Greenfields: Minister of Building and Housing, Dr Nick Smith, has argued consistently that Auckland needs to grow out as well as up. He has just acquired a powerful ally in Prime Minister Key, who has hinted that if Auckland Council doesn't delete the Urban Growth Boundary from its forthcoming Unitary Plan, then it may suffer the same fate as "Ecan" - the Canterbury Regional Council - whose elected councillors were sacked by Dr Smith and replaced with his hand-picked commissioners.
OUR PRIME MINISTER has not ruled out denying local democratic representation to nearly a third of New Zealand’s population. If the Auckland Council’s forthcoming Unitary Plan retains the city’s much-maligned Urban Growth Boundary, John Key is threatening to replace them with Commissioners.
Once again, councillors’ strongly held opinions about highly complex planning issues are being used to justify a significant curtailment of democracy. Aucklanders have been put on notice that if a majority of their elected representatives refuse to vote for a resumption of urban sprawl, then the Council’s “Governing Body” will be sacked and replaced by a group of unelected “experts” appointed by Cabinet.
Cantabrians know better than to doubt the Prime Minister’s resolve in this matter. Since 2010 their right to a say in how their regional taxes are spent has been suspended. After six years of no regional democracy, they are now being invited to participate in a hybrid system featuring both elected and unelected councillors. The full restoration of democratic regional government in Canterbury will not take place until 2019.
The present government justified its suspension of democracy in Canterbury on the grounds that, in its deadlocked state, “Ecan” was incapable of making a number of extremely important – and long delayed – decisions about regional water allocation. At the time, National was under enormous pressure from Federated Farmers to break the deadlock and green-light the irrigation schemes farmers needed to make dairying feasible on the dry Canterbury Plains.
Government ministers argued that, economically, New Zealand could not afford the interminable wrangling between urban and rural interests. If the only people standing between Canterbury’s farmers and an irrigation-assisted boost to New Zealand’s dairy exports were a bunch of intransigent regional councillors, then the temporary suspension of democratic norms was a small price to pay for their removal.
That the deadlock between the representatives of farmers, and the representatives of those who valued water for cultural, environmental and recreational reasons, might signal the presence of a genuine policy dilemma, does not seem to have occurred to the National Government. Clearly, the deterioration in the flow and water quality of Canterbury’s rivers and streams was also a small price to pay for economic growth.
Equally clear, however (at least from the National Government’s perspective) is that most Cantabrians and, quite possibly, most New Zealanders, did not – and do not – consider a nine-year suspension of regional democracy to be all that big a deal. Regional government, unlike local government, has never really engaged the emotions of its electors. (Unless, as happened in Canterbury, a vocal minority of voters came to the view that it was thwarting their commercial ambitions.)
The question raised by Mr Key’s threats to the Auckland Council, therefore, is whether or not the suspension of local (as opposed to regional) democracy will be met with Cantabrian levels of voter indifference. In the years since the constitution and ancillary economic institutions of the “Super-City” were imposed on the citizens of Auckland, has it inspired sufficient loyalty and affection to render it invulnerable to such naked central government aggression?
Not without a crisis big enough to justify such heavy-handed interference.
Fortuitously, in the absurd escalation in Auckland house prices; and in the related, socially catastrophic, shortage of affordable housing for first-home-buyers and the poor; a crisis is exactly what the Prime Minister has got.
Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama’s cynical chief-of-staff, infamously affirmed that: “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
So, what is it that John Key believes the current Auckland housing crisis will let him do – that he could not do before?
The Prime Minister’s defenders will say that it offers him a virtually politically costless opportunity to rid Auckland of the irksome Urban Growth Boundary which so many politicians believe is responsible for its eye-wateringly high land prices. The only problem with this response is that Key and his government, as legislators, can abolish the Urban Growth Boundary any time they like.
So, what else will Auckland’s very real housing crisis let National do?
Helen Kelly put her finger on it during Saturday’s broadcast of TV3’s The Nation. Key’s threats, she insisted, mark the beginning of his party’s campaign to seize control of the Auckland Council.
Against all of the Right’s expectations, the first and second elections for the Auckland Council did not deliver it into the hands of the hard-line neoliberals for whom it was intended. Nor have the recent efforts of the Auckland National Party to assemble a winning team borne much in the way of palatable political fruit.
Enter the professionals.
Auckland’s housing crisis is entirely the Council’s fault. Therefore, vote out the guilty councillors. Then, give the Government a council it can work with.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 31 May 2016.