Moving the Agenda for Local Government Along
Moving the Agenda for Local Government Along
Wednesday 9 November, 2022
The Review into the Future for Local Government (2022) He mata whāriki, he matawhānui: Draft Report was released at the end of October, just as newly elected councillors around the country were making their statutory declarations and reflecting on the inaugural meetings for the 2022 – 2025 term of office.
After more than 1,000 face-to-face or online discussions, and over 5,000 online responses, the Future for Local Government Review Panel has submitted its draft Report, which it describes as a wero or provocation to prompt debate towards the shaping of its final Report due mid-2023. It is open for submissions until 28 February 2023.
The Report focuses on ten areas where the Panel think shifts are required to achieve ‘fit for the future local government.’ Each area comes with its own imperatives and challenges, and with recommendations that the Panel believe need to be implemented as part of a cohesive approach rather than piecemeal. The aim is “to maximise the wellbeing and resilience of communities now and into the future and strengthen local democratic decision-making.” So, the intent at least is similar to that currently contained in the Local Government Act 2002.
While there are clear recommendations, and the Report is clear that significant change is required to many aspects of local government, it does not specify what form local government should take in the future. Given the difficulties the Government is facing with the Three-Waters Reform programme, and the present high level of political uncertainty, it is likely that considerable opportunities remain to influence both the final form of the Report, and the degree to which its recommendations are implemented.
Engagement with Māori and Te Tiriti
There are many strands to the Report, but one recurrent theme is the engagement with and involvement of Māori as essential to local government. For example, in the section of the Report on ‘revitalising citizen-led democracy’ there are recommendations about reviewing legislative requirements about engaging with Māori, the need for councils to develop and invest in their internal systems for engagement with Māori, and providing a statutory obligation for councils to agree local expression of tikanga whakahaere in their standing orders and engagement practices. There is a section of the Report on ‘Tiriti-based partnership between Māori and local government,’ which proposes a new legislative framework for Te Tiriti in local governance that establishes and embeds specific mechanisms for partnership and co-governance. Recognising that there is a cost to this greater engagement, the Report also recommends that Central Government provide a transitional fund to subsidise the cost of building both Māori and council capability and capacity.
Roles and functions
The scope of responsibilities for local government comes under scrutiny in a section on ‘allocating roles and functions in a way that enhances wellbeing,’ with a recognition that scope is relatively small compared to overseas examples. The Report proposes a “Tiriti-consistent” review of the future allocations of roles and functions by the application of three core principles:
- The concept of subsidiarity;
- Recognition and support of local government’s capacity to influence the conditions for wellbeing (hopefully translates into relevant funding);
- Te ao Māori values underpin decision-making.
Relationships with community and central government
Some parts of the Report seem a little wistful. In a section dealing with ‘local government as champion and activator of wellbeing’ comes a recommendation that central and local government partner to explore funding and resources that support this role. This has been tried before, but councils still seemed to struggle to fund such initiatives. Another section of the Report calls for ‘a stronger relationship between central and local government,’ which is a concept no one could deny is desirable. But here there are no recommendations, only questions for those who wish to contribute, and the note that there is “an explicit role for Māori alongside local and central government in identifying the priority outcomes that will drive community wellbeing.”
The poor turnout in the recent local government elections and the apparent disinterest from the community come to mind when reading the section on ‘replenishing and building on representative democracy.’ The recent increase in Māori wards and constituencies is lauded, but it is pointed out that while they provide representation for Māori as citizens, they are not designed to provide for Tiriti-based representation of mana whenua or significant Kaupapa-based groups at the council table. Accordingly, the Report says the Panel is exploring the merits of models that “enable both capability-based and mana whenua appointments to supplement elected members.” In fact, the Report has a number of interesting recommendations in the area of representative democracy including:
- making the Electoral Commission responsible for local elections;
- considering the compulsory adoption of the Single Transferable Vote methodology;
- lowering the voting age to 16; and
- providing for a 4-year electoral term.
In the area of ‘equitable funding and finance’ concerns are noted about growing community expectation and unfunded mandates from central government. The Report supports rates as the best means of funding council activities but sees the need for more central government funding support, particularly in relation to the impacts of proposed regulatory changes. New funding tools such as congestion charging and bed taxes are supported, and councils will welcome the suggestion that central government develop an intergenerational fund for climate change and pay rates and charges on all properties.
What will it look like?
On the core question of ‘system design’ a set of design principles has been developed against which future structures should be evaluated. There is nothing new or surprising about these principles, which provide for local place-based decision-making and leadership, subsidiarity (allocating functions to the lowest level of government possible), appropriate resourcing, partnership including shared governance, and utilising economies of scope and resources. Some modelling has been done to indicate systems that might incorporate these principles. But if you want to find out if the regional / territorial / local or community board model will survive, or whether your region/district will be subsumed or super-sized, you will not find the answers in this Report.
Tying these areas together, the Report addresses ‘system stewardship and support,’ which it describes as “holding the responsibility for the long-term quality, sustainability, and outcomes of the wider system of local government.” It suggests there are gaps and limitations in the current system, which includes people and organisations in central government, the Minister of Local Government, the Dept. of Internal Affairs, and the Local Government Commission. It recommends that central and local government considers the best model of stewardship and which entities are best placed to fulfil this role.
Where does the Report leave us?
The issues raised in the Report are not new, and for the most part neither are the tentative recommendations. That is not to dismiss the work that has gone into it. Rather it is simply the case that the problems with local government are long-standing, and there are no magic bullet answers. What is interesting is the emphasis on a comprehensive rather than piece-meal approach, and the direction suggested by the Report. It is in essence a high-level guideline for achieving the purpose of local government set out in section 10 of the Local Government Act 2002, somewhat updated to recognise the impact of imperatives like climate change and the recognition of the role Māori in our governance systems. It remains to be seen whether it engages the support of the local government sector, central government, or the public.