Swiss lessons in subsidiarity

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 3 November 2017

To put it mildly, the three parties forming the new government are diverse. Their philosophies do not always overlap. Their electorates have little in common. Their histories are not without tension.

Yet there is one area on which Labour, NZ First and the Greens are not only in alignment. It is also an issue which differentiates them from National.

I am talking about subsidiarity.

Subsidiarity means that problems should be solved at the lowest possible level. Where a city can deal with an issue, a region should not do it. And where a region can tackle it, national government should stay out of it.

The previous, National-led government was the party of traditional, New Zealand centralism. Its view of the world was hierarchical, looking from the capital to the regions.

No wonder that National was fond of council amalgamations. It did not trust local government, least of all smaller councils.

It was an apt view for a conservative party to hold. At least if you overlook Maoridom, New Zealand had never been different. Since colonial times, it was a top-down nation.

The new government parties hail from a different tradition. Labour and the Greens both subscribe to subsidiarity. They both believe in bottom-up decision-making. In fact, Labour’s own party organisation works that way.

NZ First, meanwhile, has always had a strong focus on regional New Zealand. It may not call its philosophy subsidiarity. But NZ First’s instincts are often local and regional.

With these philosophical underpinnings in mind, I would like to recommend our report Go Swiss to the new government.

Go Swiss summarises the learnings from the Initiative’s delegation visit to Switzerland.

We took our members there to learn about the world’s most decentralised country. We found a place that does not only do things differently from New Zealand. It does them a lot better too.

In Switzerland, subsidiarity is not just a theoretical concept. It is alive in a vibrant local democracy. It shows in frequent referenda at all tiers of government. It results in great competition between neighbouring councils and cantons.

Our new government is committed to subsidiarity and the regions. But this should lead to more than a billion-dollar fund for development. It requires a complete rethink of central-local government relations.

Switzerland delivers the blueprint. And the Government should consider it.

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