Predestination? Dr Nick Smith's swansong as Minister of Local Government was a reheated version of the now thoroughly discreditied "Taxpayers' Bill of Rights" (TABOR). By limiting rate rises to the rate of inflation and/or population growth, Smith's legacy will be an increasingly underfunded local government sector. If you want to know what it feels like to be slowly crushed by a sinking-lid budget - just ask the people of Colorado.
IT’S DEPRESSING. Dr Nick Smith always struck me as a reasonable sort of bloke. There were plenty of flinty-faced ideologues in the National Party: politicians impervious to all but their own opinions; unmoveable by evidence, reason, or even (in many cases) by old-fashioned common-sense. But, up until this Monday, I wouldn’t have included Dr Smith among them.
But his swansong leaves us no choice. The departed Minister’s “reforms” of New Zealand local government are driven by pure ideology: ideas already discredited in their country of origin, the United States. The destructive effects of artificially constrained budgets are readily observable in the crumbling infrastructure and moral squalor of the American communities forced to adopt them.
New Zealanders need to understand that if National and its support parties are permitted to introduce this far-right American ideological virus into this country, then our own communities will suffer a similar fate.
Our regional, city and district councils will, when it comes to revenue-gathering, be required to operate what amounts to an unending “sinking-lid” policy. In a surprisingly short period of time, the funds available for public amenities like libraries, art galleries, theatres, swimming-baths and parks will dwindle to the point where all of these public services find themselves struggling to survive. Initially, they will resort to user-charges, but if the experience of the US State of Colorado is anything to go by, such measures will provide only temporary relief. Sooner, rather than later, they will be forced to close.
Local infrastructure will fare little better. Denied the right to raise local taxes (i.e. “rates”) above the level of inflation and/or population growth, our local councils will be unable to embark on the long overdue refurbishment of this country’s water reticulation and sewage systems. The maintenance of roads and footpaths will similarly be allowed to slide. Kerbing and channelling will crumble and our streets will be full of pot-holes. Complaints will be answered with an occasional shovel-full of gravel.
In just a few years our town or city will take on a dishevelled, even decrepit, appearance. Laid-off council workers will drift away. Go-getting entrepreneurs will seek greener pastures. Young people will not return from their studies in wealthier, more exciting places. Our local authority’s rating-base will shrink. With even less money to spend, its ability to maintain services and repair infrastructure will be even further compromised. Our communities’ slide into decrepitude, and the exodus of their populations, will gather pace.
Of course, not everybody will be unhappy at this turn of events. Those lucky enough to own their own homes; those with a healthy investment income; those whose children long ago departed the family home; those who, for a very long time, have regarded the vast majority of their fellow citizens as shirkers and wastrels: these folk will be delighted. They never used the library. They never visited the art gallery or the theatre. Their own private gardens were always preferable to the city’s parks. If they wanted a swim they dived into their own private pool.
In Colorado, from whence National and ACT filched this model of local government, it got to the point where small towns were forced to lay-off a good portion of their fire department and sack most of the Sheriff’s deputies. In some places the authorities went as far as turning-off every other street light. Anything to relieve the relentless pressure on their budgets.
Why is the National-led Government embracing this social, economic and cultural disaster? Why has it refused to be persuaded by, for example, the Productivity Commission’s draft report on housing affordability, which, according to the Greens’ Eugenie Sage, shows that: “rates have been declining in relation to property values, indicating that in terms of household wealth, rates are becoming less significant”.
The answer, like the problem, is contained in the Far-Right’s hatred of collectivism. The city, the civis, remains the fount of civi-lisation. By their very nature, cities are both an exercise, and an experience, in collective living. Consider Christchurch: what was the Canterbury community’s first and most striking endeavour? Their Cathedral.
Would such a structure, constructed at such a cost, and dedicated to such a purpose, be permitted under the Government’s proposed new regime? Of course it wouldn’t.
The Far Right’s intention is to replace the collective infrastructure of “We”, with the private architecture of “I”.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 23 March 2012.