Nearly two decades of conducting research on the government of Auckland has made me increasingly disenchanted with the way central government continues to screw over Auckland. I’m not alone: it is a frustration shared among a number of ratepayers. The disaffection with central government runs so deep that some individuals and groups have been discussing the possibility of forming an Auckland party that might contest the next local body elections with a platform aimed at addressing the key issues affecting the region today.
The 2016 local government elections gave the National Party the opportunity to advance a policy platform under the banner of Auckland Future. Sponsored by the party faithful with two Ministers actively engaged in promoting a Wellington agenda it failed to unite the current group of right wing Councillors let alone elect aspiring Councillors to form a National Party majority on the governing body. It was an austerity platform that advocated capping any increases in rates despite the reality of an ever-increasing deficit that has been incurred by the regions infrastructure and utilities. It offered no vision or hope for the region and it failed to address the fundamental problems that have plagued Auckland for several decades. While the creation of the super-city was designed to sort out the ‘governance of the region’ it has fundamentally failed to resolve the problematic relationship between local and central government.
So what are the issues confronting the Auckland Council today? First, Auckland has the most poorly represented structure for regional governance in Australasia. Not only do councillors fail to represent the different cultural and social groups that make up greater Auckland, but the small group of representatives we have elected are expected to serve nearly twice as many people as any other local authority in the country and four times as many as local bodies in South Australia. There are not enough councillors to serve the current population let alone the projected population over the next 20 years. Local boards lack the authority and resources to deal with the neighbourhoods they represent and the various panels that have been set up to address population diversity are effectively outside the governing body of council.
The primary reason for setting up the Royal Commission and establishing the super-city was aimed at addressing governance in the region by providing a coherent planning structure capable of producing an integrated plan without the silos and competing priorities of the previous local authorities. Wellington wanted one voice for Auckland – well they got that, but in the process the city silos have been replaced by commercial silos in the form of CCOs such as Auckland Transport, the Ports of Auckland, Watercare and ATEED. Although the development of CCOs brought in commercial expertise, critical decisions on transport, water, the port, economic development and infrastructure in general require public scrutiny by the elected representatives of the region on behalf of the citizenry. Separate legislation for CCOs, such as that provided for Auckland Transport, undermines the governing capacity of council. Moreover, as we have discovered over the past six years, appointed boards are no substitute for the transparency imposed on elected representatives – they are accountable for the decisions they make, the basis on which they cast their votes, as well as those assessments that ultimately determine who benefits?
‘Governance’ was not the most pressing issue facing Auckland when the Royal Commission was established in 2008. It was central government that decided local body integration was the region’s primary concern. While the commission produced a comprehensive report that went beyond the simplistic integration of local and regional government, the Minister of Local Government Rodney Hide imposed his own ACT Party ideology on the council structure. This made what Fran O’Sullivan in the NZ Herald referred to at the time as ‘a pig’s arse’ of the reforms. Since that time the Transition Agency and then the Council itself have made herculean efforts to make the structure work and one can point to obvious achievements such as the Unitary Plan. But the reality is that Auckland faces far more significant problems than the structure of local and regional government. The major problems facing the region stem from the lack of infrastructure investment over several decades in public transport and wastewater management; and in the case of public transport, central government has been a major obstacle. Although the first mayor of the super-city made some progress in advocating for significant funding in public transport, central government has remained a reluctant and boorish partner.
The same can be said for the lack of action from central government in addressing ‘the social deficit’ that has been incurred in the region as a consequence of central government’s failed economic and social policies. These policies have contributed to widening disparities in income and wealth, significant differences between ‘work rich’ and ‘work poor’ households and neighbourhoods increasingly separated between those who can afford access to quality housing and core services such as health and education and those who can’t. In addition to these issues the citizens of Auckland have had to accommodate central government’s gung ho approach to immigration and the shambles that is housing policy today – these issues will continue to infect the citizens of Auckland for decades to come.
Instead of constructive policy options aimed at addressing these fundamental problems, the citizens of Auckland have been plagued by decrees emanating from Wellington that dismiss local proposals, such as the Mayor’s suggestion of a regional transport levy: the levy was dismissed out of hand by the Minister of Finance. Similarly, the increasingly stupid comments of the Prime Minister attributing youth unemployment to drug use and abuse graphically illustrate how out of touch central government has become with the social issues confronting the country’s most populous region. The most disconcerting aspect of these throw away statements from central government is the way in which ministers over-ride the local and regional government of Auckland and in the process blame the Auckland Council and even individual councillors for a wide range of issues from emergency housing to unemployment to the traffic gridlock and the failing infrastructure of the region.
Many citizens have had enough of Ministerial statements shafting Auckland and its local and regional government. The current National government has had eight years to play its part in the constructive governance of Auckland and, as in the recent local body elections, the citizens of Auckland have indicated that it’s not working and it’s time for a change. That doesn’t mean that other political parties will be any more acceptable during the forthcoming general election. If the Labour/Green coalition wants to advance an agenda for Auckland then it needs to ignore fluffy suggestions such as those being proposed by former MPs like Mr. Maharey, who wants to see Labour adopt a Third Way strategy a la Tony Blair. What is wanted instead is a policy agenda that reflects the current realities of living and working in Auckland. That means constructing policies that address the lack of affordable housing, the low wage economy, the crumbling infrastructure and an inadequate public transport system. It goes without saying that the citizens of Auckland expect political parties during this year’s election campaign to explain how they propose addressing the region’s ‘social deficit’ and how they plan to work in partnership with the local and regional government of Auckland.