Last week the National Government announced it won’t restore regional democracy in Canterbury until 2019. Instead it’s imposing a bizarre hybrid model of seven elected and six Government appointed members from 2016-2019. This will allow Ministers in the Beehive to continue to dominate the regional council, and influence water management that promotes irrigation and intensive agriculture, for another four years.
No other regional or unitary council in the country has Government appointees at the council table. But no other regional council is responsible for 60% of the water allocated for irrigation in New Zealand.
Over the weekend the Summary of submissions on Environment Canterbury Review: a discussion document was quietly posted to the Ministry for the Environment website:
Unsurprisingly, the Government has largely ignored the 505 submissions that opposed its mixed model (out of a total of 534 submitters). The announcement last week was almost exactly the same as the proposal back in March.
The handful of submitters who supported Ministers choosing nearly half of those around the Council table included Federated Farmers, Irrigation New Zealand, the Waitaki Irrigators’ Collective and the Hurunui Water Project.
Submitters opposed to the hybrid model included 495 individuals, and the Christchurch City Council, the New Zealand Law Society, Malvern Hills Protection Society, Forest and Bird, and North Canterbury Fish and Game.
Submitters opposed the hybrid model because it is undemocratic. They called for a return to a fully elected Environment Canterbury Regional Council.
As the Christchurch City Council said in its submission:
- “Further clarity is needed on the roles of elected and appointed members and whether there is any differentiation.
- The Council is concerned that the mixed model will reduce effective, open and transparent processes rather than provide stability for Canterbury.
- There is a risk that central government processes and decision making will interfere with decision making that is in the best interests of the Canterbury public (p. 8).”
Waikato Regional Council and Horizons Regional Council said they opposed the mixed-model because “this represents a significant change in the way local government operates” (p. 8).
Local Government NZ (LGNZ) which represents all councils highlighted the fallacy of the Government’s comparison with the District Health Board (DHB) model. DHBs are centrally funded by government. They are not funded by and accountable to, local voters and ratepayers. LGNZ pointed out that the level of complexity faced by ECan ‘is overstated in the discussion document and other regional councils face similar challenges.’
LGNZ re-asserted the fundamental importance of local democracy saying,
“Local government representatives should not be required to have specialist expertise or skills. Rather their role is to “set direction, resolve differences over values and set priorities and most of all, supervise management” (p. 8).
Likewise, local government is not about ensuring continuity, LGNZ argued. The mixed-model itself does not guarantee continuity either. ‘There is no guarantee that the elected members will remain at ECan after 2019.’ (p. 8).
The vast majority of submitters called for a return to full democratic representation.
Human Rights Commission believe the mixed-model would be a significant improvement [on the current model], but that a fully elected model is more consistent with the principles of participation and democracy (p. 8).
The Review process itself has been dubious. The Government barely publicised the opportunity to submit and only allowed six weeks for submissions. Ministers did not host any meetings with the public; they appear to undervalue the democratic contribution of those who submitted via an online form, and they did not consider any issues seen as “outside the scope” of’ the ECan review.
Three submitters note that the discussion document only presented one option; the public should have opportunity to comment on alternative options (p. 20).
Given that the Government broke its promise in 2013 about restoration of an elected regional council, and it has continued to trample on democracy though its management of the Christchurch rebuild, it’s not surprising that there were hundreds rather than thousands of submissions. National is not listening to the people.
Some 500 people who, commendably, exercised their democratic right to submit on this review, and the thousands represented by organisations such as Forest and Bird and Fish and Game, however, called for a return to regional democracy.
- “No taxation without representation.”
- “We will not be railroaded.”
- “New Zealand is either a fully democratic country, or not at all.”
- “If you refuse us this, and take away our right and freedoms to have the people we chose represent us, then it is the start of a slippery slope into dictatorship.”
- “It is punishment for the people of Canterbury for electing representatives that opposed the views of some powerful vested interests.”
- “Why has the Government backtracked on its prior commitment to restoring democracy?” (p. 19)
It is time for the National Government to trust the people of Canterbury to elect competent councillors and for these councillors to represent citizens in managing the region’s transport planning, water, air, coast, and natural hazards.