Thursday, 30 April 2015

Submission on the ECAN Review: "WeCan" be better than this

In 2012 the NZ National government extended a 2010 decision to suspend local elections  for regional government in Canterbury, NZ. The elected Governing body ECAN had been suspended in 2010 and replaced with appointed commissioners. The move was highly contentious at the time, with critics arguing that it introduced opportunity for a resource grab (because the regional council manages valuable resources including water and soils, while the government argued it allowed better decision making affecting access to water for the valuable dairy industry) . The decision to continue to suspend democracy until 2016 however was met with near universal condemnation. The NZ government has now produced a discussion document proposing a new mixed member governance strategy for the future, of 6 appointed officials and 7 elected.   I made the submission below on the NZ ECAN review-public comments are due by 5pm tonight 1 May to submit your own views click  here:

Submission on the review of: The Environment Canterbury (Temporary Commissioners and Improved Water Management Act) 2010 (ECan Act)
Associate Professor Bronwyn Hayward
Head of Department of political Science
University of Canterbury, NZ
Private Bag, Christchurch, NZ

I am an Associate Professor of political science and Head of Department at the University of Canterbury, NZ. Trained in political science and geography, I’ve served as a specialist in public participation and democracy issues in environmental and social change for 25 years at Lincoln and Canterbury Universities and on international fellowships including Tyndall Centre for Climate Change and Centre for Environmental strategy at Surrey University. I am a co-investigator with the University of Oslo research project on youth in a changing climate and a member of the 11 person expert steering committee for the International Social Science Council guiding global research investment for sustainable transformation. I’m also a trustee of the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainability UK. From 2016 I lead one of nine partner teams collaborating in a new international Centre for Understanding Sustainable Prosperity, CUSP, funded through the UK. I was the University of Canterbury’s inaugural join winner of the College of Arts Critic and Conscience of Society Research Award in 2014.

In the following submission I focus on three critical questions:

1) What is the problem and guiding vision that justifies far reaching changes?
2) How will proposed arrangements ensure citizens of Canterbury have fair representation as determined by NZ Local Government Commission 2007?
3) What other changes could enhance accountability for the future?

The three key arguments of this submission are:

a)  Lack of a visionary, legislative framework: The framework for change  isn't made clearly in this proposal-eg we are not given a clear vision or justification for moving to a mixed governance model.
b)  Electoral Unfairness- the current proposals would be unfair for the people of Christchurch City who account for approximately two thirds of the total regional population and are a significant rate base. It is  unreasonable and unfair if the city is relegated to just one electorate- this proposal would contradict the determination of the Local Government Commission in April 2007 about what constitutes fair electoral arrangements for the region
c) Opportunity for innovation. A model similar to a District Health Board of no more than 4 appointments of 11 Councillors has some merit but the current idea of 6 appointments out of 13 elected commissioners is unreasonable and is not justified. A mixed governance model would need to explicitly say which voices are appointed, by whom and in what proportion of elected to non-elected and why? All changes should be in line with national policy.

1. What is the problem and what is the vision?

1.1) I regret having to begin by expressing dismay over the impact of these changes for citizens of Canterbury. The current government suspended regional democracy in 2012, partly on the grounds this would enable a more effective, and accountable, governance transition. Yet what has been offered now is not thoughtful, nor more transparent, nor accountable. The brief discussion document makes no reference to any legislation, and barely justifies the changes it suggests. Quite frankly, it is unworthy of a government that seeks to administer millions of dollars’ worth of New Zealand community assets and natural resources.
1.2 ) There is no legislative framework nor vision in the document. For example the careful, if pragmatic reasoning that informed previous National and Labour led governments who created the governance regime of natural resource management based on catchments is absent. Instead we are offered a list of headlines with no idea of any legislative vision or framework that will guide these. Simply offering an opening grab-bag of headlines for governance is unhelpful. “High quality leadership, economic growth, strong environmental stewardship, strong accountability to local communities, and value and efficiency for ratepayer money” are a barely adequate response to last century’s problems, let alone this one.
Take just one example, economic growth; as used here it is meaningless. We all know economic growth matters but it is a highly contested and problematic term. What is meant by it here? Growth based on unsustainable use of material resources or a sustainable prosperity?  If the latter, how is it achieved?
1.3) This introduction fails to acknowledge the scale of problems that children of Canterbury will face a new century.  For example it fails to acknowledge how a changing climate will dominate future decision making. It fails to provide principles of justice and equality that will guide difficult choices, or long term planning. Where are the references to future generations, sustainability, democracy or natural hazard management? A meaningless list of opening terms that has no reference a guiding legislative framework is unacceptable from a government that has suspended voting for six years.

2. How fair are these changes for the citizens of Canterbury?

2.1) The proposed changes are particularly unfair for residents of Christchurch but they are also unfair for all Canterbury rate payers. Why are the people of Canterbury to be singled out for loss of voting rights? The fact that we live in an area that is important for dairying is not a reason to deny all New Zealand citizens living here the right to vote, or to extend special powers. 
All ratepayers in other areas of New Zealand have had the chance to vote for their regional governance but Canterbury residents have had to pay rates without electoral accountability for the past six years. (The Press calculated these rates total $NZD450million dollars of taxation without representation).
2.2) Secondly there may be good grounds for considering a mixed model but these grounds are not offered at present. There is a suggestion that allowing a board to be fully elected puts ECAN’s work “at risk” or that citizens will be “confused” because resource law changes soon.
Let’s be clear, in the past when we had elections 6 of 14 councilors were re-elected. So are we really arguing the Government may not like all the people who get re-elected? To be harsh, those who resist the outcome of free and fair elections are not democrats.
Nor can we claim that transitional arrangements which extend ECAN’s special powers are needed because confusion  might result if there is only a “short time” before wider Resource management law reforms “are implemented”. It is not clear that the Government has a mandate for wider RMA reforms and therefore it is unlikely these changes will be implemented shortly. In the meantime it is not “confusing” for Canterbury voters to abide by the same standards of environmental regulation and law that protect the rights of the rest of New Zealand.
2.4) Any problems resulting from commissioner turnover and loss of institutional memory is entirely of the Government’s own making. If we had used the opportunity in 2013 to transition to elections we could have voted for some of the existing Commissioners.  Moreover (with my apologies to the Commissioners), if the original ECAN appointments had not been drawn from candidates close to retirement, (almost all white and all male), we would have had a  larger pool of experienced people to stand for election 2016.
2.5) In summary, I would hope the Commissioners do stand for election in 2016. If they do not the Government should be asked why it did not plan for this obvious problem from the outset. It should not be allowed to merely respond, “there were not enough experienced candidates in 2010”.  Appointing commissioners is always an opportunity to build capacity, particularly given the Government’s argument Canterbury lacked skills of governance. If that was true, (and this is refuted by many) then the Government has only made the problem worse, by denying others a chance to gain vital governance experience over the past six years.

3. Representation- a mixed governance model

It is disappointing no justification was offered for shifting to a mixed model of governance and the current idea is unfair to Christchurch residents in particular.
3.1) Christchurch City residents account for approximately two thirds of the total regional population and a significant rate base for ECAN it is therefore entirely unreasonable and unfair if the city is relegated to just one electorate.

3.2)  It is important to compare the new proposal with the Local Government Commission determination of fair representative arrangements in its special hearing in 2007.
3.3 Here is the new ECAN electoral proposal:

3.4) If we compare the above with the Local Government Commission determination 2007 below, there are stark differences:

Comparing both models highlights the extent to which the new proposal deviates from the Local Government Commission 2007ruling about what constituted fair representation for Canterbury in 2007 (the last time we had an election ruling). That determination was, reached after extensive hearings and appeals.  The new plan effectively tries to side-line that decision. It tries to reduce 4 urban Christchurch electorates (previously represented by 8 councillors) to one electorate with possibly just 2 representatives ! It is hard to find any other term for the current proposal than gerrymandering. A fair basis for discussion should begin with 2007 arrangements, not the proposal here.
 3.6) We need to offer very careful arguments about the boundaries for Ecan and build from what existed before, not try to assert new boundaries that advantage rural communities and ignore the expanding fuzzy boundaries of a large urban population.
3.7) Any discussion of ECAN functions should not begin with the assumption that ECAN functions are most relevant to rural communities. Regional functions are not more important to rural communities than urban populations especially in a century in which most people will live in cities. In reality spending on transport, air quality, and water are issues of primary concern for all New Zealanders, the views of the dairy industry or city residents should not be given precedence over other citizens and future generations- Canterbury’s children, their grandchildren deserve better planning.

4 In closing: More Positive Scope for a mixed model democratic innovation
4.1)  One strength of the current commission arrangement however is that Ngāi Tahu has a formal partnership arrangement which builds from otherwise highly contentious  CERA legislation. We could debate a case for enabling this to continue within four statutory appointments. For example, one appointment may be made on the recommendation of Ngāi Tahu and one on the recommendation of the Minister for Māori Development , while the two remaining appointments may be made, on the recommendation of the Children’s Commissioner (to represent future generations), and the other on the recommendation of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. Beyond this however  is not clear constitutionally why any particular interest group: either the dairy industry, urban residents, or recreation users should have special representation on an elected board where there are already zone committees and other mechanisms to ensure a wide range of industry and special interest group views are robustly considered.
4.2) It is also not at all clear why there should be 6 appointments to a board of 13 people, and  why 13 commissioners, why not 14 or 11 (with 4 appointed in the same way as the District Health Board?) There may be many reasons for another size of board but we need more care in this debate to ensure we reflect the wide geographical diversity of Canterbury.
4.3 If there was any move to represent a wider array of appointed special interests, then I suggest that we think also consider enfranchising Canterbury residents aged 16 years and older. If we give special voice to particular interests, young people should also be entitled to vote in ECAN elections, especially given they will bear the burden of the decisions we make today. Extending the franchise to 16 year olds may offer some positive way to compensate for the loss of the franchise in the past. The experience of the Scottish parliamentary referendum and Austria’s elections where 16 year olds have already won the franchise shows they have a thoughtful voice, and their inclusion helps enhance long term thinking. In Canterbury a broader franchise would better reflect a spirit of kaitakitanga-in wise guardianship for the future.

ECAN is not “all about water”, and while we can be supportive of our rural communities, our  decision making must be bigger than our dairy industry. Dairy interests are currently vital to our economy but our regional government is also charged with thinking and planning for the long term, for our intergenerational , multicultural, and widely divergent socio economic needs. Simply because our governance models have become trapped into one way of seeing the world, is not a reason to restrict the future democratic opportunities for Canterbury citizens, through highly partisan reforms.
 “WEcan” do a better job in reforming regional democracy, “Wecan” be better than this

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