Thursday, 28 April 2011

Amalgamation and Privatisation Siamese Twins of National/ACT Union

Rodney Hide may be gone after the November election but his plan to “do an Auckland” and force local councils to merge into bigger less representative large bureaucracies lives on. If National-ACT get a second term a review of local government could see Wairarapa communities such as Masterton, Carterton, Greytown, Featherston and Martinborough even coastal settlements like Ngawi controlled by a large Wellington dominated super city council.

With ex National leader Don Brash leading ACT any hope of the Wairarapa retaining a strong independent local identity under a Key-Brash regime will be gone completely. The marketing of the forced amalgamation of rural and urban councils into the Auckland “Super-City” as a “unique one-off” can be seen as another lie. In reality it was a guinea pig master plan the government hopes to force on all NZers.

Consider NACT’s record on local government. There was much talk about Aucklanders’ being allowed to speak with one voice and the “local being put back into local government.” This was pure spin. Local voices are drowned to a whisper with the massive centralisation. The local voice is reduced to toothless community boards and some 75% of property, formerly owned by ratepayers, is now placed under the control of hand-picked, unelected corporate boards. Even now in Auckland we can see the beginnings of the private ownership by the wealthy few of Auckland’s water infrastructure.

In Auckland, the function and role of the corporatised Council Controlled Organisations dominated structural reform. The changes in Auckland mean all water and wastewater functions are now managed by Watercare Services Ltd and all transport functions (except for the time being motorways) are managed by Auckland Transport. Several other large Council Controlled Organisations also manage regional facilities, economic development, property development, the waterfront and investments. I suggest that amalgamation is only one part of a Siamese twin spawned as part of this National-ACT union. The other half still to emerge is the selling off of publicly owned assets.

With the government’s fondness for flogging off assets to its corporate mates, it will only be a matter of time before assets currently controlled by our local councils on behalf of ratepayers are also earmarked to be sold off.

NZ has an appalling experience of privatisation. The sale of NZ Rail and Air NZ went so pear-shaped that the State had to buy them back. Among others Telecom stands out as a failure in terms or developing our telecommunications system despite monopoly profits, most of which went overseas with little reinvestment. Let us not forget the handing over of our banking system to the Australian banks through the sale of the Trustee Savings Banks, the BNZ and Postbank, only marginally remedied to date by the creation of Kiwibank. Most shameful was the bargain basement sale of the Government Printing Office, which jump-started the empire of NZ’s wealthiest man, Graeme Hart.

Since privatisation social goods are minimised and tax-payers witness huge price increases in their power and phone bills. Alongside this there is a marked inadequate investment. NZers still have yet to experience a reasonably priced and secure power supply.

When Telecom was sold, the government lost most of its ability to ensure that New Zealand's telecommunications infrastructure was provided, maintained and developed in the public interest. Again most profits went offshore and there was practically no investment in core infrastructure.

The government has said that they may consider Public Private Partnerships (“PPPs”). If we apply this to a hospital for example the PPP contractor gains powers to decide on aspects of the design of the hospital, who uses its facilities and how they are charged for, and the use of the hospital for commercial activities such as vending machines or franchises such as burger or fried chicken chains. Late last year the government was enamoured with idea of granting a monopoly position in the provision of services and facilities for 25-35 years to corporates in terms of water and sewerage services. This is a seismic shift in power where social utility will take a back-seat to profits for off shore corporations.

In reality the Auckland Super-City is a failure that destroys local representation, dilutes democracy and just delivers rate-payers assets into the hands of the wealthy. Why should the people of the Wairarapa believe this master plan for local government will be any different here?

I believe the mantra "bigger is better" borrowed from big business but spliced into local government, will mutate into something that is un-New Zealand in terms of democracy.

Simply put the bigger a local authority is, the less say ratepayers have in what happens to the place where they live. More important than the economic failure of this model is the scant regard to the social consequences of this forced amalgamation.

To what extent will the disappearance of our local bodies contribute to a loss of identity, especially with our youth, that sense of identity and the fact that local people feel they can’t stand up and make a difference? In reality, the more disempowered people feel the more neighbourliness dies and the more street crime increases.

A few weeks ago I was in a meeting where Wellington City Mayor Celia Wade-Brown was speaking. The issue of amalgamation was raised. Her view was that Wellington City would be the hub of any Wellington Region Super-City of which the Wairarapa would comprise a part. In reality the voice of the Wairarapa would be lost in any Super-City. Lambton Quay and Porirua have nothing in common with the streets and roads of the Wairarapa. Further assets that have been bought and paid for by ratepayers will be sold off, prices will rise and the profits will go out of the Wairarapa to corporate entities with no social conscience.

I’m committed to fighting hard to retain Wairarapa’s independence and voice and standing up against the Government’s proposal to make our wonderful region a part of a super city that will destroy our uniqueness, not to mention Wairarapa’s voice.

"There is no privatisation agenda for Meridian, nor is there for any other SOE." - John Key, July 2009

"... we've asked for advice on extending the mixed-ownership model to four state-owned enterprises, where the Government on behalf of taxpayers would keep a majority stake but offer a minority shareholding to Kiwi investors." John Key, 28 January 2011

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