Friday, August 6, 2010

In need of a radical localism

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)


Anonymous said...

So you're running for Mayor then?

Steelykc said...

What sort of 'local radicalism' should we be doing appart from voting? I dont have the time to run for local council, but I would appreciate some points towards participating in some type of local radicalism.

Steelykc said...

sorry, I meant to say radical localism..... hieneo

James Samuel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James Samuel said...

Wow, that was suitably depressing, as a summary of the state of national and local politics. I hope you're going to write some wonderfully inspiring piece next, explaining what radical localism might look like.

I have thought long and hard about how the process of local participation might be encouraged and increased over time. Here's a draft of an idea which continues to develop through conversation.

I can't help feeling that the present state f affairs and radical concentration of power (via the changes and losses stated in your article), is just the flip-side of the relocalisation coin.

We are all seeing big changes (and challenges) coming down the pipe, and the responses are to coentralise control (if you are in power), or build local resilience if you are a grass roots participant.

Anonymous said...

Ras.. I agree that all people should take an interest in whats going on in their local area & nation.. BUT politics is a game, used by those who seek power & self interest. I dont wish to sound cynical, but after 30 odd years of listening to politicians.. I tend to believe "nothing of what you hear & half of what you see".
Praises in the name of the most HIGH.. Jah Ras Tafari !!

Anonymous said...

A few examples of approaches that could help NZ re agriculture:

· Permiculture
· Organic farming
· Urban farming
· Micro gardens
· Community gardens
· Food forests
· Guerrilla gardening

Perhaps we need a grassroots alternative to the ag research alliance pushed by the dairy giants.

Unknown said...

Thanks for all the comments.

The stuff that people like you are doing James is a big part of it, including permaculture and local food production as indicated by Anonymous. Building community is important, especially in ways that allow people to work and make decisions collectively. We need to create forums for the community to discuss issues that affect it, make decisions and enact them - through direct action if necessary. You already have a head start on Waiheke but I suspect its a bit more difficult in Auckland City.

By direct action I mean both building positive alternatives and challenging negative developments, such as by making it unviable for outside interests to pursue developments that the local community opposes. What those issues are will be determined by what's actually going on in any area, but I don't think we should stick to safe stuff like beach clean ups (good though they are). I would like to see us engaging in actions that challenge the right of the state to dictate terms to local communities.

robertguyton said...

I'm standing Nandor, in Southland, for the Regional Council, Environment Southland.
Like you, I believe that,
"The answer is a radical localism and it begins with a participatory local politics. If you'd like to follow my progress (excellent so far) I'm here:


Anonymous said...

You are right - we have become slaves to the economy and in many cases we vote accordingly.....who is going to provide the environment that allows us to "prosper".
Fed Farmers recent non participation in Manawatu River agreement says it all but is not the only example.
So perhaps what we really need is anything but a democracy. Maybe we need to be dictated to.