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The PSA’s watch-list

Stand together - Local Government Perspectives 2017

Water management and control, equal pay and the policy priorities put forward in the central government elections are on the PSA’s watch-list for 2017.

Glenn Barclay, National Secretary, PSA

The Public Service Association (PSA) – like the public service it represents – owes its strength to its people. Research we’ve commissioned proves it time and time again: members of the public may not see the value of “faceless bureaucrats” but when they’re reminded of the work our members do every day, they become more enthusiastic. They recognise the people who provide the core services they rely on, who work hard to make their communities great places to live. They see not only the jobs those people do, but who they are.

Local body elections

Last year’s local government elections were an opportunity to promote and profile the vital public service work that our members do in councils up and down the country. The PSA’s campaign – Stand Together for Stronger Public and Community Services – championed the work of our local government heroes: museum staff, swimming coaches, administration and clerical workers, librarians… the list goes on.

We were particularly proud that a number of PSA members stood as candidates in the local government elections. These members are all dedicated public servants who are actively committed to building strong and dynamic local communities and we thank them for their courage and commitment to democratic participation.

Special mention needs to be made of our members who were successful in their election candidacies. Mike Tana, president of the PSA from 2012 to 2016 was elected as mayor of Porirua; Richard Hill was elected to the Auckland Council; Angela McLeod to the Upper Hutt City Council; Christine O’Brien to the Mangere / Otahuhu Local Board; and Jake McLellan to the Linwood-Central-Heathcote Community Board.

Another cause for celebration was the election of a number of councillors and mayors around the country who support the payment of the Living Wage to council staff and contractors. This includes the mayors of our two largest cities – Phil Goff in Auckland and Justin Lester in Wellington. The PSA is part of the coalition of unions, community organisations and churches that is campaigning for the Living Wage and we are now hopeful that we will see more councils sign up to paying their workers a fair wage.

In September the Wellington Regional Council became the first regional council to agree to pay its workers the Living Wage as a minimum. This was a courageous and principled decision, led by councillor Sue Kedgley, that will make a significant improvement to the lives of some of our lowest paid public servants.

Local government legislative reform

The PSA joined with the majority of submitters to oppose many of the amendments to local government legislation proposed by the government in its Local Government Act 2002 Amendment Bill (No 2). We are particularly concerned about the provisions that would enable the Local Government Commission to force councils to establish council-controlled organisations (CCOs) to manage essential services.

Overall, the government’s proposals represent a very worrying erosion of the constitutional separation of powers between local and central government, and a weakening of local democracy. The PSA favours democratic control and ownership of public services and infrastructure: we have seen too many essential services fail when they become governed by corporate rather than public service imperatives.

We are glad that the passage of the bill has been delayed and we hope that the government heeds the voices of the many individuals and organisations that opposed the legislation.

Local democracy is a cornerstone value for the PSA: vibrant communities are underpinned by strong democratic institutions that aim to support and maximise citizen participation in local decisions. For this reason we will be supporting the private member’s bill of Labour MP Megan Woods, which calls for the reinstatement of a fully-elected Environment Canterbury. The bill was drawn out of the ballot in October and will either have had its first reading by the end of 2016, or sometime early in 2017.

2017: water, equal pay and elections

The battle for the control and management of water is at the heart of the government’s anti-democratic moves on Environment Canterbury and we think it will be a critical issue in 2017 and beyond. As we saw in Ashburton earlier last year, feelings run high when it comes to water; it’s a vital resource that needs to be managed to meet all of our interests now and into the future.

This is no easy task, but one that we think will be best achieved through a genuinely democratic and ground-up approach, rather than through the top-heavy approach taken by the government with Environment Canterbury.

Ultimately, the quality of our waterways has to be improved, and long-term sustainability has to trump over short-term profit. The PSA believes that decisions about water use and management must be based on the principle that water is not just an economic commodity: it is a social, environmental and cultural good; a necessity of life.

We need to look at water management through this lens – rather than through the narrow lens of business development. The latter approach has seen some members of our community accrue enormous benefit from the use of water to the detriment of our waterways and surrounding ecosystems. Future decisions about the control, use and management of water will result in more equitable and sustainable outcomes for us all.

Closing the gender pay gap by 2024 is one of the PSA’s four strategic goals, and we’ll be aiming to take some big steps towards this goal in 2017. As I write this the government has just agreed to the principles for equal pay as agreed by the joint union, employer and Crown working groups. This will make a significant difference to the incomes of many women and their families and is a great victory for low paid workers and 
their unions.

The PSA is examining the case for equal pay claims in a number of occupational areas, including library assistants in the local government sector. Library assistants are predominantly female and across the country they are some of the lowest paid council employees.

The PSA is currently consulting with members on their policy priorities for the 2017 general election. Our members have indicated that housing, wages, health, equality and public services are the issues of greatest concern to them. We will be developing policy asks to take to all political parties contesting this year’s general election and will be actively campaigning on a number of priority policies.

In the local government area we would like to see the re-instatement of the four wellbeings – social, economic, cultural and environmental – into the Local Government Act 2002. We’ll also be arguing for central government to boost its investment in social housing and to work alongside local government, community organisations, iwi and other Maori organisations to ensure that people’s housing needs are met.

Central and local government organisations must work collaboratively to ensure that future housing provision is developed in concert with other vital civic infrastructure, including transport networks.

Tight budgets and an understandable reluctance to increase rating demands on people who are already struggling with the cost of living can place pressure on councils to privatise, corporatise or contract out assets and services. While these measures may ease short-term fiscal pain, they are ultimately harmful to the democratic and economic health of our communities.

The ongoing tensions between Auckland Council and the Ports of Auckland, for instance, demonstrate how communities can lose democratic control over the future direction of key infrastructure when councils hand over control to entities whose primary motivation is business success.

At the other end of the country concerns expressed by whistle-blower Richard Healy about Delta’s alleged lacklustre approach to power pole maintenance in Dunedin and Central Otago has raised questions about the priorities of CCOs.

With government ministers actively encouraging privatisation of local government assets and services, this pressure is likely to continue in 2017. The PSA supports those voices arguing for changes to local government funding arrangements so that councils don’t find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place.

This year will be an interesting time for local government. The PSA will keep a close eye on the local government election platforms of all the major parties, and will argue for policies that reflect our own vision for local government: public ownership; local democracy and vibrant communities; and fair pay and conditions for local government employees.

This article was first published in Local Government Perspectives 2017.

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