Pseudo consultation and dodgy democracy

Tui - Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae

This is another issue about the future of the wildlife sanctuary Zealandia but bear with me while I digress into local authority politics; there’s a connection, which I will demonstrate as the blog progresses – I promise! (All photos in this blog taken at Zealandia).

Pseudo consultation and dodgy democracy

A serious issue for local democracy in New Zealand is voter apathy. Voter turnouts of less than 50% are common in local authority elections. This means that councilors elected by a minority of the people govern most local territories.

On the face of it, this seems odd, because on a day-to-day basis local authorities have far more influence over our lives than the Government.  Our rates pay for essential services as diverse as parks and playgrounds, water and sewage reticulation, public transport, libraries and swimming pools, where and how we are allowed to build, and the shape of our natural and town environment.

There has been a great deal of study on why this low voter turnout occurs, by people far more qualified than me! However, as a journalist who reported on local authorities for more than 20 years, and a former council employee, I venture to suggest that at least one, I think  significant, reason is because people feel disengaged from the democratic process. They feel that their thoughts, experience and opinions do not get any real consideration, so participation in voting is simply a waste of time.

This is an opinion I have heard from ratepayers and city residents many times, it can be summed up as, “They don’t listen to us, so why should we bother?”

Councils themselves have to accept much of the responsibility for this poor state of affairs. Impenetrable bureaucratic processes do not encourage public engagement. Neither does a staff culture of “we know best because we’re the experts.” I know the latter is a generalisation and there are a lot of excellent local government staff out there. Nevertheless, I am continually seeing and hearing evidence of the fact that council staff often don’t trust the public, and believe that as the appointed ‘experts’ they should have more influence than the people they work for.

Accessing councils can sometimes be like trying to find your way in tall tussock

To be fair, this is a problem that local government nationally has recognised and has tried to do something about. But, ironically, the very processes councils use to try to ensure greater transparency and greater public participation in the decision making process often add to the bureaucratic confusion and have the opposite effect to their objective. They sometimes increase the public perception that council’s are an impenetrable power unto themselves.

A case in point is consultation. To average Joe Public consultation is when you go out and ask a community or the ratepayers and residents generally, what they think should be done. They think it means councils listen to the voices of the people before they start narrowing down their options.

But, generally (and I acknowledge there are some wonderful exceptions) that’s not how councils consult. Council’s usually do a lot of internal research and consultation with their own, or external, advisors and then make a broad decision about what needs to be done.

Then they go to the public saying, “We want to do this big thing. And to achieve this we think option ‘A’ is the best way to go about it, but here are some other options you might want to consider. Tell us what you think”. The additional options give the illusion of choice and look like genuine consultation, but in fact the options are often quite limited and simply variations on a theme.

In other words, the big decision is largely made. The public really only gets to comment on the options for achieving that big thing, and maybe gets to influence some conditions around how the big thing is achieved, perhaps to protect the environment, remedy an impact on a local community or ensure that cultural requirements are considered.

I’d venture to suggest that most people do not see this as genuine consultation, because the council has not involved them in the initial process, and/or has not offered them options that include not doing the big thing at all, or doing something else instead of the big thing.

Now, it’s true that the law requires councils to state their preferred option. But, surely, in a real democracy, if an issue is important enough, then there should be two consultation phases, and the first phase would be to get public input at the beginning of the process, before the council has decided on its preferred option.

Some councils do this, and make a great job of it. And before you tell me it adds to costs, there’s good evidence it doesn’t. Studies have shown that genuine early consultation with the community can actually save costs by preventing council’s going down a path that their ratepayers and residents will neither support, nor use. So, not only can it prevent councils from committing to something that turns out to be a white elephant, it can also avoid expensive and dragged out oppositional litigation through the resource consents process.

Probing for a suitable option?

There’s another reason why councils often don’t undertake broader, more inclusive consultation before they have narrowed the options down to the one big thing and how to achieve it. And that is that they don’t trust the public to make an informed decision. On far too many occasions I have heard both elected councilors and their staff say: “This is too complicated, the public won’t understand it, we have to make the big decisions and give them more simple options.” It is breathtaking arrogance but, in my experience, an unfortunately common attitude.

Which brings me back to Zealandia (I promised I would).

One of the extraordinary comments from some of the elected councilors as they debated the report of the working group on the future options for the governance and management of Zealandia, was that they did not want to put too many options out to the public because it would “confuse people”. It was used as one of the excuses for not including in the consultation choices the option for allowing Zealandia to continue under its current governance and management structure, with guaranteed continued funding from council for a period. This was the option Zealandia lobbied for and called “the status quo”.

So, what the council has done, is propose a quite radical change to the management and governance not only of Zealandia, but also the Wellington Zoo, the Wellington Botanic Gardens and Otari Wilton’s Bush, by turning these separate and diverse facilities into a single council controlled operation (CCO).  They have decided that this is the big thing that has to be achieved. It is their preferred option. Of course, they have also put up a series of other options, but all on a theme of council takeover and all of them requiring radical change from the status quo with ongoing funding.

Their consultation with the public on devising these options was zero! And their consultation with affected parties was minimal.

Council processes can be as hard to follow as the zig-zag flight of the fantail!

So, now the public gets the ‘privilege’ of influencing the council through consultation, but only on variations in a theme. The existing structure, which has been so wonderfully supported by Wellington residents for such a long time, will not be considered. Neither will any possibility other than one of the radical changes proposed. This, as I have claimed before, is Claytons consultation.

It is  no wonder that so many people have lost heart and think voting is a waste of time. They feel marginalised and silenced.

Nevertheless, it is the only chance the public will get to influence the final decision of the council. So I urge everyone at all interested in the future of Zealandia, and the other excellent city amenities affected by these proposals, to get involved. Put in a submission, make your voice heard. You might not even agree with me that the status quo, with ongoing funding, is the best option. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that people are heard.

But if you do agree that the status quo with ongoing funding is the best option for the future of the treasure that Zealandia is, then say so! You can ignore the options and submit on one of your own. That’s what genuine democracy is all about!

Check out the “Speak Out For Zealandia” Facebook page you will find details of the issue there and I will post details of how to submit to the council’s consultation process as soon as I know them.

Or you can go straight to Zealandia’s own page and read more about what the trust is trying to do and what it wants to achieve, and there’ll be links to the council process from that page too.

Tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus) roam and breed in the wild at Zealandia - for the first time on the mainland in 200 years!

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