Winning the election is one thing, doing the governing is another completely. I’ve been impressed by the level of resourcing that has been made available to new Councillors at the DCC, by in house management and Local Government New Zealand. For someone who liked to think they kept an eye on affairs from the outside, it’s taken some adjusting to the sheer scope of Council business and associated responsibilities. Perhaps it’s because there’s a sizable community of newcomers (with one returning), but the free and frank discussions we’ve been able to have as we come to terms with the job bodes well for the quality of korero to come. Come 2016, put your crisis of confidence at ease by knowing there’s a team of people on the otherside whose job it is to bring you up to speed. Stand for local government!
The biggest lesson so far is what you would call The Activist’s Dilemma. If someone had told me sooner, I may have been more sympathetic towards the silence of some who have come before me. If a bylaw (that is, a local rule) is up for review, expressing a public opinion for or against any proposal is judged to give you a greater interest than the general public. This is seen as a conflict of interest, and disqualifies you from being on the panel hearing and reporting on public submissions. This can mean that the people most able to work on an issue could rule themselves out of doing so, to the detriment of the policy making perspective.
The dilemma is this: Can you do more to advance the concerns of your constituents by making a public song and dance for them, or by helping as best you can to get positive policy outcomes? There will no doubt be occasions when the former may be worth the gamble. If making a scene triggers broader public support, it might pay off, but if people and/or the press ignore you, it may well be in vain. If you get the boot from the process, your colleagues may ask the questions you would anyway, but there’s no guarantee. Is the old adage that a politician on the picket line is worth two in parliament still true? The odds will change with each issue you face for the entirety of your tenure as an elected member. At times, people who support you will get frustrated by your lack of encouragement, and perceived lack of courage, in the public arena. Hopefully, though, it means that the decisions you make as a local authority are sound and grounded in evidence, and that’s surely why anyone runs for public office, right?
Another ideal effect of stemming the tide of political pontificating could be a better standard of public debate. If we aren’t able to take our cues from people making, or apeing, such carefully considered sloganeering, we might have the opportunity to look at things a little closer. Mapping local governance models to the Beehive is a blunt way of looking at these things, but I couldn’t help but wonder what might happen if (one day) all MPs stopped commenting on legislation while it was still going through the Select Committee process. Of course, our current government are happy to do this to deflect contentious issues (“This is only a proposal at this stage, and we are open to other alternatives” etc), but that’s another story.
To do this we have to accept the fact that our laws aren’t written by politicians, but by their staff and advisers, based on the direction and advice of their Ministers. The difference between local and central government is that in a party political environment, one group of representatives become the de facto champion of the work of their staff. The rest are there to critique it. I know the Westminster system is set-up to be as confrontational as a Council’s can be collegial, but I found it an interesting intellectual exercise nonetheless. Would the precious media minutes allocated to public debate shed more light than heat if they lacked the easy distraction of big egos? Would people more likely take part in the process if they didn’t feel like it was a fait accompli? What are the possibilities of a democratic discourse when both the public and The Fourth Estate take it more seriously?
With that flurry of rhetorical questions (apologies to any editors in attendance), I bring this proposition to a close. I’m not pretending to have all the answers, because any politician who tells you that they do is lying. From time to time, those of you more used to my righteous political outrage may be surprised to see me fall silent. I hope this goes some way to explaining just why that might be. One thing I will never be be quiet about is an ongoing discussion about how we govern, or are governed, and how we could be doing it better.