Saturday’s big deal is not who will get to be mayors and councillors. It is the possible cascade into a wider reorganisation which Auckland’s remake might trigger.
Put together the big Auckland region, a rival collective of main-city mayors, the Environmental Protection Authority, the mooted “national land and water commission”, growing collaboration among councils and Rodney Hide’s first-principles review next year. You have the makings of a potential local government reorganisation to match that of 1989 when the number of subnational government bodies fell from more than 600 to 88, now 85.
Does it matter? Even including Auckland, councils have, Local Government New Zealand says, accounted for 3.1 per cent of GDP constantly for 20 years — hardly “out of control”, as Hide claims.
Central government spending accounts this fiscal year for 35 per cent in the May budget projections. In super-Auckland the government will spend $18 billion this year and the council just $3 billion.
This says that, however much super-Auckland is critical to getting New Zealand on the world map by making itself into Hide’s and John Key’s world-class internationally competitive city, it is still small beer.
Yet this city, awkward product of the royal commission, Hide’s prejudice and John Carter’s calming compromises, is about to elect what Hide reckons to be the country’s second most powerful politician. (Where exactly does Hide rank now? Has the David Garrett affair killed his Auckland chances in 2014?)
Auckland’s one-third of the total population gives it pre-eminence over other cities and regions.
So it is logical that the mayors of Wellington, Christchurch, Hamilton and Tauranga have been conferring over joint actions and that some local politicians have begun pushing for their own super-regions.
Not least, other local politicians will envy the attention the Beehive will pay to Auckland. There is a cabinet committee dedicated to Auckland. There is a “group” of departmental chief executives. There has for some years been a sort of central government embassy in Auckland, now called the Auckland Policy Office, staffed mainly by the Ministry of Economic Development.
So Auckland will get special attention. It will need it if it is to fulfil Hide’s and Key’s dream.
That is in part because Auckland may not even get the single voice that was the administrative reason for Parliament forcing change upon it. The mayor is to have a staff who will second-guess the chief executive’s administration. Lobby groups will have to pitch to both. They will also have to pitch to the 20 councillors who may not go along with the mayor. There are 21 local boards with a reach and influence that may take some years to define. And most of the services people expect from councils will be delivered by large companies, council-controlled organisations (CCOs).
Don’t expect this to be sorted in one term. Auckland’s internal politics will be complicated. So will its relationship with the central government. And that relationship will be complicated by the need for the Beehive not to have it thought that Auckland is getting too big a suck of the sav.
But that’s not all. Nick Smith’s EPA will start on high-level matters: policies, standards and big projects. But there is a fair possibility its interventions will expand to the point that it will become sensible or logical to transfer some or many of regional councils’ environmental functions to the EPA.
And if Smith implements the Land and Water Forum’s recommended land water commission on a Crown-iwi co-governance basis, that, too, might over time constrict regional councils’ freedom of action.
Why, then, keep them, especially if by 2016 or 2019 there are two or three other super-regions? Easier to turn the remaining city and district councils into unitary authorities, which is what Auckland and four other councils are and new super-regions would be.
Then watch the attempt by the smaller councils to pool resources to counterbalance Auckland and the super-regions.
Next, note what is going on in Britain. On October 20 departments are supposed to announce their plans for cutting an average of 25 per cent of their activities so the huge budget deficit can be reined back. The Liberal Democrats in the coalition have rationalised their part in this by painting it as decentralisation — that is, as the central government does less, local government does more.
New Zealand is even more centralised than Britain. Might Bill English’s milder version of what British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne (whom English is meeting this week) is doing lead both to space for local councils to do more and a need perceived by citizens? Might local government be headed back towards the 5 1/2 per cent of GDP it accounted for 30 years ago?
Did Hide bank on all this when he whizzed out his response to the royal commission? Hide, like the rest of us, has been and is on a steep learning curve. Hang on tight.