By Ewan Tavendale
These days, after the National Party winning the general election last September, when workers still lack the confidence to take militant action, and when there are injustices all around, any successes against the forces of reaction are gratifying. The decision by the Local Government Commission to throw in the towel and drop their Wellington and Northland “super-city” plans is one such welcome triumph. The Commission, however, is pressing on with their Hawkes Bay super-city scheme; all depends now on a poll of Hawkes Bay electors.
The fallout from canning the Wellington super-city has claimed the scalp of one of its main proponents. Fran Wilde, a putative contender for the mayoralty of the super-city, has been rolled from her position as chairperson of the Wellington Regional Council. The rebellious regional councillors supported the super-city themselves until late in the piece, until it became certain which way the wind was blowing.
Wilde’s political career appears to be over. As a Labour MP she once played a progressive role in 1986-87, getting homosexual law reform through Parliament against bitter opposition.
Aside from regional councillors, the strongest support for the super-city came from the Labour- dominated Porirua City Council under the influence of Councillor Ken Douglas and Mayor Nick Leggett. Douglas was once a Communist. As a member of the Socialist Unity Party he stood for Parliament in Porirua in the 1970’s getting miniscule votes. Douglas became a turncoat to his early militancy and went on to become President of the Council of Trade Unions from 1987 to 1999, presiding over the failure by the CTU to fight National’s anti-union legal onslaught and the collapse of union membership. The tamed Douglas became a right-wing Labour politician sitting on Porirua City Council and the boards of State-Owned Enterprises, the New Zealand Trade and Enterprise agency and NZ Rugby.
The centre-left Wellington City Mayor and councillors also failed to oppose the super-city. Whilst they did not back the Commision’s version, they promoted an alternative super-city structure.
Consistent local politician opposition to the super-city plan came only from the Hutt City and the Wairarapa councils. Hutt City mayor Ray Wallace was the most effective campaigner, successfully leading overwhelming Hutt public opinion against the super-city. Back in 1990 Wallace stood unsuccessfully as a National Party member for Parliament, but over the years he has built up support as a councillor and mayor.
The drive to super-cities is profoundly undemocratic and is a government sponsored project. There is a paradox here. It would seem that in the Wellington region the politicians from the left were on the pro-super-city side and the conservative politicians from the Hutt, the rural Wairarapa and the Kapiti coast were anti.
The government pretended disinterest in the Wellington super-city debate because they knew that overt support by the National Party would have been the kiss of death to the project in urban parts of the region and would have alienated their supporters in the rural areas. Nevertheless, it has been the National-led government behind the super-city project all along. They appointed an obviously biased Commission to front the regionalisation crusade for them. Council amalgamations are part and parcel of National’s Better Local Government programme, launched in 2012. The whole programme is designed to weaken local democracy and to tilt the balance over this sector of public spending more in favour of business interests.
In theory we are supposed to be a democratic society, but what ordinary person believes that they are really participating in democratic government? Still, the falseness of the claim that we live under rule by the people is no reason not to resist encroachments on the democratic influence left open to ordinary people.
Laws passed by the National-led government under their Better Local Government programme have chipped away at democracy. They have reduced the scope of what councils can do, centralised powers from councillors to mayors, subtly pressurised councils to trim council jobs and pay, strengthened the hands of developers against paying development contributions, and given central government more powers to step in and take over local councils. We must not forget that Auckland super-city was imposed by legislation. National changed the law to make amalgamations more difficult to stop by instituting a petition hurdle to even get a public vote, and when there is a vote a majority in each council area is not required.
The super-city concept is a destruction of local democracy. It removes the district council layer, leaving only regional government tier. There is a radical diminution of democracy by cutting back the number of local representatives. Under the Wellington super-city plan the number of councillors and mayors was reduced from the current 104 to 22. The wards were generally similar in size to parliamentary electorates. The Lower Hutt ward with a population of over 100,000 was even larger. At this scale local community influence over the elected representatives is diluted. An ordinary local person could not contend these huge wards unless bank-rolled. This system gives the advantage to media favourites and wealth. Super-cities are designed to deliver business-friendly regional government conducive to the privatisation of services and channelling public money into contracts.
The neo-liberal context is all-important to understanding the drive to abolish district level local government. Neo-liberalism is inherently against the social-democratic potential of the councils to deliver public services in response to the wants of local people, so-called “municipal socialism”.
For the time being at least an attack on local democracy had been halted. Public opinion in the region defeated the Wellington super-city. This was expressed in opinion polls, submissions to the Commission (9:1 against) and letters to newspapers. The pro- side had the support of business, editorialists and bourgeois commentators. When it became clear that a poll would reject the super-city the Commission bowed to the inevitable.
The Key government has not achieved one of its aims, but it is not suffering a political defeat. If the Labour Party had taken a principled stand for local democracy the super-city idea would have been stuck firmly to National’s mast. Labour has managed to provide cover for John Key’s scheme and its own local politicians – Fran Wilde, Ken Douglas and their acolytes – are the ones left licking their wounds.