A big bill which merits more mulling over

Where’s this global warming Pete Hodgson goes on about? Those of us shivering in points south want action.

Instead we get glum sermonising reminiscent of 1950s presbyterian preachers, whose joyless mien Pete’s long face and furrowed brow uncannily resemble.

Actually, Pete is not joyless. A twinkle of his ready smile and you know you are not in the company of one of those deeply sad people, the apocalyptic environmentalists.

One-such trudged through last week. Jim Motavalli, an American environmental guru, screened a once-over-lightly Powerpoint list of disasters that are befalling us or soon will. Repent, for the end of the world is nigh.

Thirty years ago such people told us we would be out of oil by now. Instead, we are awash in the stuff. A decade ago they told us we will suffocate in tides of people. Instead world fertility rates are falling and on current projections total population will fall once the current bulge works through.

Oh, for a happy environmentalist! Well, one turned up the week before. Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, where he grows bananas above the snowline, told us we can have our cake and eat it too, many times over. The technology is there right now.

His carbon-fibre hydrogen-powered car is a friend of the planet. His houses are warm in snow and cool in heatwaves and cost-effective. Happiness is not a nightclub cookie. It’s technology plus the environment.

It sounds far too good to be true and maybe is. But Lovins’ route to environmental salvation has logic: presbyterian prohibition seldom works; respect for what people want to do works better.

Which brings me by a roundabout route to Bill English and the Local Government Bill, a tale of a tension between two versions of people power.

First, set aside his two trademark gaffes last week.

Gaffe No 1: On Tuesday he lambasted business for not standing up to the government. On Wednesday he launched his “crusade” against the local bill. Business has banged on loudly about it for a year or more but, a lobbyist grumbled sotto voce, it has not hitherto been able to get National to listen.

Gaffe No 2: He said the bill will add 15 per cent to ratepayers’ bills but couldn’t say whether that was a one-off or compounding rise and told journalists to go and ask Business New Zealand from which he had got the number. Business New Zealand was unamused.

Those aside, English does have a point.

This is one of the government’s biggest bills. It is due to return from select committee on 14 December and whizz through the House in the Christmas scramble.

It is not a major constitutional change, as English claims (as does ACT’s Stephen Franks). But it does potentially start rebalancing government somewhat from the Beehive to the town hall.

Globalisation has constrained central government’s taxing scope. So it has looked for “partnerships”, including with local councils.

The bill in its original form gives councils power to do whatever is not expressly barred in law (though a lot is barred) and instructs them to look after the sustainable, social, economic, environmental and cultural wellbeing of their flocks. And, while it gives councils no new sources of revenue, it softens the 1990s fiscal responsibility law. Business, which is to be disenfranchised, fears councils running amok.

They probably won’t. The bill also imposes byzantine consultation requirements which will dampen ardour (and, even softened somewhat as whispers have it, will boost costs and so rates). And most councils are aware of ratepayer anger.

But look to this government’s navigational lodestar: incremental change. Over time, increment by increment, the change could reach far.

You might see this as more power to the people at a level closer to home, councils serving the people’s wishes and enabling them to do what they want to do. (Shades of Lovins.)

Or you might see it as unleashing grandiose local potentates, elected on minority turnouts by dimly informed voters and served often by prohibitionist officials who attend to minority busybodies. (Shades of Motavalli.)

This is English’s valid point. It is not as dramatic as his destruction of George Hawkins nor as important a positioning as his “one-citizenship” re-pitch to blunt Winston Peters’ appeal on Maori issues last week. But it is important.

His valid point is that driving such a big and contentious bill through a divided House at Christmas when no one is listening is nifty tactics but is also bad lawmaking.