The Tension between central and local government carries on

One hundred and forty years ago, in 1876, New Zealand abolished provincial government. From 1852, New Zealand had been governed through six Provincial Councils, similar to the Australian states of today, with the central government in Wellington having a much lesser role. However, while provincial government was abolished all those years ago in favour of a single national government, the inherent tensions between the provinces and the centre have never really been resolved.

Every now and then, they erupt into something stronger, usually associated with attempts by central government to “reform” local government in some way or another. At such times, the hostility and frustration each feels towards the other becomes that much more obvious. For example, a none too subtle subplot of the recent debate about the Auckland Unitary Plan has been a barely disguised central government view that the rigidity of the Auckland Council is a primary reason for the current housing situation, matched in return by an equally staunch view in Auckland that the problem rests with central government and its unwillingness to empower Auckland to deal with it.

Similarly, the currently rapidly erupting debate about central government plans to enable more shared services approaches to local service provision has local government seething that yet again central government is attempting to impose amalgamation by stealth on hitherto unwilling and unsuspecting local communities. For its part, central government sees huge potential efficiency gains in the delivery of local services being thwarted by the entrenched parochialism of local government unwilling to change. And so it goes on.

Worse, every government that takes office has local government reform high on its agenda. That reform is usually to undo the reforms of its predecessor, so local government is left caught in the constant tussle between those who seek to devolve more duties to them, and those who want to curb their activities to cut rates. So it was that the previous Labour-led Government introduced a power of general competence for local government, only to see that wound back by the current government, before it had really got off the ground.

This constant political tug-of-war has been the pattern since 1876, although there were signs of it from the outset of responsible government in 1852. It is as debilitating as it is petty, and its continuation is in no-one’s interests. It arises because from 1876 onwards, while there have been many reviews and Royal Commissions on the shape and form of local government, there has been no serious political attempt to define the relative roles of central and local government, or to establish any sustainable philosophical basis for that relationship. In the absence of that, nothing seems likely to change in the foreseeable future.

UnitedFuture is a strong believer in the liberal democratic principle of localism – which coincidentally underpinned the establishment of provincial government in 1852 and was tossed aside by its abolition in 1876 – whereby decisions are made at the point closest to where they have their impact. That is why we support strong and vibrant representative local government based on a network of community boards, territorial and district authorities, and regional councils. In turn, we see the need for a formal partnership agreement between central and local government, spelling out the roles and legitimate expectations and responsibilities of both, and a mechanism for resolving differences when they occur.

New Zealanders are understandably proud of our generally pragmatic approach, and the fact that rather than ruminate to the point of tedium over an issue, we just get on and resolve it. That is good and to be encouraged, although it does have the downside that sometimes our decision-making processes lack coherence and consistency as a consequence. This is especially so when it comes to our constitutional arrangements where their fluidity often means the process of government has a “look, no hands” feel to it. Moreover, our general national reluctance to confront conflict in any shape or form means we are past masters at avoiding problems if we possibly can, in the hope that a problem ignored is a problem diminished. All of these features have characterised the tension between central and local governments over the last 140 years.

Continuing to pretend that this tension “goes with the territory” is no longer acceptable. Both central and local government have significant but distinct impacts on people’s lives, so both need to be prepared to come to the table as equals, to agree their way forward. After 140 years, that discussion is long overdue.

Hon Peter Dunne, UnitedFuture New Zealand.

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