"Leave It To Us." Over the course of the last 35 years, at both the national and local levels of government, there has been a steady – and quite deliberate – effort to sever the lines of communication which used to link the governors with the governed. Since the mid-1980s, the objective of those ideologues who regard democracy as both corrupting and inefficient has been to ensure that the day-to-day running of government is kept as far away from the people’s elected representatives as possible.
THE CHIEF OMBUDSMAN, Peter Boshier, clearly found it difficult to explain (or forgive) the actions of the Horowhenua District Council CEO. What on earth possessed this appointed local authority official to take it upon himself to decide which e-mail messages elected councillors should read and which they should not? What made him think putting active Horowhenua citizens’ names on a “blacklist” was a good idea? The Chief Ombudsman was plainly baffled.
With some reason. Boshier and I belong to the same generation of New Zealanders who grew up in local authorities managed by a Town Clerk. If our parents had a complaint about the effectiveness of the town’s drainage system, or the punctuality of its busses, they simply picked up the phone and called their local councillor. He or she would then call the City Engineer, or the Transport Manager, and pass on the complaint. Almost always action followed.
Why? Because the council officials understood that a councillor’s reputation was built upon his or her ability to get things done for the people who voted them into office. Repeated failure to fix their problems would very soon lead to gripes about Councillor So-and-So being “useless”. The slightest whisper that such an opinion was abroad in the electorate would have the impugned councillor knocking very loudly on the door of the Town Clerk, demanding to know what the hell was going on. That’s why action almost always followed.
Sadly, those days are long gone. Over the course of the last 35 years, at both the national and local levels of government, there has been a steady – and quite deliberate – effort to sever the lines of communication which used to link the governors with the governed. Since the mid-1980s, the objective of those ideologues who regard democracy as both corrupting and inefficient has been to ensure that the day-to-day running of government is kept as far away from the people’s elected representatives as possible. Councillors have found themselves restricted to determining “policy”. Giving effect to that policy is somebody else’s job – most commonly the private sector company’s which won the contract.
Any councillor who tried to pressure a private sector manager into making sure the local bus service kept to its printed timetable would be told, in no uncertain terms, to mind his own business. The matter would not end there. Almost certainly, the private bus company would complain to the contracting authority about the councillor’s attempted interference. The CEO of the local authority would pick up the phone to the city mayor, or the district council chairman, and suggest that the offending councillor be reminded of those “governance” boundaries which must not be crossed.
It gets worse. Over the last decade or so our local authorities’ legal advisers have attempted (often successfully) to persuade councillors who have run for office on promises to rescue this much needed municipal service from the accountant’s calculator, or that particularly beautiful park from the developer’s bulldozers, to refrain from participating in the debates and, most importantly, the votes, which would allow them to fulfil their promises. It would not be possible, say the lawyers, for these crusading councillors to act impartially. They must abstain.
You see where this is going, don’t you? The whole notion of local democracy is being called into question. If it is no longer possible to campaign forcefully for or against council policy, for fear of being denied the right to participate and vote in the subsequent debates, then the electors have no way of knowing which candidates are pledged to make something happen – or not happen. Councillors are reduced to a browbeaten collection of rubber-stampers: prey to private sector contractors, condescending legal advisers, and over-mighty CEOs. The final indignity being that, having signed up to the Councillors’ Code of Conduct, these poor souls are forbidden from speaking out angrily, or publicly, about their powerlessness.
Perhaps, therefore, we should be baffled at the Chief Ombudsman’s bafflement. Perhaps the truly remarkable thing is how few CEOs behave like the CEO of the Horowhenua District Council. After all, is it not cruel to encourage councillors to believe that they have the slightest ability to intervene on behalf of their constituents?
And the very idea of ordinary citizens having the right to a say in how their community is governed. Well, that’s just silly.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 16 November 2018.