Sunday 28 February 2021

Suffer The Little Children: Neoliberalism’s Attack On Local Democracy Intensifies.

Under The Influence Of The "Governance" Kool-Aid: The furore surrounding Mayor Andy Foster's "review" of the Wellington City Council's "governance" is but the latest example of the quite conscious delegitimization, and sinister re-framing, of spirited political opposition and debate as irresponsible, immature and “dysfunctional”. It 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.

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.


AB said...

Chris, as I have been critical of tour recent posts - I have to say this is an admirable return to form. Your distinction between 'governance' and 'government' is an extremely valuable one - and essential to a proper understanding of power. The purpose of 'governance' is to restrict the range of options available to government - while pretending that it is really all about probity, 'best practice' and financial responsibility.

Barry said...

In the year 2000 the Government of Helen Clark changed the law that governed hot local government operated. Up until this time councils had a small but specific list of responsibilities - roads, pipes, drains, water, etc.
In 2000 councils were given the power of "General Competence" - which meant that they could do anything that improved the mood of the people - ie: if the local population indicated that it was a good idea - or the locals approved of some idea the council came up with - then the council could go ahead with it.
So we had councils underwriting pop group shows and car racing and other - in almost all cases - money losing activities. Here in Hamilton the Hamilton City Council was at one stage paying $140,000 PER WEEK in interest payments on the debt that they racked up on the V8 venture.
While councils concentrated on these insane activities they forgot about pipes and footpaths and most other infrastructure essentials. Now we have councils where half of them are still stuck in the "lets do anything" attitude and half have seen the stupidity of the last 20 years.
So in Wellington they have an crazy bike lane which needs fixing and will cost MILLIONS to do so. In the mean time sewage flows down the streets.

Thanks Helen Clark and your damaging government. All the good things you did have been undone by this stupid decision. Even more stupid than the decision by Shipley that 18 years old were responsible drinkers.

greywarbler said...

I noticed the sharp concern of councillors and democracy watchers expressing shock at Wellington's Mayor coming up with last-minute unconsidered policy and demanding definite decisions be taken on it. How? Why? Is this proper procedure in NZ? I recall the Transport Ministry and Ms Harrison, et al. This latest Wellington debacle is just the latest in disgraceful lapses in government organisations. U have puled together facts relating to a past Auditor-General below.
Dec.9/2019 Ousted Auditor-General Martin Matthews appeals to Parliament for justice
Matthews, able to speak on the full detail of his case for the for the first time, now says he was forced to resign after the Officers of Parliament Committee threatened to declare him "disabled" if he continued in the role.

The process has been described by former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer as "unprecedented" in his constitutional experience.
Joanne Harrison was formerly a senior manager at Tower from 2005-2006 going by the name of Joanne Sharp.
Later, when the council learned Harrison had been convicted in July 2007 of the Tower Insurance fraud, it confronted her again...
Before she was employed by the ministry, Harrison worked at Tower Insurance — where she also committed fraud — and then at the Far North District Council, where she held a senior HR role from June 2007 to October 2008...

However, an investigation by Stuff Circuit has revealed the council was tipped off to Harrison's Tower Insurance fraud within weeks of hiring her, and that she resigned the following year when a conviction and anomalies with her CV came to light...
The council then confronted Harrison, who denied the claims and said she had been framed...
However, Harrison agreed to resign after the council raised questions about the accuracy of her CV. A settlement was reached and her employment was terminated on October 10, 2008...

After leaving the council Harrison took a senior management job at the Corrections Department.
While employed there Harrison altered a wage slip so she could claim a domestic purposes benefit. The fake slip showed she was earning $482 a week when she was in fact making $1842.
That fraud, between December 2008 and April 2009, earned her an extra two months in jail.

Now! Ministry of Transport fraudster Joanne Harrison ... - › national › stuff-circuit › ministry-of-tra...
10/08/2020 — Joanne Harrison, the woman convicted of a massive fraud at the Ministry of Transport, has adopted a new identity and is using it to con her way into high-paying jobs in the UK. ... Harrison was convicted in 2017 of stealing more than $720,000 over a four-year period while employed at the Ministry of Transport.

Joanne was doing some;thing between 2009 and 2013 but what is not clear from the news reports. However she apparently went to Australia at some time.
Harrison, also known as Joanne Sharp, was the subject of a fraud investigation in Australia before she landed a job at the ministry, [from 2013] where she stole more than $725,000 to pay off credit cards and her mortgage.

Thanks to Stuff the facts have been revealed, or so one supposes. How are we to know? How are we to trust either the replacement for the fraudster, the old Auditor-General who in this instance is doing a Pontius Pilate, and the new one is rather besmirched as well.

greywarbler said...

Matthews and his culpability looked at. A senior trusted official; not a proud moment for NZ.
Matthews headed the ministry while Harrison was committing a $725,000 fraud for which she was eventually convicted and jailed. Even after being made aware of her wrongdoing, he was still full of praise for Harrison's work as a senior manager within the ministry...

The Harrison affair and its fallout have blighted Matthews' 36-year career in the public service, which included a decade as chief executive at the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, time in the Audit Office, and eight years as assistant Auditor-General in the 1990s, before moving to the Transport Ministry in 2008.

Harrison's fraud has often been described as "sophisticated", but her behaviour and actions were flagged to Matthews multiple times.
Stuff broke the story of Harrison's offending in July last year. Even after she was found guilty and jailed Matthews said he was comfortable with the way he had handled things.
Then a report by the State Services Commission exonerated the MoT whistleblowers who were made redundant. The SSC said they should be offered compensation for their poor treatment.

Finally, the hammer blow – the report by Sir Maarten Wevers into how the ministry handled the fraud. The release of that report was blocked on Thursday.
Wevers said "his [Matthews'] resignation therefore brings to an end the matter before us.",,,

The MPs who chose to ignore the red flags of Matthews' past should be sighing with relief that the details around their decision to appoint him haven't been made public.
And the decision not to release the full inquiry findings led the Public Service Association to say, "New Zealanders would surely like to understand his [Matthews'] reasons for stepping down, and how much was known about this fraud case during his appointment to the role."

greywarbler said...

I've looked at this Wellington planning and Mayor's decision again and apart from initial shock at the way it was arrived and have other thoughts apart from feeling that NZ is going down a rabbit-hole of poor quality decision-making and sloppy behaviour which it rationalises later.

One thought is about consultation. This can go on for years, but are people actually given the basic information they need to decide what is best, not what is the best choice from the information they are given.

For instance, are people advised that appearances as to the country's wealth are deceptive, and we should not load the young people with costs beyond what they can manage. The world changes, the climate changes; the discomfort from mismanagement of well-fed wannabe colonial pooh-bahs will cause change. We should not be spending on vainglory buildings, but look for effective and attractive buildings built carefully at lower cost to ensure safety (don't forget the CTV building). The reason that consultations can drag on so long is that people have the false idea that they can rationally decide on something for which they don't have important information on various factors.

The Wellington library is one such example. Here is some detail provided in a news release last October from the Mayor Andy Foster. The submitters have chosen the high safety option, but there still is that cost of having a 'world-class' library built in and Plan C doesn't have base isolators even though it is the costliest.

Oct.17/2020 Andy Foster  - Let’s do it! Costs and risks reduced for Central Library strengthening

He refers to various options: We consulted on 5 options, 3 remediation options of differing levels of resilience (A – low, B – medium and C – high), and 2 new high resilience building options (D – existing site and E – new site in Civic Precinct), and provided information on several others (e.g. having multiple small libraries).

Then Feb.2021
The council also voted in favour of a motion to sell part of its ownership of the earthquake-prone central library building to private investors.
The consideration comes as the city council attempts to work out how it can pay for mounting infrastructure repairs across the city over the next 10 years, a problem that has already led to a proposed rates hike of up to 17 per cent...
Construction was due to start in April next year, with an expected opening date of May 2025.
However, a forecast budget shortfall outlined in the draft plan of more than $250m has led to the suggestion of delaying construction until 2024 or 2025.

It seems like a bumptious politician talking up an expensive plan, pressuring councillors with denigration for anyone who calls taihoa, and leads the councillors to the edge where the only way to get action is to sell part of this public asset to private interests. If it happens that Sir Peter Jackson was party to this, I am sure greatful Wellington would welcome this excellent homegrown businessman's involvement in some way, but perhaps on a limited lease arrangement at reasonable rates. Wellingtonians at present may be hustled and when the costs go to custard, even though the problems were known at the outset, be disappointed. They may think about shooting politicians and leaders after loosing patience with them, like Monty Python did with the bouzouki players and dancers in the Cheese sketch.

greywarbler said...

I agree Barry that General Competence has opened a can of worms. But part of the idea I am sure was to help regions back business in their own regions so they were more 'resilient' and where they could see there were local businesses that would otherwise not be able to grow. It also opened up local bodies pockets to sharpies from within and without the region. They were to be encouraged to open up to business and not have services all provided by government. So they had to split off even their rubbish collection, use contractors etc. Part of the neolib agenda to help us grow - into...?

greywarbler said...

To lighten up on the cynicism a little in an a-musing way, Dave Frishberg points out the pleasure of turning over the newspaper pages to The Sports Page where you get the real deal, the facts about who won and lost, and who stuffed up. So unlike the wonky, manufactured news about politics and even many businesses, sadly.

Guillaume said...

Chris, absolutely spot on. I fear that in the face of “governance”, a significant part of the population has turned off and chooses to take no part or interest in the neoliberal hierarchy’s machinations. Rather, they are captivated by the opportunity to buy things they don’t need with money they don’t have. This indifference is not confined to local councils but permeates the very essence of politics and democracy.

In a recent book, “the Consequences of Capitalism”, Noam Chomsky and Marv Waterstone hold that populations in the so-called free and democratic world accept the status quo as common sense. In other words, they have been programmed and indoctrinated, in Margaret Thatcher’s words, to believe that there is no alternative.

The book, essentially a series of lectures delivered at Arizona State University, canvases the historical antecedents of capitalism from the enclosures and the Industrial Revolution to the current global hegemony of the United States. The writers pull no punches.

Tom Hunter said...

I'm glad Barry already pointed this out, but in the wake of the Labour Government's Local Government Act twenty years ago it's a huge stretch to describe the usual boogeyman of "neo-liberalism" as being to blame for the nonsense you describ, especially in the form of the Lefty, Lefty government of Wellington Council. It would be funny if it was not so sad to see such an epithet applied that crowd in particular.

When that Act passed my opinion of it was that it was designed by Labour to enable them to push many of their ideas forward in society even when they did not hold central government power. Very clever of them I thought, even though I disagreed with it.

I've no doubt that the Wellington Mayor has been high-handed and undemocratic, but that's likely because he realises that with mounting infrastructure costs and the failure of things like the increasingly nutty commuter bike paths (in Wellington!!!!!) he and his Green-Labour Council are running out of room for excuses.

But don't worry. I've no doubt the solid Labour-Green enclave of Wellington voters will replace him with some new flake.

sumsuch said...

Knotted brow really about local govt, seems to have nothing to do with parliamentary democracy. Like National has to agree with Labour or a commissioner will be emplaced. Strange, strange.