Partnership: Labour’s new watchword

Fresh from her venture to Sydney this week, Helen Clark will journey into the interior next Tuesday. She is on the hunt for local partners to build the economy and rebuild social services.

Keeping yet another pre-election promise, Ms Clark will co-chair the first partnership-seeking central/local government forum with Local Government New Zealand president Louise Rosson.

Partnership is becoming a byword of this government. In the old days Labour governments (most National governments, too) assumed they knew best and used a powerful centralised bureaucracy to command compliance from lesser beings and bodies. International economic constraints, a diversifying society and a welfare state struggling for credibility with an insatiably consuming public have driven national governments to seek out wisdom wherever it lies and work with that.

This notion of partnership is also at the heart of Ms Clark’s well-foreshadowed but nonetheless breathtaking initiative on Monday to force departments to work out how they can contribute to “closing the gaps” between Maori and the rest – and, in doing that, work with Maori groups which will be “direct-resourced” (bulk-funded) to deliver some social services.

High on the agenda on Tuesday will be something vaguely similar: a power of general competence for local councils. But what this means depends on where you are coming from.

It is perhaps not an accident that the format that was shaping up early this week for the forum has a passing resemblance to a treaty negotiation: seven ministers and three officials from Ms Clark’s office and department on one side and a corresponding delegation on the other. These people are talking about some sharing or transfer of governance. It is potentially big stuff.

Councils don’t want to be handmaidens to a central government that in the past has delegated responsibilities and duties but not devolved power or adequate funding mechanisms.

They are partial to a Tony Blair formula of general competence: a legal obligation to promote the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of their communities.

Ms Clark leans to a permissive rather than a mandated arrangement – along the lines of a draft bill devised by Sir Geoffrey Palmer for the Auckland City Council. This essentially would replace the present massive law dictating what councils may do and not do with a power to do whatever they are not expressly forbidden to do.

Ms Clark wants, naturally, to walk before trying to run. Given that the two partners are going to be emulating three-legged racers, starting slowly is an imperative if they are to stay in step.

It is going to take some talking to identify the priority issues where joint action is relevant or required. Each side comes with a different priority list, though some, such as funding options, roads funding and management, transport, water and waste management, pretty much select themselves.

Ms Clark talks of identifying local councils’ strategies and proposals and establishing how (and if) central government could partner councils in those proposals. She also sees local councils as advocates for their communities on issues ranging from economic development to social services (and don’t forget the arts).

From the local side, there is an additional priority: updating the polls and elections law in time for next year’s elections. Local councils also want a commitment, which Ms Clark will agree to, that departmental chief executives will be instructed to work with them. Ms Clark does not share the contempt many central bureaucrats have for the quality of local council staff.

She will also be asked to hold the forums twice a year instead of annually as in Labour’s manifesto, to keep up momentum. Local government wants the process embedded enough to survive a change of central government. This is its big chance.

For all that, however, next Tuesday’s forum is likely to be less an action-planning exercise than, as Ms Rosson terms it, “beginning a formal dialogue”. We might call it the beginning of a sort of courtship between an unevenly matched couple, each feeling their oats. Among the many tests Ms Clark has set herself, this will be among the most acute.