Centralist reflexes run too deep

Published in the National Business Review (Auckland), 18 August 2017

To start this column with a disclaimer, I greatly respect Labour’s candidate for Ōhāriu, Greg O’Connor.

Perhaps it is because the former Police Association president’s views remind me of my father, who was also a copper. More likely it is because his thoughtful contributions to the drug legalisation debate were remarkable given his background. I have no doubt that Mr O’Connor would make a fine parliamentarian if elected next month.

Having said that, his recent comments about his priority issue were somewhat odd. He singled out the sad state of the shopping mall in Johnsonville, which needed “some life” and only got life support. As the new MP, he would talk to everyone involved to restore the Wellington suburb’s shopping centre.

As an Ōhāriu resident, I can only agree with Mr O’Connor’s assessment. The Johnsonville Mall is indeed far from providing a good shopping experience. It feels dated, it has lost some important retailers, and for years there has only been talk about a major redevelopment but no action.

There is a problem with his involvement, though. If he wanted to do something about the mall, he should have run for Mayor of Wellington. The design of our cities, creating vibrant neighbourhoods and solving transport issues are what local government is all about.

The business of national politics is different. It should focus on our big national challenges. Parliament’s job is to deal with those areas of policy that require countrywide solutions.

So a national MP could and should tackle the Resource Management Act, for example, but concrete planning issues would still be decided locally without Parliament’s interference.

There is a technical term for this approach and it is subsidiarity. It is the idea to only delegate issues to a higher tier of government where a lower tier could not deal with them adequately.

To its credit, the Labour Party subscribes to the subsidiarity principle. In fact, subsidiarity is reflected in Labour’s own decentralised structure.

In practice, however, even for a party committed to subsidiarity, it is hard to abide by this principle. New Zealand’s centralist reflexes just do not permit it.

New Zealand is one of the most centralised countries in the developed world. More than 90% of government spending is controlled by the centre. The average for other OECD economies is roughly two-thirds.

Because central government is so dominant, New Zealanders instinctively look at central government to deal with their local issues.

One cannot blame candidates like Mr O’Connor for responding to these calls for help. If he wants to be elected to Parliament, he needs to listen to concerns about local issues and cannot brush them off with a lesson in political philosophy. I understand that.

And yet, it makes the election campaign even more curious than it already is. And it certainly is not just an issue for Ōhāriu.

Both major parties are outbidding each other in their policies for Auckland. National has promised some investment in roads and the electrification of the Papakura to Pukekohe rail line. Labour wants to create a light rail network for Auckland.

What happens in New Zealand politics is that national candidates and MPs are getting involved deep in the details of their constituencies’ issues. In doing so, they cross the boundary between local and national politics.

Constituents demand this – and central government’s dominance makes it the key player in many local issues. No major Auckland transport policy would ever get off the ground without central government’s involvement.

But just because that is how New Zealand politics works does not make it a desirable state of affairs.

There are good theoretical reasons for the principle of subsidiarity. It comes down to the issue of local knowledge. Locals generally know best about their area’s problems. They should also be the ones weighing about the pros and cons of proposed solutions.

In other countries, citizens are far more involved in dealing with their local issues themselves. Rather than asking a remote national bureaucracy or a national Parliament for assistance, they draft, discuss and decide on their own plans.

The best example of such subsidiarity in practice is Switzerland. There, local issues are local and national issues are national. They do not get mixed and the delineations between the different tiers of government are clear.

An advantage of defined boundaries are the clear responsibilities. Citizens know for which areas they can hold their councillors and mayors to account, and for which other problems national government is to blame.

In New Zealand, on the other hand, you never quite know who to point the finger at. Is Auckland’s shocking transport problem the responsibility of Auckland Council and Auckland Transport? Or is it central government’s failure to provide investment in key infrastructure?

If we do not provide a much clearer delineation between central and local government, we will always see blame games between mayors and ministers. We will have local councils blamed for the effects of national policy, and we will have national politicians interfering in local government.

By participating in the debates about the sad Johnsonville Mall, Mr O’Connor might indeed improve his electoral chances on September 23. But after that date, I look forward to hearing more from him on the issues for which he might have been elected.