Sunday, 7 June 2009

I #*! Super City: Why Metro has got it wrong. Really

Metro's Simon Wilson: Cheerleading Rodney Hide's Auckland "super city" power grab.

FOR sheer Pollyanna puffery, Simon Wilson’s "Why We Love Super City", in the latest issue of Metro, takes some beating. The image of a perky cheerleader dominates Wilson’s text, and that is wholly appropriate. When your sub-heading is "Why Rodney Hide has got it right. Really." – cheerleading is pretty obviously the name of the game.

It’s a pity really, because Wilson is usually a thoughtful writer, and not given to lending his support to the sort of PR glad-games currently being rolled out to justify one of the most audacious power-grabs in New Zealand’s political history.

The article begins with the picture of a region suffering from "economic underperformance, blighted urban planning and social dysfunction" – all of it, Wilson implies, the dystopic residue of incompetent "local fiefdoms". He has to do this, of course, because if it could be proved that Auckland’s multiple afflictions (if they exist at all) are in no way the fault of its local authorities, then the whole rationale for Hide’s "Super-City" disappears.

But, this is precisely what Auckland’s history does; it completely explodes both Hide’s and the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance’s arguments for collapsing local democracy into regional "governance". The city’s woes, going back to, and beyond, 1865, have almost always arisen out of Auckland businessmen’s determination to turn politics into profit.

Whether it be Thomas Russell, fomenting war with the Maori king to expedite his company’s land-grabbing; or the powerful "development" business nexus, which spawned the sprawling, car-dependent culture of post-war Auckland; or the mirror-glass speculators, who tore down what remained of the city’s graceful Victorian architecture in the deregulated 80s; it has always been that fateful combination of greed and ambition (both local and national) which made Greater Auckland so much less than it could have – should have – been.

Were the cities and boroughs of Auckland responsible for the motorway system which demolished so many thriving communities in the 1950s and 60s – or was that the work a handful of Auckland roading contractors and property developers, operating hand-in-glove with their National Party cronies in the Capital?

Was it Auckland’s local politicians who shut down the great manufacturing plants of south and west Auckland in the 1980s – or was the resulting "economic underperformance" and "social dysfunction" the legacy of the MPs for Mangere, Manurewa, Te Atatu and Auckland Central?

Was it the avarice of mayors and city councillors which saw the wealth of middle-class Aucklanders wiped out in the crash of ’87 – or was it the greed of the wide boys who drank at the Rogues Bar and worked for Equiticorp?

Was it the Auckland Regional Council which stalled the electrification of Auckland’s rail services for the past four years – or was that Michael Cullen and his Treasury advisers?

The key premise behind the Super City proposal is that Auckland’s local problems are the fault of Auckland’s local politicians – and it just ain’t true.

Wilson, as an editor of New Zealand history, and one of Metro’s senior writers, should know all this. So why is his article a history-free zone? Perhaps because it’s so much easier to declare, bluntly, and without the slightest supporting evidence, that: "The status-quo is not an option."

But even if we accept that some sort of change is desirable, the more important question: "Why Rodney Hide’s version of change?", is one that Wilson does not even begin to answer.

It’s all very well to play-up the Royal Commission’s emphasis on social, economic, environmental and cultural "well-being", but the brute fact of the matter is that all of its "namby-pamby, feel-good sloganising" has been rejected by both the National and Act Parties. They have a very different set of priorities.

And before citing Singapore, Seattle, Glasgow and Barcelona as examples of "vibrant" urban economies, why didn’t Wilson do a little research into the nature of their governmental structures.

Rightly celebrated throughout the European Union as one of its most progressively governed cities, Glasgow, with a population of 580,690 citizens, is roughly comparable in size to the present City of Auckland. The similarities end there, however, because instead of Auckland’s 19, Glaswegians get to elect 79 city councillors – one councillor for every 7,350 citizens. Compare that "vibrant" and very democratic ratio with Rodney Hide’s one Super City councillor for every 65,000 citizens. Even Barcelona’s 1.6 million citizens, living under a municipal constitution drafted in 1960 by General Franco’s fascist regime, are entitled to 41 councillors (1:39,000).

What Wilson has either failed to understand, or refuses to acknowledge, is that the Auckland Super City has been designed by neo-liberals, for neo-liberals. From its very beginnings, as the brainchild of senior Auckland business leaders, it’s purpose has never been to generate the "social well-being" which the members of the Royal Commission so naively attempted to interpose in their report, but its opposite. What Rodney Hide and his backers want to see in their shining Super City on a hill, is that universal hallmark of neo-liberal success: growing income inequalities.

That’s why Hide is promoting the democratic obscenity of 20 councillors for 1.3 million citizens. (With eight of the 20 elected "at large", an electoral option rejected by New Zealanders more than 20 years ago.) It’s why he’s promoting 20-30 powerless "community councils", rather than the four, more influential, "city councils" recommended by the Royal Commission. It also explains his vehement opposition to special Maori representation, and why the straightforward, democratic, expedient of taking the 75 councillors currently representing the four major cities of the Auckland region, and putting them under the roof of a single chamber, simply wouldn’t occur to him. Why not? Because, fundamentally, neo-liberalism and democracy are incompatible.

In his final paragraph, Wilson quotes the Royal Commission’s vision statement, noting approvingly its preference for "an integrated sustainable approach" and its wish that the city’s business be "actively and effectively managed … in a responsible way". But this is the bloodless language of corporate bureaucracy – not popular democracy. Nowhere in his article, and in spite of all his condescending concern for the "common folk", does Wilson acknowledge that it is their right to self-government – not good governance – that is at stake for Auckland’s 1.3 million citizens.

A Super City Council of Aucklanders, by Aucklanders, for Aucklanders.

All Aucklanders.

"Who doesn’t want that? Who doesn’t think we need it? And who seriously thinks we’ve got it already?"

This commentary was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 4 June 2009.


Anonymous said...

Either you are away or people dont give a rats proverbial about the super city and democratic process. If the latter very sad.

Chris Trotter said...

Nope Anonymous, I'm still here.

Unfortunately, people are much more interested in debating Dr Richard Worth than the Super City.

As you say: sad.

Nick said...

Chris, I wrote the anonymous above....I suspect there is more to it. Going onto the Standard and reading the blogs is really a bit like talk back radio, all sorts of people out there who in my darker moments I resent sharing the planet with. The one obvious blogger trait is a distain for facts, justice, basic rights etc, a tendency to pre-judged partisanship, some of it pretty ugly. I suspect a reason for the low level of responses may be because you have offended a lot of these people (especially the feminist left) by your insistence on natural justice such as putting the onus on the accuser to provide evidence. Better stop, I feel a darker moment coming on!

Hamish Keith said...

Simon Wilson's view of the Super City is not the only argument being put forward. Check out where then ratio of people to politicians is one to 6350. What model do you propose?

Chris Trotter said...

Hi Hamish. First, let me say that your proposal is the both the most elegant and the most democratic solution that I have read to date. So, congratulations for that.

My own preference, however, is for a much larger unitary council, a minimum of 75 councillors, and for no community boards.

For the CBs I'd substitute a well-financed ward office, with paid staff, for every councillor (much like the current arrangements for MPs).

The much larger council would make the currently opaque party political situation untenable and force a much greater level of both political transparency and organisation at the ward level.

The smaller wards would also get over the current problems re: Maori representation. Suburbs with a high proportion of Maori residents would have little difficulty securing the election of a truly representative councillor.

History has proved that the most effective way to boost popular engagement in political activity is through political parties. By fostering the party system, I believe my expanded council option has the best chance of making the new super city a genuinely democratic institution.

Hamish Keith said...

Chris at last a whole view from someone - you might be right - but that seems to me a mighty jump for a population which only thinks in neighbourhoods - I think it needs a step in between - most cities that have that system also have a intermediate step. I fancy the discipline implied in the fact that the only way to the top table is via the hood. Maybe two ward councillors moving up to double the unitary council - anyway some debate is better than no debate and no debate is mostly what we are getting. I absolutely agree that political affiliations should be transparent and is the only way to make it work - viz Brisbane