Friday, 24 April 2009

Size Matters!

Christchurch's futuristic Art Gallery: In 1993 Christchurch won the Carl Bertelsmann Prize, and was declared "The Best Run City in the World". That was when it had a ratio of 1 city councillor to every 13,000 citizens. In 2004 the Local Government Commission decided to increase that ratio to 1 councillor per 20,000 citizens. Five years on, and the "People's Republic of Christchurch" has degenerated into "Sideshow Bob" Parker's Tory Circus. Look upon Christchurch, Aucklanders - and despair!

THE rest of New Zealand’s mirth at the Auckland’s mayors’ bitchy reaction to the National-Act-Maori Party Government’s plans for an Auckland "super-city" is easily imagined. To non-Auckland eyes the region’s civic leaders must come across like six little boys in a sandpit arguing over who gets to play with the digger.

As a shrewd Cantabrian, the Local Government Minister, Rodney Hide, knows how impatient the rest of New Zealand gets with this sort of bickering. Residing in much smaller local authorities, most Kiwis simply don’t understand how different North Shore City is from Manukau, or grasp the sheer size of the cultural gulf separating John Bank’s Remuera from Bob Harvey’s Henderson. By casting himself as the sensible adult: someone willing to confiscate the digger and frog-march the squabbling mayoral urchins out of the Auckland sandpit; Mr Hide knows he can only go up in the rest of the country’s political estimation.

But, I suspect the rest of the country would think much less kindly of the Local Government Minister if he announced his decision to merge Invercargill with Dunedin; Oamaru with Timaru; Ashburton with Christchurch; or New Plymouth with Wellington. And, I don’t think their citizens would find anything funny in a plan to reduce the number of councillors elected to represent them by more than two-thirds. They might laugh at the idea of their towns and cities being broken up into dozens of neighbourhood "boards", responsible for bottle-stores, brothels, graffiti and dog-catching, but it would be the sort of laugh people give when their car breaks down miles from nowhere – and it starts to rain.

Southerners should be very thankful that the brute facts of geography militate against their suffering Auckland’s fate. The 200-plus kilometres separating Dunedin’s and Invercargill’s citizens will always be their best guarantee of political independence. Auckland’s curse is that communities which were once a day’s ride from one another are now (on a good day) less than an hour’s drive away. Auckland – in a conceptual sense – is an accident of technology. Trains, trams, busses and cars have encouraged civic amnesia, and the unique histories of Auckland’s villages, towns and cities are largely forgotten.

"Well, that’s progress", I hear all you southerners say – and maybe you’re right. But if we must all be bound to the wheel that draw us together, then let us at least ensure that it is supported by many spokes.

The designers of the Auckland super-city placed good governance ahead of good government: the power to make decisions affecting people’s lives, before a lively people’s decision-making power.

Members of the American school of local government architecture, they have worked from the elitist principle of "fewer but better" elected representatives. By "better", incidentally, they generally mean businessmen.

Like Tucson, Arizona, USA, whose 525,529 citizens are represented by just six city councillors – a ratio of 1:87,588. I suppose we should be thankful Mr Hide settled on a ratio of 1:65,000.

Comparison with European local government is instructive. Not-surprisingly, nations with a recent history of tyranny tend to place a much higher value on representative institutions. The Berlin City Council, for example, has 149 members – a ratio of 1:23,000. While the City Council of Paris – as befits the cradle of revolutionary democracy – boasts 163 councillors: a ratio of 1:13,300 – lower than Waitakere’s!

The Royal Commission on Auckland Governance, or Mr Hide, could have given Auckland an equally generous example of democratic architecture. Simply by deciding to preserve the current ratio of councillors to citizens, they would have created a Greater Auckland Assembly of 70 members. Sheffield – half Greater Auckland’s size – has 84. Glasgow, a city of 580,690 has 79 councillors (1:7,350)

Berlin, Paris, Sheffield, Glasgow: these are among of the most progressive and best governed cities in the world. Yes, their councils are large, but it's their size that gives them the edge over cities organised on the American model of "fewer but better".

And, if you’re riposte to these figures is: "Ah, but those are all overseas examples. This is New Zealand." Think about this.

Christchurch, a city of 316,221 used to have a city council of 24 (A councillor to citizen ratio of 1:13,175 – about the same as Paris.) In 1993, that high level of democratic representation, and the progressive policies which flowed from it – especially the increased efficiency of communal services in competition with private enterprise – had earned Christchurch the coveted Carl Bertelsmann Prize, and the title of "Best Run City in the World. Tragically, in 2004, the Local Government Commission, egged on by Canterbury businessmen, and, once again following the American model of local government, slashed the number of Christchurch City Councillors to just 16 (1:20,000).

Since then, the city has lost its democratic edge. The Council is now thoroughly dominated by its pro-privatisation bureaucracy, and ruled by a right-wing populist celebrity mayor. The "People’s Republic of Christchurch" has degenerated into "Sideshow Bob" Parker’s Tory Circus.

Look upon Christchurch, Aucklanders – and despair.

The above is a slightly modified version of the essay which appeared in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times, and The Greymouth Evening Star on Friday, 17 April 2009.

1 comment:

Nick said...

Nice Chch analogy, its really interesting to see these old media hacks and two bit celebrities going into politics based upon name recognition. Bob Parker is a great example, Michael Laws another. The media find being next to the story too difficult, they seem to want to be the story. Why we then elect them I know not, especially given that journalists in public esteem rank well below used car salespersons. Can somebody tell me why they invariably all become active new rightists and quasi fascists?