Local Government Magazine
Elizabeth HughesLocal Democracy

Local government – from sux to skux

The Future for Local Government Initiative is an exciting opportunity that must be grasped not just by the local government sector but by all New Zealanders – making way to change the local government landscape and make it fit-for-purpose for millennials, zeds, alphas and beyond. By Elizabeth Hughes.
The process is set to be an absorbing, interesting and engaging one for anyone who lives and breathes local government and for anyone who really understands and cares about participation in local democratic processes.

And it would be fair to say for everyone else (90 percent of New Zealanders for 95 percent of the time) the significance of the reforms may well pass them by.

It’s been over 30 years since the structural reforms of 1989. In those days the citizens of New Zealand really, really cared about what this meant for them, their communities and the “desecration of our democratic rights”. There was shock, outrage and anger that the Government proposed to reduce the then 850 local bodies to 86 councils, mashing up discrete functions into big bureaucracies, with small boroughs and counties being abolished, and a perception that all local representation would be lost. As I recall, the sky was falling down and it was the end of the world as we knew it (particularly when the new council boundaries didn’t align with the local rugby team catchments).

Back then New Zealand was populated by people who had come back from wars, settled the land, built up businesses, built houses and roads, and got involved with the local RSA, Lions and Plunket groups. Small towns were thriving. These people contributed wholeheartedly to the existence of these myriad local bodies (not just councils); they cared about them and were totally engaged in their decision-making and administration.

Sadly, this level of engagement and involvement in local body affairs is no longer with us as evidenced through ever decreasing voter turnouts, but also by the huge decline in local government’s perceived value and relevance.

Frankly – most people just seem to be fed up and/or can’t be bothered with local government. And nothing local government can do or say – under its current framework and modus operandi – is going to change that.

This can partly be attributed to the reforms of 1989 which did in fact remove the feeling of being locally connected to the decision-makers. But it is also a reflection of the incredibly complex and unwieldy legislative, administrative and structural barriers within New Zealand local government institutions. And, despite significant and ever-increasing investment in really good communication and engagement practice, councils are unable to climb above such barriers and genuinely engage the wider population in positive participatory democracy.

True transformational reform will hopefully address this.

Therefore, even at this very early stage, I suspect the biggest challenge of the Future for Local Government Initiative won’t be in resetting the paradigm, structures and processes of local government. It will be in finding a way to involve ‘ordinary’ New Zealanders in the process and to influence an outcome that transforms local government for them.

My fear is that the ‘same old same old’ institutions, organisations, squeaky wheelers, and ‘sector’ experts will listen to themselves and re-design a new form of local government that may work for them, but that fails to be transformational (absorbing, interesting and engaging) for everyone else.

Giving me hope is the increasing numbers of young people getting involved in the things they do care about: climate change, environmental issues, fairness, equality of opportunity and mental well-being. Imagine if some of this passion could be captured to better influence decisions about their places, spaces and the communities they live in. Also, the inclusion in the reform proposal to seek a local government system that “actively embodies the Treaty partnership” will also bring fresh and necessary perspectives to the table – this alone should bring some transformational change.

To deliver what’s needed, this reform process is going to require a massive commitment to enthusing the widest possible range of hearts and minds – a sustained campaign that invites and facilitates thinking and consideration from as many New Zealanders as possible.

To most people the concept of a “new system of democracy and governance” just sux.

What we need to do is to find a way to make it skux. 

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