the voices of the whole community are heard and reflected in local decisions”.

Clearly, the opportunity for every citizen aged 18 years and over who meets the legal residency requirements to cast a vote for the councillors charged with making local decisions, is not enough for the panel. Neither is the ability of every citizen to make submissions on the desirability, or otherwise, of proposed council projects. More is required of democracy – but what? Surely the panel is not suggesting that the voices of some citizens should be amplified artificially? (as happens every day in relation to the business community and its paid lobbyists.) Surely the panel is not laying itself open to the charge that it considers some voices, some reflections, to be more equal than others?

As for all these additional opportunities for citizen participation which have “evolved considerably” internationally, what does the panel have in mind? The term it uses is “participatory democracy”. Well, that’s an oldie but a goodie that goes all the way back to the US-based Students for Democratic Society and their “Port Huron Statement” of the mid-1960s. Then again, the SDS were revolutionaries, so maybe not. Perhaps the panel is thinking of faux-democratic novelties like “citizens assemblies” and/or “citizen juries”. These are the sort of easily manipulated “participatory” practices put forward by local government bureaucrats when democratically elected bodies refuse to relinquish government in favour of governance.

What the panel would really like to see, however, and explicitly recommends, is: “That central government provides a statutory obligation for councils to give due consideration to an agreed, local expression of tikanga whakahaere in their standing orders and engagement practices, and for chief executives to be required to promote the incorporation of tikanga in organisational systems.”

That sounds like constitutional transformation from above, embodying te Tiriti o Waitangi partnerships, by way of statutory obligations imposed by central government with no provision for the electorate to vote the proposed changes up or down in a referendum and culminating in the comprehensive hollowing-out of New Zealand’s democratic principles and practices.

Doesn’t all this have a rather familiar ring? Haven’t New Zealanders heard such proposals before? In another report? What was its name? Ah, yes, that’s right: He Puapua. Older New Zealanders will also recognise in the panel’s “review” of local government strong echoes of the political style perfected by the fourth Labour government as it set about changing the character of New Zealand’s economy and society. That, too, was a quiet, top-down revolution. Indeed, it was during the imposition of the unheralded and unmandated transformations dubbed Rogernomics that New Zealanders first learned to fear the release of specially commissioned government reports. Picot anyone? Gibbs?

Ironically, it was that fervent neoliberal David Farrar, speaking for the Taxpayers’ Union, who best summed up the dismay of the millions of voters as yet unpersuaded by the panel’s transformational proposals: “Just like with the He Puapua report, the government is saying that the panel’s draft recommendations are ‘not necessarily government policy’. We’ve seen this trick before and we all know it’s code for ‘not yet government policy’.” ■

Chris Trotter has been a political writer and commentator for more than 30 years. He is the author of the Bowalley Road blog site ■

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