MAYOR ANDY FOSTER’S surprise attack on local democracy in Wellington left half his Council feeling dazed and confused – as intended. The authoritarian flourish of getting all those around the council table to indicate their support for his “review”, by rising to their feet, was creepy in the extreme. Nothing could have demonstrated more clearly the cult-like quality of neoliberalism’s faith in “governance”.This latest example of the quite conscious delegitimization, and sinister re-framing, of spirited political opposition and debate as irresponsible, immature and “dysfunctional” shows how very far from the processes of freedom and democracy New Zealand’s neoliberal political class, and their bureaucratic enablers, are determined to take us.
The governance virus is not confined to Wellington. While Foster was springing his surprise in the capital, the Invercargill City Council was being enjoined to endorse a code of conduct vis-à-vis the news media which would have reduced the representatives of Invercargill’s 56,000 residents to a bunch of happy-clappy good-news-dispensers, with nary a harsh word for anyone or anything associated with the running of New Zealand’s southern-most city.
Councillors were warned off saying anything that might damage Invercargill’s “brand” in the eyes of its customers (otherwise known as citizens). Those wishing to say anything in public were encouraged to first run it past the Council’s (unelected) communications team. It was very clear, however, that the Council bureaucracy viewed councillors as naughty little children who should be seen as infrequently as possible – and heard from not at all.
We can all take solace from the fact that once the elected representatives of the people had recovered from these gratuitous assaults on their rights and duties, and recovered the power of speech, a goodly number of them told the governance cultists to stand back and stand down.
Invercargill’s Mayor, the redoubtable Tim Shadbolt, made it clear that the proposed code-of-conduct was both ultra vires (i.e. beyond the legal authority of its proponents to either impose or enforce) and an unconscionable attempt to prevent councillors from fulfilling their democratic duties to the electors. Many of his fellow councillors indicated their strong agreement. They would not be bound by this thoroughly undemocratic attempt to limit their freedom of speech.
In Wellington, the left-wing Labour and Green councillors who had been kept “out of the loop” by the Mayor and his cronies, soon bounced back into action. They pointed to the fact that the Mayor had informed some councillors of his intention to launch a review of the city’s governance – but not others – as symptomatic of his decision-making-by-surprise political style.
Rather than leading his fellow councillors towards consensus by means of genuine consultation and open debate, Foster appears to see his role as doing everything within his power to give effect to policies favoured by Council staff. Even though introducing proposals, unseen by councillors deemed uncooperative, at the very last moment of the decision-making process, is hardly conducive to the maintenance of political civility around the Council Table!
It is, however, emblematic of the whole governance ethos. Perhaps the best way to understand the difference between ‘governance’ and ‘government’ is to recognise governance as a noun and government as a verb.
Governance is the name given to the entire suite of neoliberal decision-making processes: the whole professional, credentialed, expert hierarchy of policy-advisers; people who consider themselves “best qualified to know” what must be done.
Government is what those whose duty it is to make decisions actually do. And that is determined not only by their personal judgement, but also by their understanding of what the people who made them decision-makers need and want.
Bringing those needs and wants into some sort of rough harmony is what democratic politics is all about. It cannot happen without spirited and open debate, and spirited and open debate cannot happen unless the people’s elected representatives are free to speak their minds.
But this is precisely what neoliberalism fears the most: the intrusion of popular needs and wants into a capitalist system which depends for its proper functioning on human needs and wants manifesting themselves exclusively in the purchases of consumers. When politicians allow the decisions of an elected body to over-ride market signals, then the proper functioning of free-market capitalism must inevitably be deranged. One collection of interests will find itself in a position to dominate another – to the ultimate disadvantage of all interests. As far as the neoliberals are concerned, democracy and capitalism are incompatible.
This explains why words like “dysfunctional” and “irresponsible” get thrown about the moment the political noise rises above the low murmur of dignified agreement. When a councillor stands up and defies the comfortable owners of Edwardian villas on behalf of rack-rented citizens in need of large-scale social housing developments. Or, when a veteran of the sixties youth rebellion openly manoeuvres for his city’s largest employer to be kept going – regardless of all the market signals flashing red.
In the ears of the neoliberals, passionate policy debates register as little more than the whooping and chest-beating of Chimpanzees: mindless status displays; idiotic battles for recognition and dominance. Uncontrolled democracy drowns out the signals of the marketplace, making it impossible for the advice of those with the expertise needed to decode its messages to be heard.
That is why, for the past 35 years, neoliberals have been moving as much of the machinery of government as far out of the reach of all these posturing political apes as possible. It’s why the Local Government Act is no longer about making sure that the interests of residents and ratepayers are faithfully represented, but about reducing the opportunities for those same residents and ratepayers to defend themselves from the decisions of “The Council”. It’s why councillors are paid so much money. Why departments called “Democracy Services” are there to tell them what they can and cannot do. Why Codes-of-Conduct are drawn up to make sure that they behave with all the strict decorum of timorous maiden aunts.
The scariest aspect of this whole shift from ‘government’ to ‘governance’ is that it’s working. “Politicians” – especially local government politicians – are derided and despised. Their “antics” are reported unfavourably in the news media. When questioned by reporters in the street, people dutifully urge their representatives to stop behaving like little children and get on with running the city properly. Newspaper editors write condescendingly about the need to get some adults in the room. In short, of the need to keep politics out of politics.
I will, therefore, be very surprised if Mayor Andy Foster’s “review” doesn’t uncover an urgent need to do all these things. I would, therefore, ask you to forgive me if, at some point in the future, when Wellingtonians are complaining loudly about their much beloved library being replaced by Amazon, I give in to temptation – and tell them to stop behaving like little children.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 26 February 2021.