The local option for long-life government

Jim Soorley is a Marist priest turned businessman turned Labor Lord Mayor of Brisbane. He says in a globalised world nations are the past and cities are the future.

Mr Soorley was a star turn at the local government conference in Christchurch on Monday.

Now in his fourth term, Mr Soorley insists that it is the clean-green and socially cohesive cities (or localities) that will attract business in future. His administration has invested heavily in making Brisbane such a place.

He could hardly have delivered his message in a more appropriate town. Garry Moore’s Christchurch is also putting resources into environmental development and social cohesion.

And he could hardly have been better attuned to the dominant messages of Helen Clark’s government.

“Closing the gaps” is her “flagship” programme. And she says first world countries are clean and green: two weeks ago she delayed her cabinet meeting to speak at a conference of the Business Council for Sustainable Development.

And with those two messages she obliquely underlines Mr Soorley’s “localities as future” message. Ministers and backbenchers were at this conference in numbers never seen before. Ms Clark herself broke her holiday – and she usually holds holidays sacrosanct.

Why? She sees power as more diffused in the globalised age and central government as strengthened by a “partnership” in which local councils take “ownership” of both problems and solutions in their communities, with the central government acting as a facilitator and enabler.

Within her first 100 days she rounded up six other ministers for a summit with local government bosses. Mark Gosche has had four meetings with Local Government New Zealand, local councils’ lobby, on transport issues. Recently, Ms Clark fronted ministers up to Auckland mayors. An additional $1 million, a 50 per cent rise, has been allocated for officials’ advice on local government.

Steve Maharey, just back from talks with northern hemisphere “third way” luminaries, is trying to establish a new “framework” for conduct of relationships with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in welfare, disability, environment, international aid and sport.

This is intended to take more notice of NGOs’ ideas and employ their energies in the service of social goals by funding them to pursue broadly determined “outcomes” instead of, as now, to perform tightly defined tasks according to “fine-grained” contracts.

Add in, as Ms Clark does, partnership with Maori organisations to “close the gaps” and her hoped-for partnership with “pragmatic” business and you have a wide spread of policy linked to the partnership notion.

How genuine is she? At the local government conference one grizzled rightwing local grandee of national prominence muttered to me that “partnership” was fairyland talk.

In that context note Ms Clark’s controlling prime ministerial style, her revocation of teachers’ bulk funding and absorption of the Health Funding Authority into the department – both major re-centralisations – and doubts among some of her ministers about giving too much rein to “Tory” councils (user-charges, for example, are in the gun).

That suggests a government that will be a “partner” in what it wants to do and wants others to do, not a reciprocal relationship.

The test will come in whether Ms Clark can also embrace the principle of subsidiarity, that is, decisions and actions taken at the lowest practicable level of government – in effect, power-sharing. Her plan to given local councils a “power of general competence” is potentially consistent with the subsidiarity notion, depending how it is defined.

Power-sharing is risky but might offer a glittering prize.

Modern social democrats recognise that state-centred, one-size-fits-all social democracy no longer works in an age of globalisation and consumer pickiness. Partnership and localness offer an enticing alternative: such deep and rich links into society that a government embeds itself in office.