A healthy local government sector is vital for a healthy democracy. It is the tier of government that is closest to people and therefore provides access to decision-making processes at the local level. Much of our environmental and transport planning, for example, is devolved to local government. Underpinning the philosophy of local government in countries such as New Zealand is a belief that many of the decisions of government can and should be taken in different places by people of diverse experience, associations, background and political persuasion. Enabling different communities to take governmental decisions and set priorities for themselves can contribute to a more effective overall system of government which is better able to tackle the difficult issues and decisions we face as a society.
Geographical distance and diversity mean that a one-size-fits-all approach will inevitably lead to poor decisions and outcomes. Local government not only ensures that the diverse needs and aspirations of different groups and communities are taken into account but it provides a vital counterbalance to the power of central government. It also shares the Treaty responsibilities of the Crown and therefore is a key partner of iwi ensuring government delivers on the Treaty principles of partnership, protection and participation.
Yet, local government is often poorly understood at best, and ignored and maligned at worst. The lack of public understanding of local government, combined with a widespread cynicism about political engagement is reflected in the declining voter turnout that has been a concern in both parliamentary and local elections. The table below shows the trends in both local and general elections.
Table 1: Voter turnout in local and general elections
|Local Elections %||General Elections %|
Source: Local Government New Zealand and Electoral Commission websites
Many will say that there are other forms of political participation and that voting is not so important when there are other opportunities to influence political decision-making. However, we do not know whether those people who are not voting are in fact participating in other ways that have an influence on local and central government decision-making. We do know that non-voting is not evenly distributed. This means that those who are elected are not as representative as they should be. Another question that needs to be addressed is: how low could turnout in local (and general) elections go before the legitimacy of those elections is thrown into doubt?
There are many complex factors influencing voter behaviour and political engagement more generally and New Zealand is not alone in experiencing a decline. We need to understand those factors better but we can learn from other democracies that have healthier turnouts and stronger local government. And we can protect and improve what we have.
Local government needs reinvigorating especially given the many changes that have undermined it in recent years. Central government has, on several recent occasions, sought to impose its will on local government and has enhanced its own powers to intervene in local government, in particular, when it considers that local government is not performing satisfactorily.
Significant developments in recent years that have undermined local government include:
- the imposition of a unitary council for the Auckland region without effective Maori representation;
- legislative change to make amalgamation easier in other areas;
- removal of elected representation and democratic elections in Canterbury and appointment of commissioners;
- new powers for mayors;
- central government intervention in local planning for residential development; and
- processes to fast-track environmental planning and decision-making processes that have increased the cost and complexity of public participation.
While elements of some of these changes may have merit, the overall effect has been to increase the distance between citizens and elected members, diminish local government’s autonomy, and reduce citizens’ ability to influence local decision-making. This is seen very clearly in the reduction of the number of elected representatives in recent years in New Zealand, and in the representation ratio which, in comparison with other countries, is very poor as the table below shows.
Table 2: International representation ratios (1)
Source: Local Government New Zealand
Note 1: Figures represent total populations and councillors. Sub municipal bodies, such as community board and parish council members are not included
There are much more effective and appropriate ways to ensure local government can be an effective partner of central government and a strong advocate for local communities. Local government needs to be supported by legislation, policy and funding arrangements if it is to play a vital role in contributing to New Zealand’s social and economic development while ensuring that environmental quality, which underpins and determines our social and economic well-being, is maintained and improved.
Many of the complex changes and challenges that face our society cannot be addressed by central government alone. They require a genuinely collaborative response from central working with local government, and the range of other societal actors – individuals, households, businesses, civil society. The statutory purpose of local government since 1989 has been to “enable democratic local decision-making and action by, and on behalf of communities”. For democratic local decision-making action by communities, as well as on behalf of them, we need strong participatory democracy alongside local representative democracy.
A narrow focus on providing core services and infrastructure gives lie to the indispensable role of local government in promoting well-being which it has played in this country since the early twentieth century. That said, local government in New Zealand faces an series of challenges that need to be addressed including:
- constitutional recognition of the importance of local government in New Zealand’s democratic arrangements and statutory recognition of its vital contribution to economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being in the interest of nation-building and intergenerational equity.
- improved central-local relations and, in particular, enhanced communication and co-operation between local and central government as recommended by the May 2013 NZ Productivity Commission report Towards better local regulation.
- more streamlined electoral processes offering more choice in how people can cast their vote in local elections (including the option of e-voting); a single electoral system based on proportional representation principles to reduce confusion from having both STV and FPP; better information about why, how and when to vote; and mechanisms to ensure equitable and effective Māori representation.
- better guidance about and monitoring of local authority decision-making and community engagement to enhance accountability and ensure effective use of digital technology
- more comprehensive, equitable and transparent processes for local government reorganisation that recognise the importance of having a range of models to reflect the socio-cultural and geographic diversity of New Zealand and ensure effective representation thereby ensuring that amalgamation decisions reflect the majority of voters in each affected local authority
- full implementation of the recommendations of the report of the 2007 inquiry into local government funding and a review of the impact of legislative changes since 2007 on the sources of funding of local government including changes to development contributions and land transport funding
- a strong regional development policy to ensure more balanced and sustainable economic and population growth
- genuine opportunities for public participation in environmental and other decision-making based with appropriate resourcing of individuals and community groups through an enhanced Environmental Legal Assistance Fund
- clearer guidance about the appropriate involvement of local government in commercial ventures and improved public accountability