Democracy in Tauranga down the plug-hole until 2024 – so what can we learn about Mahuta’s intentions for Three Waters?

The Taxpayers’ Union saw the implications for the Three Waters programme.   Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta’s decision to cancel this year’s elections in Tauranga (spokesman Louis Houlbrooke said) showed she could not be trusted to deliver water services that are accountable to ratepayers.

The Taxpayers’ Union is supporting the Tauranga Ratepayers’ Alliance‘s petition to restore elections at www.restoredemocracy.nz.

Among his objections to Mahuta’s decision, Houlbrooke said the Wellington-appointed, co-governed commission (answerable only to the Minister) had pushed through a 17 per cent rates hike.

“Why should we expect her unelected, co-governed water entities to deliver anything better for ratepayers?”

Fair to say, One News  flushed out support for Mahuta:

“A murmur of relief spread across the room as Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta announced Tauranga City Council’s election will be delayed until July 2024 and a commission remain in place.”

The four commissioners (Oner News recalled) took over in February last year after Mahuta deposed the previous councillors in December 2020 because of “significant governance problems among elected representatives” and the findings of an independent review.

Tauranga Chamber of Commerce chief executive Matt Cowley said he was relieved rather than celebratory.

“It’s a shame that we’re in the situation when Government needs to intervene,” he said.

“The relief comes from knowing that the city can focus on the issues… rather than discussing personality clashes.”

The previous Mayor, Tenby Powell, who resigned in November 2020 and called for the appointment of commissioners, was “relieved and thrilled” by Mahuta’s decision.

“We need consistency, we need stability and we’ve got it with the commissioners,” Powell told Local Democracy Reporting.

“They’ve had the courage to make the right decisions for Tauranga City, which is 20 years behind where it should be.”

It’s always instructive to hear someone enthuse about the “right decisions” being made.

But Local Government New Zealand president Stuart Crosby said his organisation was disappointed.

“Local democracy is at the heart of local government and this decision does not reflect that,” said Crosby, who was also the Mayor of Tauranga from 2004 to 2016.

“We do acknowledge this has been a difficult decision for the Minister.”

And Greg Brownless, who took over the mayoralty in 2016, told Local Democracy Reporting:

“It’s a sad day for democracy.

“Government has broken the contract with the people for democracy it espouses,” he said.

“The issue isn’t whether the commissioners have done a good or bad job. It’s that it’s up to the voters to choose their representatives.”

Tauranga MP Simon Bridges said Mahuta’s decision was “plain wrong”.

“Everywhere else will have local body elections this year apart from us and for no good reason other than power and control and convenience,” he claims.

In her announcement, Mahuta said the current Tauranga Commissioners had  accomplished “some impressive achievements”.  She cited strengthening relationships with the community, producing a long-term plan for 2021-31, and improving culture within the Council.

“They have acted on many hard decisions that are essential to building a prosperous and sustainable future for Tauranga. But it is clear there is more to be done.”

Having a Commission beyond October would ensure the Council had the stability needed “to maintain its current pace” [whatever that means].

“They will be able to deliver on several complex programmes of work, including plans for the new civic centre precinct and investment plans for future growth.”

The current Commission’s term will end in October. Following consultation with Cabinet, Mahuta will consider candidates for appointment to the next Commission.

Will there be any murmurs of dissent from within Labour’s ranks?

Propobably not.

But let’s be reminded of what Labour MPs said during the debate (under urgency) of legislation to enable Environment Canterbury to be run by commissioners after the sacking of its elected members in 2010.

The legislation in question was the Environment Canterbury (Temporary Commissioners and Improved Water Management) Bill.

BRENDON BURNS (Labour—Christchurch Central) :

Labour is opposing this bill. It is a constitutional outrage on a whole number of levels. This bill replaces Environment Canterbury’s elected councillors with Government-appointed commissioners.

And:

This bill will absolutely disenfranchise the voters of Canterbury for the next 3½ years. It is not a quick fix; it is a long-term assault on the democratic model, which we on this side of the House happen to believe is quite important constitutionally.

And:

Environment Canterbury is a democratically elected body. Its history has included having members of this House as members. But this bill, without any chance for public submissions, will disenfranchise the voters of Canterbury.

Hon RUTH DYSON (Labour—Port Hills) :

“Stepping in” is one way of putting the Government’s intervention in our democratically elected regional authority; some people might say “stomping all over democracy”.

And:

The Canterbury members on this side of the House and members of the public in Canterbury are not at all impressed with the Environment Canterbury (Temporary Commissioners and Improved Water Management) Bill. It is an absolute outrage and a breach of our democratic rights. We have the right to elect good or bad councillors. We have that vote. That vote is being taken away from us…

Hon LIANNE DALZIEL (Labour—Christchurch East) :

I believe that it is a very sorry day for Parliament today. I believe that the Minister for the Environment is overseeing one of the most anti-democratic processes that one could imagine.

Oh – and let’s not forget the Greens were once troubled by the dismantling of democracy at local government level, too.

Dr RUSSEL NORMAN (Co-Leader—Green) :

It is interesting that we have had a debate over the last few weeks over whether we should have one person, one vote. Well, the Government tonight is moving towards one person, no vote, in Canterbury. Tonight it is abolishing democracy in Canterbury for 3½ years. It sounds like something that Commodore Frank Bainimarama would do in Fiji, when he said “We are just going to abolish democracy for a little while, but we will bring it back again later.”

But you won’t get far if  you suggest to Labour and Green MPs today that legislation which enables a council to appoint councillors is anti-democratic….

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