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Thursday, 13 May 2010

A ONE-WORD JOKE

Progress.

LOCO GOVERNMENT DEMOCRACY IN NZ

We think of New Zealand as a democratic country, a country with a democratic system of government--representative democracy. But at local level, in many parts of the country, including ours, we do not. We have been robbed of it by three people who have been given high authority, but have failed to act responsibly and obey the law.

Before I became a member of the Waiheke Community Board I had never thought much about what happened after I put a tick next to a name on a ballot-paper, regardless of whether it was for a general election or a local-body election.

If anyone had asked me, I would probably have said that I expected those who won seats to be working full-time for their communities. I assumed that elected jobs in both levels of government were full-time occupations. And when I read the present version of the Local Government Act, which we have operated under since 2002, my assumption was confirmed. Even for elected Members of Community Boards (MCBs). Because the list set down for their role, particularly if put beside the rightful expectations and desires of their communities, makes it crystal clear that theirs is a full-time occupation and commitment.

Anyone who disputes that is not reading what it is written or listening to what is expected. MCBs clock on in October one year and clock off in October three years later.

But the assumption, the statutory expectations, and communities' expectations cannot possibly be fulfilled. Because human beings have some pesky addictions--to breathing, to eating, and to having the protection of cloth and the shield of a roof against dying of exposure (and getting the computer wet).

Unfortunately the Remuneration Authority, whose responsibility it is to set remuneration for various groups of people in public service, including MPs and those elected to local-body positions, has shown that it does not care much about local-body people, or local government or local democracy. Because it blatantly disobeys the statutory rules for setting local-government remuneration, instead using a weird rule of its own invention--the 'Pool Formula', invented in 2001 by a man called Hutton Peacock. With that it has set the remuneration so low for all MCBs, and for many Councillors round the country, that they cannot stay alive on the money. Some are paid as little as $206 a year; the average for MCBs is $4907.

They are therefore compelled to have some other form of income, so with the best will in the world they cannot work full-time at what they were elected to do. They are forced to be part-timers at local government. Otherwise they will quickly look like advanced cases of anorexia, after which they will graduate to being local bodies of the cemetery kind.

The effect on the democratic government of the country is equally severe. It is impossible for us to get a true democracy at local level, because the range of people who can stand for election is savagely restricted. Therefore our local democracy cannot be properly representative. And the standard of local government cannot be what it should be, and could be, because if you pay peanuts you get either monkeys or malnourished, crippled lions. You get people who are born incompetent, or competent people who cannot express all their competence because they have to treat local government as a side issue. You get deadwood or stumps of kauri.

A wage-earner cannot legally be paid less than $12.50 an hour, and fulltime employment is legally defined as at least 30 hours a week, so someone at the bottom of the heap will be earning at least $19,500 a year. At an average of $4907, MCBs are obviously far below the lowest of the low. No MCB earns anything like $19,500. Many councillors are in the same boat. In 28 of the 72 District Councils (39%) their remuneration is less than $19,500 (if you call that $20,000 it is 29 District Councils--40%). In one they are paid only $4000-odd. In 61 of our District Councils (85%) councillors are below the median income for New Zealand. In only 10 councils is remuneration above the average. There is obviously no way that local-government ballot-papers can compete on the open market for the best talent the country has to offer.

That is the country we live in, thanks to the Remuneration Authority's abysmal failure to comply with the excellent mandatory criteria that have set down in law--put there to ensure that both the community and those elected to serve it are treated fairly, that local-government remuneration is competitive, and that a representative range of skilled people are attracted to it.