ACT's romp among the sand dunes

The problem with lines in the sand is wind. The lines blow away. But politicians famously bend in the breeze. They can just redraw new lines.

John Key has been drawing lines in the sand on concessions to the Maori party and to iwi. He will not vest Urewera National Park in Tuhoe, no matter how the long the transition. He will not open up the foreshore to a full Treaty of Waitangi re-examination and privatised bits will not be part of the public domain. He put (initially) disabling qualifications on Pita Sharples’ signature on the indigenous rights declaration. Whanau ora gets limited funding for now.

The Maori party is both getting what it asked for and not getting it — getting the totems but only part of the substance. Will it and iwi at some point draw their own lines in the sand?

Contrast ACT.

Rodney Hide will not get much of what his 2025 commission recommends. He will not get a legislated cap on state spending. He will not get his Regulatory Responsibility Bill taskforce’s revolutionary enshrining of property rights and fixed lawmaking principles. He will not get swingeing cuts in local body rates.

But he did get Bill English to sign up to a tough set of instructions to ministers and officials last August raising the bar new legislation and regulation must clear and testing of existing law against those standards.

The first big result of that retesting is ACT deputy leader Heather Roy’s massive rewrite of consumer law, now out for discussion. This fits into the single economic market alignment with Australian consumer law that has been in train for some years but ACT’s regulatory ambitions have added oomph. Importantly, Roy’s aim is for principles-based, as distinct from prescriptive, law.

Hide is extracting from National ministers who would not have done it unprompted a new law that goes partway down his Regulatory Responsibility Bill taskforce path by requiring a government to state its lawmaking principles and state when it is departing from those principles and why. The model is the Public Finance Act’s prudential principles framework for budget-making.

Equally important is Hide’s large and far-reaching bill changing the law governing local government.

Hide campaigned on stopping rate rises running faster than inflation and requiring councils to stick to “core” activities. He implied councils had been spending up grandiosely on fripperies.

So his bill, approved by the cabinet, aims to force local authorities to stay within a “defined fiscal envelope”, focus on “core” activities and be clear, transparent and accountable in their decisions.

The core activities councils must “consider” are network infrastructure (notably roads), public transport, waste, natural hazards and “libraries, museums, reserves, recreational facilities and other community infrastructure”. Central government officials are to set performance measures for water, sewerage, stormwater, flood protection and roads (and charge councils for doing that).

The bill requires councils to spell out in their long-term plans future capital spending and services (with performance targets). They are to produce a financial strategy and “funding impact statements”, both prospective, as now, and retrospective in the annual report, and their sources of funding, internal borrowing and reserve funds. There are to be periodic statements of risk and return on investments (a prescriptive approach) in addition to the present requirement to follow sound business practice (a principles approach). And there is to be special consultation every three years on any policy on development or financial contributions.

It requires chief executives to issue a pre-election statement (next election time), including the previous term’s balance sheets and costings of major projects planned for the next three years, “to promote discussion of the issues”.

It eases restrictions on private delivery of water services.

Will Hide get all this?

Councils insist rate rises have been driven by cost increases outside their control or by unfunded government requirements and cite independent economic analysis and the 2007 Independent Inquiry into Rates. Though some parts of the bill reduce costs (for example, some changes in consultation and expected outcomes), others will increase costs. Performance measures and the “core” focus may force higher spending on those items. Requiring chief executives to write the pre-election statements risks embroiling them in politics.

Some of councils’ critique goes close to ACT’s bone: the bill does not meet its “plain English” criterion (clear, transparent); there is “no real mechanism for holding rates increases”.

Thus, as with the super-Auckland law, it is likely National moderates like associate minister John Carter will moderate Hide’s bill. There are lines in the sand between ACT’s ideology and National’s “what works”.

For all that, Hide’s romp in the sand dunes has gone quite a way — enough to turn the Maori party green.