Perspective on Christchurch’s local representation

Paul McMahon is a member of the Spreydon-Heathcote Community Board, Chair of the Labour Local Government Committee (Christchurch) and Chair of The People’s Choice (Christchurch 2021): This post is his personal opinion and is not speaking for Labour or Christchurch 2021.

As several other writers have reminded us recently, in the past the Christchurch City Council used to win awards for their community engagement due to the high quality of civic leadership and local democracy: a lot has changed since then. There are serious problems within the Council and in the way it is run and led. The public have a right to feel angry and disenfranchised.

At the protest the feeling of anger and a real desire for change was palpable: this is not a flash in the pan of civic history, it was the beginning of the end of the ruling regime. Change is coming to Christchurch, but what the nature of that change is very much up in the air. We are on shaky ground in more ways than one.

The problems are not new and the current cause is simple: the reigning majority of Councillors, led by the Mayor, have not adhered to the basics of democratic process, oversight and governance. This group has been called the “A-team,” and, according to one local body veteran I know, they are the tightest-knit governing political party Christchurch local body politics has seen within living memory. This grouping has allowed the Mayor and the CEO to dominate our local government, by giving them the votes they need at the Council table and by not requiring due democratic process to be followed. The dysfunction currently under the spotlight is how this ruling party has decided our local government should be run since 2007, but the foundations were laid before then.

Between 2004 and 2007 our local democracy was routed in a pincer manoeuvre of democratic deficit and corporatisation. It was the halving of the number of councillors and the amalgamation of wards (merging wealthier wards with poorer wards) before the 2004 local elections (highlighted by Chris Trotter in a recent piece published in The Press) that delivered the king hit that severely weakened democratic representation on the Council, while the corporatisation (presided over by Mayor Garry Moore and CEO Dr. Lesley McTurk) gutted the Council of its public service ethic, institutional knowledge and, therefore, its capacity to respond adequately to the challenges of the recovery we now face.

Furthermore, I would go as far as to say that the reform programme of the Moore-McTurk era is precisely what has enabled two men, the Mayor and the CEO, to so detrimentally dominate what was once the best governed city in the world. In particular, the dissolution of the standing committee structure, the reduction of the power and role of community boards, the centralisation of service-provision and decision-making, and the proliferation of middle and upper management roles. All of these changes have, directly or indirectly, undermined the supremacy of elected members and elevated the roles of the Executive staff and Mayor.

The solution to the problem is to return to democracy, not to remove it altogether as some are advocating. The prospect of government-appointed commissioners is not one anyone should relish. I understand why it has some appeal, but we have already lost a democratic voice in our Regional Council (Ecan), so losing democratic control of the City Council would mean all the decisions about the recovery of our city would be made in Wellington, disenfranchising us even further.

Christchurch is the people’s city, it is neither the Council’s nor the government’s city, and so it should be the people who decide who governs: and the only way to do that is, whether sooner or later, through elections. Disenchantment with the recovery process will only be heightened, and the democratic deficit increased, if the government installs commissioners. They must be sorely tempted, but it carries with it a lot of political risk: once the government installs commissioners they will shoulder all the responsibility and all the blame.

If there are going to be any radical changes, they should be in-line with the principle of subsidiarity and aimed at giving the community a stronger voice in the recovery from the earthquakes. Rather than centralise decision-making in Wellington, the government should go completely the other way. Instead of concentrating power, they should disperse it into the community through strengthened and empowered community boards, whose job it is to be representatives and advocates for their communities.

Decisions about the recovery should be made as close to the people they affect as possible, as openly as possible and with as much participation by the people of Christchurch as possible. If the government appoints commissioners they will be depriving us, the people of Christchurch, of our local democracy and of the ability to determine the shape of the recovery: that is precisely why people feel frustrated with the Council now!

As people who already feel powerless in the face of over 10,000 earthquakes, losing local democratic representation, even for a time, will rob us of even the little voice we currently have. Change is needed, but it must be democratic and it must be empowering to our suffering communities. If the majority of the Council will not change, then an early election is the only answer.

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