Home > Uncategorized > Repost: The Senescence of NZ Local Government

Repost: The Senescence of NZ Local Government

The NZ local body elections are on Saturday. I thought I would repost this from August, back when no-one was reading my blog. It seems to raise a legitimate point.

I was saddened but not surprised to hear that Bob Tizard, 87,  who served as New Zealand’s deputy prime minister briefly in the mid-1970’s, was spending a lot of time in hospitals around Auckland.  And then  I realised it wasn’t as a patient.

Tizard, who first  entered the NZ Parliament in 1957, is running for a second term on the Auckland District Health Board, which means that his political career exceeds in longevity that of Fidel Castro.  I point this out not to make light of Tizard’s many contributions to New Zealand public life, but to highlight a serious and growing problem with local body politics in New Zealand:  the transformation of city, district and regional Councils, as well as health boards, into gold-plated retirement homes for politicians past their prime.

In 1989, the Labour Government of Geoffrey Palmer drastically increased the remuneration levels for government politicians.  This was a neat policy trick that satisfied both Labour’s desire for more diversity among elected officials and Treasury’s hope for a higher calibre.  At the time, I could not have agreed more.

I was a 19-year old candidate for Porirua City Council’s Tairangi ward, an election I won in a thumping landslide.  This result, it has to be said, was entirely unrelated to diversity or calibre:  I was a Labour candidate in an area that would have elected me even if I had spent the entire election campaign in hiding; and many voters understandably confused me for my father, a recently retired and beloved local headmaster with whom I share both surname and initials.    I retired from Council two and a half years into my first and only term, ending one of the shortest and least consequential political careers in NZ history.  I am, if you like, the anti-Tizard.

Michael Fowler’s widely-reported decision, at age eighty, to run for Council three decades after retiring as Mayor of Wellington doesn’t even rate as strange in the scheme of things.  Across the country, we are witnessing a stampede of semi-retired politicians in time for October’s local elections.

In the race for Wellington Regional Council alone, there are four ex-MP’s in the running (Fran Wilde, John Terris, Paul Swain and Chris Laidlaw), three ex-Mayors  (Jenny Brash, John Burke and Rex Kirton) and two who have been both (Terris and Wilde).

After entering the race for the Porirua Mayoralty, former Lange Government Minister, Russell Marshall, was quick to accuse his critics of ‘ageism’ as if there weren’t plenty of other reasons to oppose his quixotic candidacy.  (His slightly younger brother, Kerry, is running for re-election as Mayor of Nelson, perhaps on a platform on relative youthfulness).   Elsewhere, Mark Burton, Martin Gallagher, Harry Duynhoven and George Hawkins have all jumped into local races.

There are three reasons why New Zealand’s political elite so eagerly parachute into local government.

Firstly, politicians with well-established name recognition generally prevail in  these elections because the policy stakes are low and the voters don’t much care.  This ease-of-victory acts as a great incentive for would-be has-beens looking for a next step.

The second reason relates to what Gareth Evans (who employed me as an advisor at the tail-end of his splendid career as Australia’s Attorney-General, Foreign Minister and Deputy Opposition Leader) coined “relevance deprivation syndrome”.  Evans, referring to his own experience after 13 years in government,  gave expression to the hollow feeling that grips politicians as power dissipates and the limelight recedes. Local government treats these withdrawal symptoms.  It acts as a kind of methadone programme for recovering politicians.

The third and most powerful explanation for this phenomenon is — to put it bluntly — cash.  Parliamentary superannuation in New Zealand is modest by international standards, and even the longest-serving New Zealand Mayor is left with nothing after leaving office.  New Zealand is not replete with seats on lucrative corporate boards or academic sinecures for the retired political class, in stark contrast to the US or even Australia.  Consulting or lobbying is rarely an option, either.  As New Zealand political figures exit the main stage and seek ways to remain active and cashed-up, local government is often the solitary piece of low-hanging fruit.

As long as elected councils and boards offer a generous retirement income, it will be impossible to stop high-profile politicos from hogging the available spots.  One radical solution is to starve the beast, and slash remuneration levels to pre-89 levels.  This brings its own problems:  it will undoubtedly prevent many otherwise excellent candidates from entering the fray, as well as favour the independently wealthy.

A better alternative may be legislated term limits or an enforceable retirement age, but politicians are famously reluctant to sign their own death warrants.

Maybe there is no easy policy solution, but there is something immensely appealing to the idea of clearing the decks, and opening up the second-tier of NZ political power to people who do not recall exactly what they were doing when JFK was shot.

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