Reactivating local democracy in New Zealand

A recent report by The Policy Observatory, Auckland University of Technology, calls for a fortified local government system to revitalise democracy in New Zealand. 

In ‘Saving local democracy: An agenda for the new government’ , Mike Reid reviews nine years of local government reform under the previous central administration and highlights the opportunity to build a lasting and partisan-proof system, improving on the approach of the Local Government Act 2002.

The effective revival of local government will require the establishment of a substantive, re-empowered and safeguarded local government system, Reid suggests. Looking back over reforms between 2008 and 2017, Reid reveals the systematic dismantling of local government power through amendments made to the Local Government Act 2002. By limiting council roles, reducing citizen participation in local decisions, and allowing central government to have unprecedented powers of intervention in local matters, these changes set out a narrow vision for local government as agents rather than partners of the central government.  

If local governments are to successfully respond to emerging local and regional challenges, many of which relate to global issues, they must be able to function as distinct spheres of government, Reid points out. To this end, constitutional and cross-party support would be essential to ensure that local government can perform its crucial role in democratic life. He suggests the following measures to reset the balance between local and central government power:

  • improving taxing powers for councils
  • moving away from the idea of scaling-up local bodies and services
  • formally setting out and validating the equation between local and central government
  • empowering local government to shape local programs and policies
  • resetting the flow of accountability so that ministers answer to citizens and electors

Reid underlines the importance of decentralised and dispersed policy-making in building resilient, sustainable communities. With local government reactivated as facilitators rather than limited administrators or powerless service delivery bodies, local communities and leaders can tackle local and wider issues in the public sphere.  

Mike Reid is Principal Policy Advisor at Local Government New Zealand.

Photo: Joanjoc/Wikimedia Commons

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