Opinion: I have been reflecting on the first MMP election in 1996, which led to eight weeks of negotiations. It was a frustrating time for all concerned. I do not think for a minute that there is any chance of such an extended negotiation this time around.
There is only one person who will be Prime Minister rather than two contenders (Jim Bolger and Helen Clark) back then.
On the other hand, there were only two parties in the final mix then, whereas this time there are three, each with their own and sometimes conflicting agendas. These issues don’t all have to be settled now, but agreeing a means for resolving them will be required if the aim is a stable government.
I see a number of councils signalling their priorities to the incoming government as they start to settle their draft long-term plans, something they are required to do every three years. My message to the incoming government is to listen to what they are saying.
It is vital there is a strong working relationship between central and local government.
For a start, it’s vital the minister for local government is in a senior position in Cabinet. Now is the time to send a strong message that the incoming government will partner with local government and their communities in a meaningful way.
Some of the big-ticket items National campaigned on have huge financial implications for local government – especially Three Waters. No wonder councils need more than slogans before they go out for public consultation on their long-term plans in the new year.
This is why it would make sense if the minister for local government was an associate minister of finance as well. This would enable the funding of local government to take centre stage when it comes to unravelling some of the previous government’s reforms. He or she needs to be a heavy hitter, but also someone who can work across party lines. We can’t keep changing structures and not addressing the underlying issues – fiddling while Rome burns.
In addition, there is the cyclone-recovery portfolio, which is going to require ongoing government support and a commitment to working closely with affected councils and their communities.
It will be important for the government to be thinking about the opportunities for betterment and climate resilience in the context of the recovery. It may cost more in the short term, but it will definitely cost significantly less in the long term.
When we think of all the reviews that have been held over the years, we know funding lies at the heart of the challenges facing local government, whose primary income is based on the rating valuations of the properties in their districts.
Given that some of the coalition policies raise the prospect of addressing the anomaly of GST on rates – a tax on a tax if ever there was one – coupled with the prospect of city deal approach, there is cause for optimism that new funding models may be found.
The key will be to ensure that devolution does not mean abandonment. The funding must be secured first.
The local government minister must have a strong mandate to work closely with councils, not just on their policy areas, but on all issues that have an impact on local communities – for example the health reforms.
It is beyond my comprehension that local government was not given the opportunity to partner on such matters, especially as the Future for Local Government Review was to be instigated during the last term of government.
I was personally frustrated by the review’s terms of reference. The future of local government is not a standalone subject – it is inextricably linked to the role of government, be it central, regional, or local. It should be experienced as a continuum.
I was giving a talk last week, and I reflected on the phrase ‘whole-of-government’ or ‘all-of-government’. This cannot be a true reflection of its meaning if local government is left out, which sadly it inevitably is. I have only ever heard ministers use it when they are referring to central government.
This is where all the problems begin in my view.
If I was asked to describe the role of central government from a local government perspective, I would say I would be looking up and the government would be looking down on the council. That to me is ridiculous. We need to look each other in the eye, neither one subservient to the other.
And yet as I’ve been pointing out recently, the top-down approach seems to be every government’s default position.
This is the most distant point from the community, and yet the community is where the rubber hits the road.
The incoming government could decide to do things differently, and I urge them to do so.