Andy Asquith, Andrew Cardow, and Karen Webster: What ever happened to local government?

Andy Asquith, Andrew Cardow, and Karen Webster: What ever happened to local government?

We would like to congratulate Nanaia Mahuta on her promotion to the role of Foreign Minister – an important historic move. We are delighted both to see some stability in the local government portfolio holder and to see it held by someone senior in the cabinet rankings. For once we do not have a new Minister who has to learn the ropes. However, as local government researchers we are very concerned about what the promotion of Minister Mahuta mean to local government in general. We acknowledge the minister has hit the ground running in progressing the critical and longstanding issue of Maori representation. We fear, however, that the voice of local government in Cabinet will be diminished, buried beneath the Foreign Affairs portfolio. To use an analogy, Minister Mahuta is in a funnel – and has to look both ways simultaneously – a near impossible task.


The importance of the Local Government portfolio can be seen from a number of big issues which are metaphorically in the Ministers ‘in’ tray: Many of these are a hangover from the previous government and need urgent, focused attention.


We have serious concerns about governance and managerial structures which operate in a number of our councils. Over the last 30 years various ministers have sought to intervene on only three occasions, to effectively ‘take over’ councils because they had become dysfunctional and were unable to perform their tasks in an appropriate manner. Currently we have two large city councils; Tauranga and Invercargill with Crown Monitors – the last step before ministerial intervention. The issues within both these councils – along with smaller examples of poor governance and conduct within other councils suggests that having a Minister fully focussed on local government would be a good idea.


Each day we all receive a wide range of services from our local council. During the height of the pandemic in New Zealand, many of you will have been in receipt of services provided by your local council that went over and above those traditional services. In ‘normal’ circumstances these additional services wouldn’t have been provided. This showed the resilience, expertise, dedication and professionalism of those within local government.


As we seek to rebuild our country and economy in a post-pandemic world, these skills which local government has so ably demonstrated need to be nurtured and developed. Having a fully engaged member of Government in Wellington to oversee the process is key here. New Zealand, as one of the most centralised nations in the world needs to seize opportunities to begin the decentralisation and control of local public services. Local government demonstrated during the pandemic its capabilities, – it now needs to be able to build upon these undoubted strengths of our local institutions so that we can confidently rebuild in a less centralised manner and one that befits the community in which it serves. This feeds in well with the localism agenda being advanced by Local Government New Zealand


The Government has already committed $2.6bn to ‘shovel ready’ projects, many of which involve local councils. This again demonstrates the role and potential our local councils are seen to play in our national recovery. Whilst you could argue that both Grant Robertson wearing his Infrastructure hat, and Michael Wood, with his Transport hat would play a role in this space – it isn’t quite the same as having a distinct portfolio holder with a clear focus.


Work began in the last Parliament on the reform of the water system in NZ. Effectively this will see the removal of local authorities from the provision of water services and the corporatisation of water. This needs to be done with some caution, considering the disastrous effects corporatisation of water has had on jurisdictions throughout the Western world. How this will be operationalised is still less than clear, with some local councils arguing for the retention of water services within their portfolio of services. A messy process lies ahead requiring, as we suggest, a fully engaged and focused Minister.


A related topic to that of water is Climate Change. We recognise that this poses an unprecedented level of risk to New Zealand’s natural and built environment.  Adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change are a significant challenge and is rapidly becoming a focus for all councils. Addressing these issues will require a diverse range of actions and policy approaches from both local and central government. While undoubtedly this will be work for David Parker, Minister for the Environment; a dedicated focused Minister for Local Government would be a signal that this government is engaged across all levels of government on a policy programme that they are recognise as a priority.


While this is a small range of issues, they all require major attention. They will not be solved with tinkering – a serious re-think is needed about the way local government functions, the future of the central-local government relationship, and how local government can adapt to the challenges of the future. While it would be wishful thinking to have a Minister who only had local government as their portfolio, the portfolio would benefit from being connected to ones with related synergies such as transport or infrastructure, climate change or housing. The scale of the reforms needed in this area are no small matter, and may struggle for attention given the demands of Foreign Affairs.


Dr Andy Asquith and Dr Andrew Cardow – Massey, and Dr Karen Webster – AUT