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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The Most Important Issue in the World

OK, here’s a potentially boring but important law change that citizens should take an interest in.

Submissions on the Local Electoral Amendment Bill are due this Friday. Given the Government’s desire to have the amendments enacted for the 2013 local government elections, the consultation period has been short.

The Bill tightens the rules around anonymous donations, and basically aligns the local election requirements with those that apply to Parliamentary elections. Candidates can not accept an anonymous donation of more than $1500 and the definition of anonymous donations has been amended so that a donation is anonymous if the candidate does not know the identity of the donor, or could not be reasonably expected to know the identity of the donor – I hope John Banks supports this!

The Bill also incorporates amendments that were in a similar bill Rodney Hide introduced into Parliament just before Parliament rose for the 2011 general elections.

There is a need to minimise the undue influence of wealth in local body election campaigns and to promote transparency and accountability in relation to election financing by introducing caps on donations, limiting the use of anonymous donations and regulating third party spending.

The purpose of this Bill is to strengthen the law governing electoral financing in relation to local body elections, in order to increase transparency and accountability in relation to electoral donations, and strengthen the integrity and efficiency of the local electoral system. As a result, the hope is public confidence in local elections will increase.

Key provisions in the Bill provide for anonymous donations not to exceed $1,500 and more regulation of third party spending.

Significantly, the new legislation provides for more latitude on the application of the +/-10% of voters to councillor rule that caused some controversy during the Gisborne District Council representation review this year.

The bill also requires candidates to identify their primary place of residence because we could have a situation where someone living in Auckland is a ratepayer in Gisborne and could stand for election here.

Other suggestions not included in the bill would lower the anonymous donation amount, put a limit on the total amount that could be donated by an individual or group, a ban on donations from overseas and a pecuniary interests register for members of local authorities.

If I’d written the bill I would have included the requirement for local body candidates and elected members to disclose on a public register any position they hold within a political party. The position could be for any appointed or elected role with a registered political party. Perceived or actual conflicts of interest can exist when local issues are affected by central government changes and a local politician is in a local or national leadership role of either a party whether it is in government or opposition. I’m not suggesting this has happened in Gisborne District Council but the bill claims to be about increasing transparency. While all elected councillors swear an oath to act in the best interests of the whole district, voters should be able to know of any official position a candidate or councillor has with a political party.

Submissions close this Friday (http://tiny.cc/mh0bpw) and though very unlikely, changes may still be made at the select committee stage. I’m sure hundreds of readers care about our democracy so much they will be keen to spend the week before Christmas holidays analysing the bill and writing a submission.

Auckland-centric national policy won’t help here

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Government announcements to make more land available to reduce house prices may backfire in Gisborne according to a District Councillor.

Manu Caddie said there are more than 40 empty state houses in Kaiti alone, and he knows of situations in his neighbourhood where 12 people are living in a one bedroom flat. “This is a bizarre situation when there are half a dozen empty three and four bedroom state houses in the same street that are being vandalised since the tenants were moved out by Housing New Zealand.”

“This is an increasingly common situation since the government reduced eligibility for public housing. We don’t have a housing shortage in Gisborne, we have a logic shortage. One size fits all policies are the problem with central government, our situation is the opposite of Auckland but policy is being designed for the Auckland situation and applied here.”

“Housing materials and construction are a much higher proportion of costs in the Gisborne District, we don’t have a land shortage issue like Auckland. Making it easier to expand the city boundaries will not make it easier for low income families on the East Coast to afford safe and healthy housing” said Mr Caddie. “If the government was serious about finding policy to make housing affordable they would introduce a capital gains tax or other mechanisms to put a damper on the rampant speculation that ramps up property prices.”

Mr Caddie is sceptical about introducing income related rents for private rentals. “That would see a massive transfer of taxes to landlords at the same time as the government is also planning to privatise a large proportion of the public housing stock by transferring state houses to ‘social housing providers’.

Mr Caddie recently wrote on behalf of the Tairāwhiti Housing Advisory Group to the Minister of Social Development requesting a review of the Accommodation Supplement that is supposed to help tenants with rents relative to the average housing costs in their region. Gisborne residents are on a lower rate of subsidy than those who live in regions where the average rental price is lower. Paula Bennett said in a letter that the Ministry would not be reviewing Accommodation Supplement in Gisborne because it would be inappropriate to focus on only one region. The Tairāwhiti Housing Advisory Group agreed last week to ask Anne Tolley and Parekura Horomia to take up this issue on behalf of the region they represent.

Kainga Whenua changes ‘best achievement’ of current Government

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Making it easier for whanau to build on multiply-owned Māori is probably the best achievement of the current government to date says Gisborne District Councillor Manu Caddie.

Changes in eligibility criteria and an increase in the amount Kiwibank will loan under the Kainga Whenua scheme were announced yesterday by Māori Party co-leader and Associate Minister of Housing Tariana Turia.

“If anything can make a difference to unlocking the potential of Māori land on the East Coast then this will” said Mr Caddie.

Mr Caddie said the changes that will allow non-resident shareholders to be guarantors for a loan, lifting the restriction from only first home buyers and raising the income threshold will make it easier for people earning more money, who can afford to service a mortgage, to look at returning to their traditional lands.

Mr Caddie said rates arrears on Māori land in the northern part of Gisborne District were spiraling out of control and this kind of policy would make it much easier for families to return to the land and make it even more productive than it had been 100 years ago.

“With the opportunities technology offers to work anywhere, the idea of living on tribal lands and trading globally is going to be very appealing to more families.”

Mr Caddie has been critical of the Kainga Whenua scheme in the past because the restrictive criteria had severely limited its uptake. “These are the changes we have been calling for and it is great to see both the Maori Party and National Party have been listening.”

Mr Caddie said a presentation on the new criteria would be on the agenda of the Tairawhiti Housing Advisory Group meeting at Council on 24th October.

The fund will now be open to Maori Land Trusts, whanau or hapu groups who wish to build on Maori land and to all individual borrowers assessed as able to service a mortgage, not just first home buyers.

The income cap for borrowers has been raised from $85,000 to $120,000 for one borrower and up to $160,000 for two or more borrowers.

Loans can also now be used for home improvements, repairs and maintenance.

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Vulnerable children strategy misses opportunity

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Government plans to better support children at risk of abuse have a range of good ideas but miss some important opportunities to reduce reliance on agencies according to a group using volunteers to improve child safety.

“The white paper strategy is almost exclusively focused on professionals and agencies – both government and non-government. We think they have missed a critical piece of the puzzle, which is utilising the healthy, caring adults in communities and neighbourhoods that children are being raised in. It takes a village to raise a child and healthy villages raise healthy children” said Manu Caddie the project manager for Tiakina o Tatou Tamariki, a neighbourhood project focused on keeping children safe in two suburbs of Gisborne and Whanganui.

“We have seen how adults within neighbourhoods can develop their skills and grow their commitment to supporting vulnerable families, including parents and children. Everyone can agree that kids should be safe, and providing opportunities for neighbours to get to know and trust each other reduces isolation and risk.”

Mr Caddie said some of the measures in the Government white paper released today sound ‘big brother’ and intrusive but there are a group of adults who should not have children in their care.

“It’s disappointing that most of the measures seem to give more power to the state and professionals, I guess we would have liked to see more focus on Government supporting neighbourhoods and communities to become healthy, trusting and well connected” said Mr Caddie.

“The Vulnerable Kids Information System to identify risks prior to birth may be useful, because it’s quite possible to see the train crash coming, but combined with the recently announced Government sterilisation of beneficiaries, there is a risk you are heading down a pathway to eugenics”.

A database of at-risk children could be a very powerful tool in child abuse prevention, but Mr Caddie points to existing national databases of at-risk children and wonders how successful these have been.

“We know for all the good work Child, Youth & Family do, their extensive national database that tracks children and families still contains many, many children who are being mistreated.”

Mr Caddie said he hoped parents would be supported to access the information agencies held about the families as professionals can misuse their power, even when they think they are helping.

Mr Caddie said Te Ora Hou Aotearoa, the organisation he works for supports the white paper proposal for a national education campaign to identify signs of abuse, but would also like to see a campaign focused on keeping kids safe and cared for.

Tiakina o Tatou Tamariki involves ‘Community Animators’ mobilising neighbourhood residents and other volunteers to build trusting, supportive relationships within communities with a focus on keeping children safe and healthy. The three year project is privately funded and a recent evaluation suggested it is demonstrating value for money as an investment in the prevention of child maltreatment.

Te Ora Hou is a national network of faith-based Māori and Pacific youth and community development organisations established in 1976. Te Ora Hou supports volunteers to mentor children and young people as well providing a range of educational and developmental opportunities for children and parents including teen parenting initiatives, early childhood centres, alternative education programmes and rehabilitation services for young offenders.

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More information:

www.teorahou.org.nz

Tel. 0274202957

What is the Purpose of Local Government?

The Local Government Act Amendment Bill has had its first reading in Parliament. One of the key parts of the bill is redefining the reason local government exists. Should councils be focused on priorities that local people agree on, or should they be just another branch of central government?

The basis of the proposed changes seems largely ideological rather than driven by a particular problem. Council debt, losses on tourist initiatives and rates rises above the rate of inflation have been the subject of regular media releases from central government. A very small number of councils have made mistakes and local government is partly responsible for the traction these stories get in the news. We’re not always great at helping the public understand the balancing act between local expectations, affordability and the existing regulatory frameworks council has to operate within.

Most councils seem to share concerns about the lack of evidence upon which the draft legislation is based and about the implications of working under legislation that hasn’t been well thought out. Similar reservation were expressed by the officials who submitted a statement along with the draft legislation and said they could find no evidence to support most of content of the bill. This lack of confidence was reinforced this week in the unanimous rejection of the proposed change of purpose at a meeting of all local government authorities.

Three separate public inquiries have concluded that the sector has not significantly expanded the scope of its activities since 2002. When pushed, the Prime Minister would not exclude things like social housing, swimming pools, libraries or tourism promotion from falling within the proposed new purposes. So the general feeling is that the current purpose is fine – the uncertainty created in the proposed new purposes would open up a can of worms in terms of legal challenges and that there was no problem that will be solved with the proposed change.

As has been suggested locally, I would be open to a social housing trust taking over Council housing if it had the experience and could prove it could do as good or better job than Gisborne District Council currently does as a landlord. Such a move would need to ensure the housing is provided to those who most need it, particularly as central government is similarly messing with the provision of social housing and has been criticized by its own Productivity Commission for having no clear plan or rationale for the changes.

I don’t think we should hold on to purely commercial assets if they aren’t consistently providing a return on investment better than what we’d get if we used the capital to pay off debt and reduce interest payments. As far as I can tell, the first asset to divest the Council of should be the farms. I struggle to understand why some people believe Council must maintain ownership of the farms while we pay millions in interest on debt. How ‘pragmatic’ is that?

The reality is the proposed change of purpose would not result in Council stopping anything it currently does, but it would give more fuel to fire of the ideologues who argue local government should take no interest in the wellbeing of our communities beyond roads and rubbish. A change of purpose would waste staff time defending the participatory planning processes that result in more enduring decisions than if we think councillors or staff know best. I also suspect it would undermine opportunities for Council, as the one fully democratically elected local entity, to have some influence on how our taxes and rates are spent to help meet the needs and aspirations of our communities.