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We are what we think we are

Written by Peter McKinlay on July 24th, 2012.      0 comments

In countries such as England, Australia and New Zealand, there seems to be something almost irresistible about the temptation for higher tiers of government to keep changing not just the rules of the game, but the players as well.

It could be read just as bureaucrats and ministers wanting to tinker with whatever is in their portfolios.  Or perhaps it’s something more fundamental at work?

Perhaps the real issue is not so much higher tiers of government, as how people in local government themselves think about their place in the universe.

What really started me thinking is an issues paper which the Greater Wellington Council has just published as part of a review of options for the future of local government in the Wellington region (http://www.wellingtonreviewpanel.org.nz/DownloadFile/Review-Panel-Website/Resources/Wellington-Region-Local-Government-Review-Panel---Issues-Paper).

In considering the constitutional place of local government (the review group is chaired by a constitutional lawyer and former Prime Minister) the issues paper concludes:

But it is incontestable as matters now stand that in constitutional terms local government in New Zealand depends upon the policies and expectations of central government.

It's part of a wider belief, in much of local government, that councils are "creatures of statute" and thus subject to the whim of the governments which enact the statutes. I've always found this slightly puzzling. The major corporations which dominate our private sectors are also "creatures of statute" in the sense that they owe their existence to legislation. We don't however read of the captains of industry saying that they depend upon the policies and expectations of central government - indeed, to many observers reflecting on the global financial crisis, it's almost the other way round.

Is the real problem that people in local government, including elected members, think of themselves as part of a subsidiary form of public sector body, rather than as the community's leaders. Why, when governments set out to reform local government on the usual and often populist grounds of inefficiency, poor performance, etc, isn't there a strong up welling of resistance?

Maybe what we are really witnessing is not so much the dependent constitutional position of local government, as the result of a lack of strong public support for the role of local government, because local government doesn’t see itself as the communities’ leaders.

But if this is the case, then rather than worrying about the constitutional position of local government, should we really start focusing on how to reconnect local government with its communities so that they in turn genuinely value it as a mainstay of local democracy – one they are prepared to defend?



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