Apparently local body elections are coming up soon, although most people would never know. Some of the more imaginative candidates in Hamilton are getting up to all kinds of interesting stuff, but chances are the turn-out this year will be as low as every other local election. Which suits those in power quite nicely.
I can understand the lack of interest. The thought of going to a council meeting kind of makes me cringe inside, even though I know that local councils have more influence on the day to day lives of ordinary people than Parliament does. A lot of my constituency work as an MP was either doing pycho-therapy or explaining to people why I couldn't do much to help them because it was a COUNCIL ISSUE. Even then, I'm not sure it ever inspired them to vote for their city councillors.
More recently there has been another reason to be disinterested in voting in local elections. The sacking of Environment Canterbury and its replacement by a government picked board was a complete travesty of democracy, removing democratic representation so farmers could seize water resources more easily. The fact that the people of Canterbury won't even get to vote for their regional council this year just adds to the injury. The reorganisation of Auckland's goverance to allow the city to be run by business people for business people is a similar usurption of democracy.
The problem stems from our colonial history. In Europe power tends to be more localised because nation states grew out of the federation of independent cities and provinces. Local power often has constitutional protection. In New Zealand the nation states was enforced from the outside and it was highly centralised from its inception so as to facilitate our exploitation. Simply put, we were designed as a farm for England rather than as a democracy. The source of political power is not seen to be the people, but rather the Crown. While we no longer farm for Britain alone, we are still a commodity producer. Efficient production remains a more powerful political imperative than the right of local people to have a say over the things that are important to them.
Some of the most interesting social developments in Europe have resulted from the exercise of local power. The Dutch quasi legalisation of cannabis, for example, began with a decision by a local prosecutor not to prosecute for cannabis. The resulting policy has been so successful at reducing drug related harm than it has been adopted in most of Holland and increasingly in other parts of Europe too. In New Zealand such a development would be impossible. Here we have centrally controlled pilot schemes, with all the political arse-covering that this involves. If successful, they usually have the plug pulled on them in short order so as not to threaten any entrenched interests.
Because power is seen as flowing down from Her Majesty, rather than originating in the people and flowing up to the Parliament, local bodies provide no constitutional constraint on the Government. As we have seen, the Government can sack councils at will. Neither is there any overarching constitutional constrain on the Government. The Government can pass any laws it likes, even if they breach basic human rights, so long as it has the requisite majority. Our system is very much a product of that brief moment in time when the Nation State was all powerful in Europe – just forged out of autonomous provinces and city states but not yet constrained by regional or global systems of goverance. We are frozen in time.
The question is, which do we value more highly - efficiency or democracy? It has become heretical to question any demand of the market, as if the desires of human beings are legitimate only insofar as they facilitate the economy. We have been enslaved by our own invention. The answer, in my opinion, is a radical localism and it begins with a participatory local politics.
(from my Waikato Times column 6 August 2010)