What's local and what's central? Time for a rethink

The celebrity royals delivered a celebrity baby last week to joyous celebration. Well, we do have our most royalist Prime Minister in 60 years — even if for a lot longer than that our governing modus operandi has been pragmatically republican in all but form.

The new heir might be a while taking up his inheritance. The Windsors’ long-living habit could hold George VII off till the 2080s. John Key will be long gone (off to republican United States?) and so, quite possibly, will the monarchy be gone from our constitution — though not from our celebrity media, if Britain keeps the Windsors on.

The monarchy is little more than a quaint formality even now. The Governor-General acts increasingly as a genuine head of state, presidential at home and representing the nation abroad. A logical next step would be to elect the Governor-General by plebiscite.

The royals’ sentimental pull may partly be because, Maori tikanga apart, there is not much ceremony in this pragmatic republic. To the extent that there is an upper class these days, it is constituted mostly by the baby-boomers, who were the first to get tertiary education in large numbers in the 1960s, and their privileged progeny.

There are much bigger and more pressing constitutional matters than abolishing the monarchy. That has been demonstrated over the past 30 years in the big changes wrought by the Treaty of Waitangi, electoral reorganisation, the Official Information Act, the Bill of Rights and the state sector reforms, another of which passed through Parliament last month changing how departments and agencies are organised and do business and enabling more flexibility in allocating funds across portfolio boundaries.

To that constitutional list has been added Key’s major extension to spying, endorsed by Peter Dunne just before this column closed off last week, too late to judge how far Dunne had bent his liberal principles. Expect a revision on a change of government. Liberty is — or was — a constitutional cornerstone.

There are other pressing constitutional issues. One is the division of powers and responsibilities between central and local government.

This has been brought to a head by ministers’ treatment of local government as either a nuisance or an agent. The Productivity Commission’s April report found shortcomings in councils but also in ministers’ and officials’ treatment of them, which Local Government Minister Chris Tremain partly acknowledged at the Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) conference last week. Opposition MPs promised change.

This year’s conference went on the front foot to assert councils’ use to citizens and to improve governance and inter-council cooperation, a contrast with last year’s embattled, powerless resentment. It backed a referendum on enshrining councils in the Constitution Act instead of dangling off Parliament.

LGNZ president Lawrence Yule pushed a royal commission. That was how super-Auckland came about: a royal commission, set up by one government and acted on by the next. Some think the same could be done by a third term National-led/first term Labour-led government to sort out the relationship.

Australians have a referendum at their election soon on whether to embed local government in their constitution and thus ensure the federal government can directly fund local authorities instead of going through often obstructive state governments and parliaments.

The drivers here are much broader: the creation of a supercity with far more clout than all other councils; transfer of some powers to the Environmental Protection Authority; major changes to resource management and local body law, including spending limits, more powers to mayors to take on their officials and the intrusive Housing Accords Bill; commissioners in Canterbury, a manager in Christchurch and easier intervention elsewhere.

But councillors are elected. They claim — and in theory have — mandated powers to represent their publics, even when their publics buck cabinet wishes. They resent the legislation that stripped their “power of general competence” under the 2002 act to look after their publics’ social, economic, environmental and cultural wellbeing.

So what? Ministers are big wheels and councillors small cogs. Local election turnouts are low. Ministers say the national interest must prevail over local whims and councils’ bureaucratic “zealots”, as one senior minister calls them.

Except, now, in Auckland. Ministers suddenly recognised last month that they can’t trample the supercity without risking votes. They reversed their opposition to its transport plan. If Wellington and Canterbury turn supercity, they may develop similar leverage.

That, however, leaves out smaller councils. LGNZ argues that more formal protection is needed if the word “government” is to have meaning after “local”.

But there is a catch. To get a referendum or new legislation requires Parliament to act. That’s the constitution. Parliament is king.