Labour the party of centralised bureaucracy?

Bryce Edward’s Democracy Project blog has this week a post by Camryn Brown implying the above. It’s not clear who Camryn Brown is and what ideological cant they follow, but there is is a lot of form to it with the present Labour government although it’s not always like this with Labour. The Clark administration of 1999-2008 was clear for example on decentralising health decisionmaking to DHBs and implemented this as a key policy initiative in 2000, the opposite of what is now being implemented by Jacinda’s government. In general, the current lot haven’t shown any signs of believing in any sort of decentralisation, and also appear set on ignoring grassroots activism from within their own party, or past lessons from previous terms of office. For examples, transport activists expected to see a lot more in this government’s first term than zero progress on light rail in Auckland (NZ First had very little to do with this outcome) and a complete failure to address service cuts pushed through by National. This very week the government has finally admitted public transport needs a boost and is promising to address it in the budget. What that means remains to be seen.

Whilst on this blog there isn’t full acquiescence with Brown’s views, at times Labour does justifiably cop flack for having a top down control mentality to policies and one of those areas is where they definitely should be devolving more to Māori. Helen Clark shot herself in the foot in 2004 by rushing out the Foreshore and Seabed Act in response to a Waitangi Tribunal ruling. This led to the formation of Te Pāti Māori who have been an ongoing political force since. They then got some achievements under coalition with National during their 2008-2017 term, including the repeal and replacement of the FSA and the introduction of Whanau Ora, a policy platform for empowering Māori to find their own solutions to social issues. Labour was notably opposed to TPM from its inception and it’s not certain that there is much warmth between them now. Speculation in recent weeks has been that TPM may hold the balance of power after the 2023 election if National overtakes Labour to become the largest party in Parliament. Labour would then have to govern in a coalition with other parties. Previously, Labour have been reluctant to support electoral arrangements to get allied parties into Parliament but this would be wise to undertake with TPM in future.

One of the biggest upcoming issues of centralisation is the 3 Waters policy which is shaping up to become very controversial as the 2022 local government elections approach. In this past this blog has expressed low confidence in the abilities of local government to get things done well and this is very clearly the case in 3 Waters and justified the central government approach. Whilst Watercare in Auckland has been generally successful, it s hamstrung by being required to undertake capital financing through Auckland Council. Also it is fairly clear Watercare would never have got to where it is now without central government intervention in the early 1990s taking control of it from local politicians. In the same era, Christchurch water infrastructure under the local and independent Christchurch Drainage Board was swallowed up into the enlarged CCC as a result of local political lobbying and there exists currently furious opposition to any suggestions that CCC is incapable (as it has proved to date) of doing a good job in this role. So it remains very much a question of whether the government’s four large entities across large swathes of the countryside is the best model or whether local CCOs with government oversight are the best outcome. One of the reasons Watercare has done so well is they have full ownership of all their assets and the biggest problem and debacle in the 3 Waters to date has been the reluctance of local bodies to hand over those assets, which are seen as enabling substantial borrowing for any purpose under the sun. But somewhere along the way we have lost sight of why local governments need to have so much debt these days and how much of it is actually essential. It is far easier for councils to raise the rates to pay for increased borrowing costs that it is for central government to raise taxes to the same ends and so it seems to be a foregone conclusion that councils will just keep on increasing their debt. Another questionable aspect of local governance.

One other side of the 3 Waters debate is the proposals to give Māori a co-governance role in the four large entities. This will be by way of allowing iwi entities to appoint representatives in their areas. Winston Peters has attacked this as enabling a tribal elite ahead of the interests of ordinary Māori. However he is clearly failing to respect the tribal structures that are traditional in Maori governance and is looking remarkably colonialist in his approach. This of course is Winston’s attempt to carve out a wedge for himself appealing to the pale stale males in racist sentiment and has nothing particularly to do with the benefit of Māori as a whole.

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