Saving local democracy: An agenda for the new government

Mike Reid

Local government is inhibited and enabled by central government legislation, policies, and relationships. As such, the election of a new (central) government is a good time to review policy settings for local government.

The previous government (2008-2017) systematically stripped back local government in New Zealand, reducing local democracy and treating local government as an agent of central government. Substantial amendments to the Local Government Act 2002 removed all suggestion that local and central government are in any way ‘partners’. Citizen input into local government was diminished, and councils’ roles were constrained. The purpose of local government was narrowed to the provision of services – rather than the ‘good government’ of or ‘well-being’ of a district. Ministers were given unprecedented intervention powers. These reforms ultimately privileged a narrowly-defined idea of efficiency at the expense of most other values (see Reid, 2016).

The overall effect has been to undermine the democratic nature of local government by diminishing the salience of councils. Local government continues to spend a very small proportion of public expenditure and has diminishing influence over issues that affect peoples’ lives. The reduction in formal opportunities through which citizens exercise voice, such as the removal of mandatory consultation on annual plans, risks a technocratic and managerial dystopia in which all engagement is focused on councils’ three-year Long Term Plans. In this view of the future, having signed off the Long Term Plan, citizens are expected to be passive consumers until the next three-year review comes around.  The role of elected members in this vision is equally passive.

The challenge for the new government

The challenge facing the new Minister of Local Government is significant. The overall effect of nine years of incremental reform has left councils confused about their purpose; the role of locally elected representatives constrained; the citizen voice diminished; and the powers of ministers and central government officials to intervene in local affairs enhanced. It is a picture of increasing centralisation at a time when we need to be strengthening the role of localities and regions and valuing diversity. It is essential to ensure public authority is distributed and that we develop dispersed sites of policy making to promote innovation; we cannot depend on policy bureaux in Wellington to possess all the answers and chart our future development – the risks are too great.

Increasing centralisation is not only bad for civic participation (why participate in a political arena which is largely marginalised?), it damages innovation and is bad for economic growth. Important issues are at stake. Are we to have a substantive system of local government, through which citizens can shape local policies and programmes, or is it to be a system of locally elected officials with little more responsibility than playing ceremonial roles and acting as ATM machines for corporate style service delivery bodies? And what happens to politics at the national level if power is further centralised should local government lose its role, however symbolic, as a check and balance on central government.

The importance of the Local Government Act 2002 was the way in which it recognised councils’ existing broad mandate to improve the quality of life in their districts, cities and regions and make their areas attractive for investment. By providing opportunities for increased engagement it recognised the importance of active citizenships and how this is necessary not only for building trust in our public institutions at the sub-national level but also for New Zealand as a whole. It was a small step in the broader project of distributing power and strengthening the ability of citizens to build sustainable and resilient place-based communities in contrast to a “one size fits all” approach to policies imposed from the centre.

The challenge is not to simply restore the Local Government Act 2002 to its original form. The legislation was far from perfect. For a start it was too long; it was also too prescriptive, particularly in the decision-making provisions, and its approach to strategic planning stifled innovation. Neither did it result in fiscal decentralisation, although arguably it strengthened both managerial and administrative decentralisation. However, there are lessons that can be learned from its application that allow for enhancement. One of the issues for the new minister, however, will be the ability of the Department of Internal Affairs to shift from providing policy advice on how to strengthen central government oversight of local government to how to strengthen citizen oversight instead.

For the long run it is important that the approach should be a non-partisan one to avoid a future in which our local government system continues to be subject to major reform according to the whims of the incumbent Minister of Local Government. Under New Zealand’s existing constitutional arrangements local government could be abolished by a vote in parliament with the support of only 51% of MPs. Apart from the constant risk to local government’s role, status and powers it undermines the ability of our local democracies to be a counterweight to the government of the day. To provide local government with the certainty needed to make long term investments for their communities, and to play its role as part of our constitutional apparatus, some form of constitutional protection is required.  For example:

  1. entrench or ‘super entrench’ the Local Government Act 2002 so that any changes to the Act will require the support of 75% of MPs;
  2. amend the New Zealand Constitution Act to include reference to the existence of local government;
  3. create a Parliamentary Commissioner of Local Government – a non-political office to give effect to Parliament’s rather than central government’s interest in New Zealand having an effective system of local government.

The ‘gold standard’ however, would be the adoption of a written constitution that clearly sets out the status and role of local government. Palmer and Butler’s proposed constitution is an example of what this might look like (part 13, s.110).

If councils are to attract talented and enthusiastic local leaders then we need to be able to offer them something substantial to do, that is, the opportunity to make a real difference in their communities. The new government has a unique opportunity to create a local government system that is strongly ‘localist’ and brings citizens back into the public realm in a meaningful way – our civic culture demands it.


~For a longer version of my analysis, see my report here

Mike Reid
About the author

Mike Reid

Principal Policy Advisor - LGNZ
Mike has been with LGNZ since 1996, having previously been with Creative NZ and Christchurch City Council. In his role he provides thought leadership, sector advocacy and stakeholder management in relation to governance, public policy, constitutional issues, performance, ethics and the overall legislative framework under which local government operates. Mike has published widely on local government, including journal articles, book chapters and co-authored two books on strategy in NZ local government. He completed his PhD in public policy in 2011 and is also on the board of the Institute of Governance in Policy Studies.