Democracy only for the wealthy in Auckland

I’ve never thought New Zealand was close to a participatory democracy. Our three-yearly elections more often resemble voting for which dictatorship we would prefer to run the country.

Around the developed world there is growing disenchantment with what passes for democracy. The drivers have been the same in each country. For at least five elections from 1984 New Zealanders voted for one set of policies and got another. Despite consistently voting for governments expected to put curbs on corporate control of our economy and keep ownership of community assets in public hands we were betrayed each time by political parties under the effective control of the very corporate sector who benefited from undemocratic decisions.

So when the opportunity came to make a submission to the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance I proposed voters be given the ability to recall their local candidate if they felt he or she was going against their wishes. If say 10% of local voters signed a petition to recall their representative then a referendum would be held to decide if recall was warranted and if so a replacement would be elected. Such a provision would give much greater power to voters and help avoid corporate capture.

Needless to say this proposal was absent from the commission’s proposals. More importantly the whole concept of democracy has taken a beating in the commission’s proposal. It has proposed authoritarian powers to an all-powerful mayor over a single council and centralised bureaucracy.

Those living south of the Bombay Hills will probably just shrug and mutter but for those of us living in Auckland there’s a lot at stake.

Our six local councils would be replaced with hollow shells at local level which will carry the responsibility for such things as licensing dogs, issuing building permits and cleaning up graffiti.

Representation will be with the “super-city” where 10 local candidates would be elected to represent areas with approximately twice the population of parliamentary electorates. This is as good as it gets. The other 10 councillors would be elected at large because the commission says it wants the new council to have a strong regional view to avoid local parochialism.

Auckland moved away from “election at large” some years back because the council was disproportionately dominated by the good citizens of Remuera who were very good at looking after the interests of the well off but useless at providing community services or decent public transport. This is perhaps the main reason Auckland is now such a congested mess.

The ward system of direct local representation we’ve had in recent years has given a somewhat stronger democratic voice to local communities. This will evaporate under the proposals now being considered by cabinet. By the time you read this column John Key will have made an announcement to rush through legislation based on the commission’s report. What follows will be a rubber stamp.

The prospects for the 2010 local body elections look bleaker than usual. The dominant political grouping is the right-wing Citizens and Ratepayers which is the only group with the strong corporate backing which will be essential to run a cross-region promotion a third the size of a national election campaign. Leading this group will be John Banks who will contest the mayoralty.

The commission suggests a spending limit of $70,000 for the mayoralty campaign which it suggests will help level the playing field and allow any viable, high quality candidates to stand. However no spending limit is proposed for the slates of candidates and these will inevitably endorse mayoral candidates one way or another.

First past the post will be the voting system which means a mayor and councillors will almost certainly be elected with less than 30% of the vote.

Unless he is struck by lightning in the meantime John Banks will be mayor and we can expect an acceleration of what he has delivered so far. He has consistently advocated the sale of Auckland community assets and managed to sell half the city’s stake in Auckland airport and the council’s housing stock in a previous stint as mayor. He gives lip service to public transport while driving a business-first agenda of roads, roads and more roads. It will be no surprise to readers that Auckland spends more per head on roads than any other Australasian city and yet becomes more gridlocked by the day.

Banks’s latest effort this year was a deeply earnest television performance where he declared the council would keep its rate increases to just five percent because “the people out there are hurting”. Two hours later the council voted to keep the city-wide increase to 5% but in the process voted to increase rates on low and middle-incomes families by over 10% while Auckland’s millionaires received a rates cut.

The commission says their proposal requires a local mayor who is an ‘inspirational leader, inclusive in approach and decisive in action’. Instead we’ll get John Banks.