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The Case for Abolishing Councils

Local democracy in New Zealand is broken. It focuses disproportionately on the concerns of a remote, ageing, property-owning segment of the population, and that bias has resulted in a series of continuing catastrophes, from sewage bubbling up in our streets to house prices spiralling out of reach. This election, it’s probably not going to get much better. Is it time to overhaul councils, or even do away with them entirely?

The Case for Abolishing Councils

Jan 26, 2023 Politics

Efeso Collins is running a couple of minutes late for the Grey Power mayoral debate on Auckland’s North Shore, and he’s a picture of contrition. He shuffles on stage, hunched over, compacting his large frame into as small a space as possible. Collins is nervous; aware the next hour could be rough. The night before, he’d been booed by a greying crowd in Warkworth for saying a few words in te reo Māori. This audience looks similar. Thankfully, he gets off more lightly. The only time things get really tense is when Collins tells the audience he’s “80% there” on supporting Three Waters. There are audible groans. A man stands and yells something about selling out New Zealanders, stabbing his finger in Collins’ direction. He’s told to sit down.

Afterwards, Collins reflects on the adjustments he makes when presenting himself to the older, predominantly white audiences he’s fronted up to at mayoral debates across the city. He thinks a second before pointing to research showing brown men like him are often perceived as more threatening by Pākehā. It’s something he carries with him in the back of his mind. He’s worn a sharp suit to this debate. In front of friendly crowds, he’ll often wear a brown jacket and jeans.

Collins is vying to be Auckland’s first Pasifika mayor, and the campaign trail has been littered with reminders of people’s prejudice and double standards. He has less leeway than his competitors. Weeks before dropping out of the race, his chief rival, Leo Molloy, directed a command at reporters: “If anybody sights Efeso, he’s an endangered species — there’s space on the wall. He’d look beautiful mounted on that wall. I’ll get him, I’ll stuff him.” His new chief rival, Wayne Brown, sometimes tells audiences he’ll give bureaucrats or council agencies a “kicking” to hurry them up. Collins would never be so overtly aggressive. He couldn’t be. The rules governing his conduct are stricter. He can read them between the lines during his conversations with voters. After an event at the exclusive Northern Club in central Auckland, a man tells him it’s okay to jaywalk in the city, as it’s seen as more “civilised” than when it happens in his ward, Manukau.

One evening in mid-August, Collins finally breaks. Following a Q&A in Grey Lynn with the Herald’s Simon Wilson, he’s asked whether he has anything more to say. He stands and tells the audience: “I’m sick of being called a coconut.” As he talks about having to explain to his daughter why someone had drawn a swastika over her dad’s face on an election hoarding, he starts to cry. “It’s too hard,” he says. “This campaign is breaking me. You try being brown.”


One of the dispiriting things about the racists is that Collins may need some of their votes. Only 35% of eligible Aucklanders cast a ballot in the 2019 local body election. The ones who did looked a lot like the audiences at Grey Power and Warkworth: older, whiter and wealthier than the general population. Only 20% of eligible people in the 26–30 age bracket voted in 2019, while 61% of people aged 76–80 cast a ballot. Māori were less likely to participate, with 25% turnout, compared to 36% for non-Māori. Participation was inversely related to neighbourhood deprivation: poorer places generally voted less and richer ones voted more. In those conditions, appealing to bigotry is tempting for some candidates. In August, after a series of dire poll results, right-leaning mayoral candidate Viv Beck reached for her dog whistle, posting an iwi/Kiwi-style ad marking Collins and Brown as “for co-governance” and herself against.

Auckland’s voting trends are echoed across the country, and skewed turnout has delivered skewed councils. A 2019 data project by Stuff’s Charlie Mitchell revealed more than 90% of the councils around New Zealand were male-dominated. Māori, Pasifika and Asian people were significantly underrepresented, while young people were virtually non-existent. New Zealand had more councillors named John (33) than councillors born after 1980 (32). In the final line of his candidate blurb for the Spreydon-Cashmere Community Board in 2019, perennial Christchurch candidate Tubby Hansen inadvertently delivered a succinct summary of Aotearoa’s local democracy: “It would be better to build a rest home on the site.”

Every three years, councils and a coterie of progressively minded politicians make a new attempt to turn around the ocean-liner of apathy and disenfranchisement. They run ads on social media and plead with young voters to check their enrolment details. Auckland Council sets up mobile voting booths in supermarkets. None of it has worked.

At a mayoral debate at Shadows Bar in the CBD, 20-year-old student Taine Naera hints at some of the reasons for the disconnect. He and his friends have turned up to drink, only to be surprised by a bunch of balding besuited men traipsing in with harried-looking hangers-on. Naera doesn’t know any of these candidates, and doesn’t expect to vote in October. He says he doesn’t have the energy — he’s catching the train to university five days a week and has little spare time to get familiar with the issues. “I have to prioritise myself over others. I can’t help others if I need to help myself. It’s self-preservation.” He says the people on stage don’t care about him anyway, then catches himself. “Actually, I lie,” he says. “They care about our votes.”

Oscar Sims, a spokesman for the pro-housing Coalition for More Homes, says local government is perfectly calibrated to exclude people like him or Naera. Its meetings are usually in the middle of the day or early evenings, when younger people are working, studying or putting kids to bed. Agendas and consultation documents are ostentatiously dull; perfect for a retiree to pick over on a rainy day, but inaccessible for people with busier lives. Postal voting favours property owners, who are less likely to move around than renters. So does the rating system, with a yearly bill providing them a powerful democratic incentive. Some homeowners can even vote more than once in local elections, with so-called ratepayer rolls giving them the right to cast a ballot for each house they own in different jurisdictions. “There couldn’t be a clearer example of something designed to entrench the interests of people who own multiple properties,” Sims says. “The system is rigged, and as a result we’re not having our voices heard. We get left out.”

This process of exclusion played out in miniature at a recent meeting run by character housing campaigners at St Matthew-in-the-City church. When Sims and a group of other younger housing advocates showed up, a woman at the door flagged them as potential dissidents. The situation quickly escalated into a confrontation, despite the meeting having been advertised as public. “She basically got up in my face yelling at me, and didn’t let us in.”

The group was eventually allowed to enter last, after residents’ association members were seated. Sims sees the run-in as local democracy writ small. “We’re told as young people that it’s our fault for not being engaged. We’re not showing up to our council meetings or submitting on any of these thousands of consultation processes. But even when we do that, when we do show up, we try to engage, the NIMBYs and other entrenched interests just shout us down.”

Environmental planner Tina Porou (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Tūwharetoa) says the same entrenched interests have stymied Māori efforts to get councils to recognise their obligations under Te Tiriti. She points to the difficulty in getting Māori wards established under the old system that made it possible for a voters’ petition to force councils to hold a referendum whenever a ward was proposed, and rules specifically excluding iwi landowners from the ratepayer roll. “It’s the tyranny of the majority,” she says. “The trouble is that too many councillors think they’re there for the non-Māori parts of the community alone.”

Local government’s subservience to Pākehā moneyed interests has come at a high cost to everyone else. Research from Te Waihanga, the New Zealand Infrastructure Commission, says house price inflation would be 69% lower if councils hadn’t capitulated to NIMBYs by placing draconian restrictions on dense housing and enforcing inefficient suburban sprawl. Vital infrastructure has been allowed to crumble into disrepair as councillors have dedicated themselves to keeping rates down for their most reliable voters. The bill for fixing the country’s broken water and sewage pipes is now an estimated $185 billion. Auckland is building a super-sized 15-kilometre sewage tunnel to make up for decades of underinvestment and neglect. In the meantime, most of the beaches in the isthmus are unswimmable after even a light downpour.

To some, the solution here is simple: vote harder. But Sims says a systemic problem needs a systemic solution. He wants to reduce local government to a shadow of its current self: “The model where local government is just kind of a glorified garbage collector and runs some parks and libraries would probably work quite well.” One Wellington lawyer, who asks not to be named due to his work with councils, is even more vehement. “I can’t think of anything less democratic in New Zealand than our councils,” he says. “We have one of the best central governments ever for legitimacy and competent system design, who then give power to muppets elected by retirees.” These commentators say the best way to fi x a rigged system is to burn it down. In its place, they want to install something like what already exists in Tauranga.

Anne Tolley in Tauranga

Anne Tolley is studiously neutral as she recounts the turmoil that beset the council she replaced. The former National Cabinet minister was installed as the head of four commissioners after Tauranga City Council melted down in flamboyant fashion in 2020, with mayor Tenby Powell resigning and calling for the government to step in. Powell had fought with councillors, calling one a “fucking climate-denying racist”. Substantial governance issues boiled beneath the personal grievances. Tauranga hasn’t built any new community facilities since the early 2000s, despite its population growing by 60% since then. It’s sorely in need of more transport investment. Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta acquiesced to Powell’s request. She called in Tolley to make the decisions councillors had eschewed, and properly cater for the city’s growth. “Some of the current population really wanted barriers put up at the top of the Kaimais to stop people coming, which you can’t do,” Tolley says. “We get a certain group of people who read everything and are interested mainly because they have the time. Mostly they don’t want things to change, because they’re of that age group. Is that truly representative? No, it’s not. So it’s a sham form of consultation.”

Freed from the burden of pandering to those voters, she immediately made moves many local politicians would regard as signing their own death warrants, raising rates by 22% in 2021 and a further 14% this year. The Tauranga Ratepayers’ Alliance responded by marching on the council, chanting “Two, four, six, eight, we want fairer rates”. But the surprise isn’t that Ratepayers’ Alliance founder Jordan Williams and his acolytes are angry, it’s that many Tauranga residents are not. The impact of the commissioners’ extra spending is visible on the city’s streets. The city is awash in road cones. A $303 million civic centre is under construction.

Tolley’s backers say they can accept the disruption and inflated rates if they mean the city finally has forward impetus. Despite seeing their rates increase 33% on average in Tolley’s first year, commercial operators are among her biggest supporters. Nigel Tutt, chief executive of the economic development agency Priority One, says Tauranga has attracted $1.5 billion in extra private investment since the commissioners began their spending spree. “Businesses absolutely applaud the fact that there’s progress, and that means much more than rates, right? It’s about productivity, which, if you look at your cost of having an extra vehicle, or an extra driver, or taking longer to service your customers, that can be way higher than any rating increase.”

Tolley recently had her tenure extended until at least July 2024, and Tutt has welcomed the decision. Though he says a return to some form of local democracy would be better in the long term, he doesn’t want the sclerotic old system back. He favours a mixed model, where appointed governance experts sit alongside elected representatives. “Local democracy, in my view, is broken,” he says. “You’ve got a huge number of councils in New Zealand, and the people governing them are pretty much a lottery in terms of their ability. Commissioners have been very, very good for this city, and were a much-needed change, to break that unfortunate cycle where we wish no city wants to find itself. I think there’s definitely a case for a better model in the future.”


Penny Hulse is getting more pained as she listens to the case for demolishing local democracy. The former Auckland and Waitākere deputy mayor is one of five people appointed by the government to a ‘Future for Local Government’ review panel, which is scheduled to report back next year. She acknowledges Tauranga’s success has thrown the shortcomings of the current system into stark relief. “If we’d put up rates 30% or whatever Tolley and her team have done, we’d have been strung up. And yet people go, ‘We love them, they’re getting on and doing things’,” she says. “It shows people are tired of the current democratic process, which is only 200 years old, and is pretty bloody rudimentary. It needs to change. It’s fundamentally broken.”

The government seems to agree. In the last few years, it has introduced legislation aimed at defanging councils where they’re doing the most damage. The National Policy Statement on Urban Development takes away much of their planning power, forcing them to enable dense housing around transit, while Three Waters seeks to loosen their hold on the nation’s pipes. “The future of local government is very much an open question right now,” says one high-ranking Labour source.

Though Hulse agrees with the diagnosis, she rejects Sims’ proposed treatment, cautioning that councils can be a counterbalance to regressive governments. In her eyes, the best way out of our current malaise is not to remove democracy, but to add more. Her review panel has been looking at strong, well-funded local administrations in Europe and Australia for inspiration. Hulse is particularly interested in participatory democracy, where citizens’ assemblies are selected from a broad cross-section of the community, equipped with expert advice, paid for their time, and charged with coming up with solutions to local problems. She points to Ireland, where a similar process led to the legalisation of abortion. “It starts to take the divisive politics out of it and puts more of the democratic decision-making into the hands of the much wider community,” she says. “It also requires communities to step up, rather than be Karens in the background going, ‘This is awful, look at this pothole’. It’s like, ‘Did you vote for people who said they’d hold rates at 1%? Who the fuck did you think was going to pay for the potholes to be fixed, sweetie?’”

Her objections are grounded in personal experience. As deputy mayor to Bob Harvey in Waitākere, Hulse felt connected to the community in ways she finds hard to envisage from commissioners. “If we had a shooting in Henderson, Bob would be there. The council would be there,” she says. “Commissioners are oft en the worthy and the famous. I don’t know if retired judges and captains of industry are the best people to go down to Henderson when there’s been a shooting.” Outgoing Kāpiti Coast councillor Gwynn Compton echoes that point, saying elected councillors are accountable to their communities in a way commissioners struggle to match. “I don’t think voters necessarily love local government politicians. I think they generally tolerate us at best or think we’re bastards at worst. But at least we’re their bastards, and they can get rid of us if something goes wrong. They don’t feel like they can do that with appointed entities.”

The idea of delivering more citizen-led direct democracy has support from a broad political confederation. Oliver Hartwich, executive director of the right-wing think tank the New Zealand Initiative, is a fervent advocate for localism. He says Aotearoa’s poorly funded, comparatively weak local democracies are anomalous by international standards. New Zealand has one local representative for every 5000 people, compared to one for every 250 in his home country Germany, or 120 in France. He sees Switzerland, where local cantons oversee everything from fi refighting and police services to health care and education, as a democratic “nirvana”.

Money, as they say, is power, and Swiss cantons and councils get 80% of all tax revenue. If Hartwich was in charge of the country’s local government set-up, he would immediately overhaul its funding mechanisms. Instead of relying predominantly on rates, councils would get a share of general taxation such as income, sales and business tax. That would incentivise them to allow more housing because they would have much more to gain from doing so, in the form of extra income that could be invested into facilities like parks, town squares and roads, he says. “At the moment we’re asking councillors to say, ‘You don’t like development, but you know what, we’re gonna do it anyway. And there’s nothing in it for you’. So they’ve got no positive stories to tell.”

Simon Wilson is broadly in agreement. The senior writer and local government commentator for the New Zealand Herald wants to see local boards imbued with the ability to meaningfully shape their area, councils with more funding and authority, and mayors with actual agenda-setting power. He says beefing up councils would attract more high-calibre candidates and engage more people in elections. “The critical thing I would do is I would give local boards and councils enough authority that it looks like it was worth the while for good people to be on them,” he says. “The question is: why is [former National deputy prime minister] Paula Bennett not standing for mayor? And the answer is: why would she waste her time?”


At a street corner in Te Atatū, Efeso Collins is in a much more buoyant mood. Passing cars are beeping in support of his sign-waving campaign team, and he’s making the case for a less radically augmented version of our current electoral system. He wants the Electoral Commission to run elections, which are currently contracted out to private companies. Other reforms could include introducing STV voting, as in Wellington, returning GST from rates to councils, and giving local boards more funding and power. But he holds out hope change is possible in the current system, with the right people in charge. “You need councillors who are in the community and talking with their communities about how we evolve as a society. Unless we get that sorted out, we’re just going to be a boring, archaic reflection of the UK back in 1720.”

Collins may soon lead a council with priorities out of the 1950s, if not the 1720s. Many of this term’s more progressive councillors are under threat in the upcoming election. On the North Shore, independent incumbents Chris Darby and Richard Hills face a stiff challenge from Communities and Residents candidates Danielle Grant and George Wood. Grant was last seen by Metro asserting that she deserves to be elected — “It’s my time” — following a ‘Help Save Heritage’ meeting she organised at the Birkenhead Bowling Club. Wood spent the last three years on the Devonport-Takapuna Local Board, which turned down a $47 million funding injection from Auckland Transport for upgrading Lake Rd because the project would have included bus and cycle lanes.

Maungakiekie-Tāmaki’s Josephine Bartley, recently named Metro’s best councillor, is also at risk, as is Howick’s pragmatic and constructive Paul Young, who could be replaced by former National Cabinet minister Maurice Williamson. Waitematā councillor Pippa Coom may be defeated by council veteran Mike Lee, a supposed progressive last seen opposing dense housing in the city’s richest suburbs and lamenting “Auckland’s disproportionate growth” in his arguments against the Unitary Plan.

The next council could look a lot different to the 2019–22 incarnation which eventually pedalled towards significant climate change mitigation measures in the final weeks of the term, and, if that’s the case, it will be partly down to an electoral system which ensures progressives like Collins are fighting with one hand tied behind their back. He recognises the issue. Even people down south tell him he’s not going to win. “They say, ‘Those Pālagi in central Auckland aren’t going to vote for you’,” he says. Still, he’s won a council seat in the current system before, and thinks he can win again citywide. “I think there are a lot of people who feel disillusioned. And so by meeting me, I just hope they’ll think, ‘Oh, there’s a bit of hope left’. Let’s try again, I’m asking people to reset, try again, give us one more chance.”

Over the course of 40 minutes, Wellington councillor Tamatha Paul (Ngāti Awa, Tainui) transitions in a lighthearted way through the stages of local government grief. She cycles through anger and despair and bargaining for possible improvements, before finally joining Collins in a place of conditional acceptance. Though she talks about the need for democratic reform, particularly when it comes to recognising iwi, she sounds a cautious note of optimism about councils’ potential. She’s 25 years old, studying at university, and possibly the most effective councillor in her city. Whatever local government’s flaws, every so oft en it allows people like her to infiltrate, in a way a commissioner system may not. Most councils may still be ageing white enclaves, but more cracks are appearing in their walls, she says. “Remember, these people who have stuffed everything up, they’re not going to be alive forever.”


Back on the North Shore, Grey Power has held its mayoral debate at a dual-purpose stadium usually used for school netball. Students filter onto a court downstairs as the candidates upstairs make their case. At first, the netball players are just background noise. Around the time an audience member gets up to yell about Three Waters, the sound starts to get distracting. Happy shrieks start to pierce the complaints about the destruction of so-called special-character houses. Cheers interrupt the grousing about rates. It’s the sound of the future on its way. The sprinting, screaming teenagers are blissfully oblivious to the elderly crowd spending their twilight years trying to prolong the housing crisis. Eventually, though, they’ll replace them. Theirs will be the only sound left. Democratic reform may not happen soon, or even at all. But change is inevitable. Sometimes you just have to wait.

This feature was published in Metro 436.
Available here in pdf format.


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