Sunday, 4 September 2016

Open Season on Local Democracy

As frustrating as local councils can be, they play a crucial role in our democracy by reflecting local preferences. Democracy is out of favour in certain circles however, and New Zealand likes to be up with the play on this kind of thing, which may be why there's so much council bashing underway at the moment.

First up, amendments to the Local Government Act that, among other things, would allow central government to create Council Controlled Organisations (CCOs) without their agreement. A bunch of Mayors turned up to Parliament to oppose this yesterday, describing it as "completely undemocratic". 

Second, genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In several parts of the country (Hastings, Auckland, Northland) councils have responded to local preferences by agreeing to control outdoor cultivation of GMOs.* Biotech producers, who have allied with Federated Farmers on this topic since biotech investor Sir William Rolleston became their president, have opposed these initiatives but lost, at council hearings, in the Environment Court, and just last week in the High Court. Interestingly, SWR wasn't too worried about being a three-time loser on this topic. Here he is on Morning Report:
"...the Court has ... said... that there are some things that the government or indeed Parliament need to do, if ah, if ah, Councils are not going to be..."  
If you think that doesn't sound like language from a High Court judgement, you're right. Sir William was getting ahead of himself. It would be another whole day before Environment Minister Nick Smith put plan B into operation, announcing that this aggression would not stand because he will change the law. Smith claimed that medical uses were being prohibited, but he must know that's a lie.

The third example is a doozy, and might well be what Smith has in mind for denying local governance of outdoor GMO cultivation. It's the "Resource Legislation Amendment Bill" which is mostly about amending the Resource Management Act (RMA). Check out this little ripper of a clause which would insert two new sections into the RMA. The first clause, which would become s360D(1) of the RMA goes like this.
The Governor-General may, by Order in Council made on the recommendation of the Minister, make regulations—
(a) to permit a specified land use:
(b) to prohibit a local authority from making specified rules or specified types of rules:
(c) to specify rules or types of rules that are overridden by the regulations and must be withdrawn:
(d) to prohibit or override specified rules or types of rules that meet the description in subsection (3)(b).
Got that? Under the proposed changes, if Nick Smith, or whoever else ends up as Minister, doesn't like something a council has done, he can veto it.

We're not fascists though, so this veto needs to be dressed up with a spiffy uniform. Which in this case looks like a sound process involving much consultation and chin-stroking. The Minister has to tell affected groups of his/her plans and establish a process that
"the Minister considers gives the public, the relevant local authorities, and the relevant iwi authorities adequate time and opportunity to comment on the proposed regulations"
Do you feel much happier that the Minister needs to be satisfied that the process he/she has created to review/challenge/amend details of the veto gives "adequate time and opportunity to comment"? Me neither, and I'm reminded of this gem.

* Disclosure: I have provided economic advice to council hearings in each of these places. 

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