Auckland’s second-rate display of hammering the poor

Local body goings-on in Auckland are not likely to excite South Islanders.

Not only because city politics are always the poor cousin to the so-called real politics of Parliament, but the fact that it’s Auckland must seem like a second-rate drama twice removed.

However, the latest local machinations in the north must provide at least some winter entertainment as well as illuminate important issues about affordable community services and the relative power of different lobbies.

The scrap began when the Auckland City Council voted for a water-rate rise of 9.1 per cent, which follows hard on the heels of a 9.6% increase last year. Driving the extra charges has been deputy mayor Bruce Hucker, who went further and explained to an incredulous public that his vision is for similar increases of around 9% each year over the next 10 years, which will more than double the cost of water to Auckland families.

Not to worry, says Bruce, the increases are small and amount to just the cost of half a large packet of chips or a two-litre bottle of Coke each week. (He was showered with potato chips by angry citizens when he attended a meeting a couple of weeks back).

These moves followed the council telling Aucklanders earlier in the year that water price increases were forecast to be an average of 4.3% a year for the next 10 years. Within three months the council announced the 9.6% increase for next year.

With the public fallout, all sides began ducking for cover and things degenerated into pure farce.

Hucker’s Left-leaning council ticket, City Vision, have disowned him. They’ve dumped him as City Vision leader and called on him to resign as deputy mayor.

The hapless Hucker is fighting to keep the job and is backed by Right-wing councillors who want to keep the Left’s embarrassment alive and hope they can get John Banks back as mayor in the October election.

Meanwhile, to avoid political flak, these Right-wingers, who voted with Hucker for the increase in water charges, have tried to move an amendment to halve the increase they approved earlier.

In fact, each side in council has stymied the other’s attempts to reduce the 9.6% increase. It’s been a truly pathetic spectacle.

The extra water charges are part of the determined effort we have seen over the past 15 years or so to introduce Rogernomics into local-body politics, through both the privatisation of community assets and through introducing flat charges or user-pays charges for council services.

The Auckland port remains in public ownership – but only after a huge fight in the 1990s – and we have a small share left in Auckland Airport after John Banks sold half our remaining holding in his previous term as mayor. Council-owned Metrowater would be privatised, or run via a private management contract, except for growing public understanding of the culture of greed which dominates private sector takeover of public services.

On changes to council income there is less community understanding but equally repugnant outcomes.

Rate rises here have been kept artificially low while user pays and flat charges have increased dramatically (water charges being the latest for Aucklanders).

This means that local body services are now based less on the ability of households to pay and more on shifting the burden from the better off onto the less well off. Anyone comparing the cost of rates in 1990 with the total cost of rates and council services in 2007 would find small increases for those in high income suburbs compared to huge increases for low-income families.

This trend applies also to business rates. Their share of the rate burden is steadily decreasing. Once again the poor are paying for the lifestyles enjoyed by the wealthy.

The council says that after the 9.1% price increase this year, the average household water bill in Auckland would be just 1.5% of household income and well below the 3% international affordability indicator for water. However, for a large family with a breadwinner on low wages the figure will be more than 5% of household income. Metrowater has consistently refused to release these figures but hides behind the meaningless average figure.

They say it’s commercially sensitive, but really it’s just an embarrassing inconvenience they want to avoid.

The latest bout of Auckland local-body manoeuvrings is like watching a slow-motion replay of the 1980s with Bruce Hucker as Roger Douglas and Dick Hubbard as David Lange.

Hucker hammers the poor while Hubbard utters the soothing words. He said recently that “the council must ensure that the most vulnerable, such as large families, are protected”. He could start with a little simple honesty.