By Paula Southgate, mayor, Hamilton.
I doubt many people would have left the 2021 LGNZ conference feeling entirely comfortable. I didn’t.
Most people find change unsettling at best and disturbing at worst. Very few people embrace change whole-heartedly. This was very much the case for our local government family this year.
It was a conference like none other I have been to during my 20-year political career. Fundamental change was front and centre; at times it was positively confronting.
Reform in its many forms was centre-stage: RMA reform, three waters reform, local government reform.
This clearly was not ‘business as usual’. Nor was it the usual feast of best practice story-telling, idea-sharing and inspiration.
I, like many colleagues, have some reservations about aspects of the reform programmes. But I was delighted to see these things up for discussion in our own ‘place’ where all members’ views are welcome and where conversation and debate could occur.
In my view, we have danced around the edges of change within our sector ever since I’ve been in politics. There are areas where we can, and should, do better but, for many reasons, we have focused on small-scale changes and concerned ourselves with the risks rather than the opportunities change represents.
If we are honest, we have all seen good ideas and good initiatives lost through the lack of a vote. As a sector we have often struggled with legislation and funding. We cannot endlessly go back to ratepayers, asking for more.
But, when it comes to issues of national importance, the days when change can be dismissed by a small majority, surely have gone. We are now at the pointy end of the current Government’s ambitious change agenda. It’s time to think wider, be bold and be courageous.
I myself have engaged in discussions about water reform since 2004. In 2014, as a member of the Policy Advisory Group, I contributed to the development of a discussion document for the sector, and had numerous conversations with government.
It is not accurate for any elected member to say current proposals have dropped out of nowhere. The issue of water reform spans two governments.
At the conference some people welcomed the water reforms proposed and some did not. I hope no-one walked away thinking doing nothing is an option. It is not. The way I see it, we either stay in the conversation and try to influence the outcome, or we risk being having reform ‘done’ to us and our communities.
Given the strong economic case for change, it would come as no surprise to me to see Government drive change through legislation. That would be unfortunate. We need to take our communities with us as that is who we are charged with representing.
Given the scope and speed of the changes discussed at conference, I’m not surprised some colleagues were uncomfortable. Many have taken that sense of discomfort back to their communities, and we are now seeing that in some of the public comment emerging.
As always in these days of unfettered social media, much of that commentary is ill-informed. Given the level of information required, I look forward to seeing the Government step in and step up to help our sector explain the changes ahead. And by that, I don’t mean more simplistic TV ads.
It was good to see Minister Mahuta as well as Deputy Prime Minister Robinson and Prime Minister Ardern at our conference to front the proposals they have put to us. Many of us looked forward, finally, to getting a level of detail we have been asking about, for some time.
While some of our questions were answered, the conference generated many more questions, both formally and over informal, catch-up conversations.
The strength of our sector is in those robust discussions. There is potency in collective knowledge and collective experience and we should utilise that on behalf of our communities.
The conference also exposed some stark differences between us, and it was those differences that I have reflected on since returning to Hamilton.
There have always been differences between rural, provincial and metro councils. The pressure on housing, transport and community facilities differs widely. I acknowledge that in smaller centres, elected members are very close to the coal-face, often known personally.
But at the conference, when it came to water reform, the divide between urban and rural was the most pronounced I have ever seen.
This concerns me. It is hard to discuss issues of clear national interest when the focus continues to sit at a local level – whether local means big city, or small district. The economics of water reform are predicated on an ‘all-in’ basis and right now, it is clear some councils are far from that.
Being the Mayor of a metro council that agrees some form of reform is necessary, I felt at times like a square peg in a round hole in Blenheim. I have been frank and open in my views about water reform for some time and I make no apology for that. I personally accept the economic case for reform is strong.
That is not to say – I don’t have some concerns – I do. But my focus now is on working to ensure the community I represent gets the best possible outcome.
At the conference and since, some colleagues have tapped me on the shoulder to remind me that in supporting water reform, I may be doing myself no favours. Some suggest I’m putting my job at risk.
Let me be clear; that is not a consideration for me.
President Woodrow Wilson said; “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.”
I know I’ve made some colleagues uncomfortable. But I have also received support from others from outside our sector who know that the decisions we make now will positively impact on New Zealanders for generations to come.
I believe that if I can see a way to save ratepayer costs, keep drinking water safe, protect the quality of our waterways … if we can enable new homes and business through timely and affordable provision of water infrastructure, I should explore that with an open mind.
The LGNZ conference this year was timely. RMA reform and local government reform are equally challenging and are also just around the corner.
We have years of change ahead.
The discussions I had in Blenheim, and since, have caused me to reflect on what being an elected representative is all about. It’s not about what I am comfortable with. It is more what I am uncomfortable with. It is about what is best for our local communities and for New Zealand overall.
Change is not always easy. But it is easier when a positive outcome is what we remain focused on.