Thursday, July 19, 2018

Localism project is a good start

In my last post (in which I correctly signalled that Theresa May would sell out her country by reneging on her promise to deliver Brexit), I wrote that I considered myself a political localist. It is interesting that this week The New Zealand Initiative and Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) have launched something called the Localism project, which they claim is about 'bringing government back to the people'. It has some noble aims with which I agree - including 'devolution and decentralisation in the way New Zealand is run' - although I am sceptical about anything LGNZ advocates given its hypocritical plea to central government [PDF] to change the law so that it can override the rights of local electors to hold referenda on constitutional changes.

The NZ Initiative-LGNZ statement says that New Zealand has one of the most centralised governments in the world, with central government accounting for 88% of public expenditure compared with an OECD average of 46%. What they don't say is that New Zealand has one of the least complex government systems in the world with just two tiers - national and local - whereas most other countries have at least three, and in effect our central government also performs many of the roles of state governments in other countries.

The problem in New Zealand is the lack of constitutional separation and limitation of powers. We have only one house of parliament, having abolished our upper house in 1951, and being a Westminster-type democracy, our executive comprises the leaders of the ruling parties in parliament rather than being separately elected. Technically, it is our head of state, the Queen, who appoints the executive, but convention is that she always appoints those who command the confidence of parliament. The situation is made worse by the fact that in 1994 we voted to adopt the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system, which means that half of our members of parliament are appointed by national political party leaders rather than selected by local electorate committees. In other words, MMP made Parliament more faceless and unaccountable.

I am sure you will see the true nature of the problem. The consequences of all of this is that we have a coalition government, the formal partners of which didn't even get a plurality of votes in the election. Our acting prime minister, Winston Peters, lost his own seat in parliament during the election and his party received a reduced share of the national vote. Furthermore, it is a government that is pursuing a fairly radical agenda and making decisions without bothering with the formality of parliamentary votes or even Cabinet decisions. A country in which a government that can do this is not a democracy by any commonly accepted definition. Left-wing New Zealanders support the new government because it is expanding welfare and the government's role in every area of the economy from housing to transport. But they should remember that a government that uses unfettered powers to implement policies they support can just as easily do it to implement policies they don't like.

The NZ Initiative-LGNZ Localism project is a nod in the right direction, but New Zealand's governance problems are more systemic than the demarcation of powers between central and local government. We need the checks and balances that come from a genuine separation of powers and we need to restore the local accountability of our national representatives that was lost when we implemented MMP.

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