Deepening Democracy

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‘The Death of Socrates’

The controversial decision of the Local Government Commission on the GDC Representation Review has provided another opportunity to look at local democracy in more depth. The status quo was preferred by a slim majority of councillors but like in 1998 the Commission took into account the law and the views of submitters and ultimately required changes in the structure of elected members.

It is great to see my rural colleagues committed to ensuring all voices in the district are heard and the ‘quiet’ residents “have their needs listened to and met.” I agree we need to ensure those groups that traditionally have not had a strong voice around the Council table are better represented and contribute to decision-making.

To this end perhaps we should be reviewing the current content and effectiveness of the GDC Consultation Policy passed by the previous Council?

That policy commits Council to “partner with the public in each aspect of a decision, including the development of alternatives and the identification of the preferred solution.” The policy says “We will look to you (citizens) for direct advice in formulating solutions and incorporate your advice into the decisions to the maximum extent possible.” My short time on Council has suggested there is much room for improvement in this regard.

The last Council specifically excluded ’empowerment’ and putting ‘decision-making in the hands of the public’ from the spectrum of public engagement in the Consultation Policy. I guess it may come down to a philosophy of governance. Some people believe elected representatives are put into office to make decisions on behalf of the public who wish to have little input in decisions that affect them. Others of us believe our role is to encourage as much public participation in local decision-making as possible. Maybe I’ve packaged the proposals in unhelpful ways, but most of my efforts in this regard haven’t been very successful to date.

Community Boards were one example and something we could have included in the Representation Review if there was greater willingness to look at ways to improve our democratic processes locally. 42 submitters (including a number living in rural areas) argued for Community Boards through their Representation Review submissions compared to only 11 submitters who said they did not support Community Boards.

Wainui/Okitu Residents and Ratepayers Association submission specifically requested a Community Board for their community as they argued Wainui/Okitu is a community of interest as defined in the legislation. They also suggested other rural communities may benefit from community boards.

While highly effective in the overwhelming majority of districts that have Community Boards, the request for community boards was rejected by the majority of councilors.

It is encouraging to see that the majority of councilors support special treatment for some parts of the population, in this case depending on where you live or own property. As Turanga iwi have successfully demonstrated through their Treaty settlements, indigenous peoples are also entitled to special treatment in local government arrangements and it will be interesting to see how this works out under the new statutory committee to be established between Council and iwi.

Consultation Policy goals we can and will do better on include: promoting a sense of ownership of its decisions by the people of the district; providing an opportunity for meaningful input into decisions; creating an awareness of the diversity of opinion within the community; and showing leadership.

15 years after the last changes were made in representation arrangements some will say we are closer to fair representation and others will say we are not, but hopefully we can keep taking important steps toward empowered participation.

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