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As Kiwi as pavlova

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 1 March 2019

“Few ways are guaranteed to make yourself unpopular in New Zealand: try claiming that pavlova was an Australian invention; hating the All Blacks; or maybe expressing sympathy for local government.”

This is the opening paragraph in our new publication #localismNZ: Bringing power to the people. We launched it yesterday at a joint symposium with Local Government New Zealand.

However, we may have been too quick to assume that New Zealanders are passionately opposed to local government. A new UMR opinion poll, also presented at yesterday’s event, shows just how open New Zealanders are to shifting power from central government in Wellington to local communities.

Only 30% of those surveyed do not support a move towards local services being managed and provided by local decision-makers. Meanwhile, majorities of New Zealanders believe that:

  • Locally controlled services will be more responsive to local needs (54%);
  • Local government would be more accountable to the locals they live amongst (53%); and
  • Local people would make better decisions based on greater understanding of local needs (52%)

Interestingly, at the top of the list of supported services that should be controlled by local decision-makers was vocational training (52%). This suggests that the planned merger of all existing polytechs into a New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology might not be the most popular move.

The UMR poll surprised us. Then again, after years of making the case for devolution and localism, perhaps we are finally seeing a shift in public opinion.

An alternative explanation could be that New Zealanders realise that bigger does not always mean better. The past years have not lacked big national schemes which then encountered substantial difficulties. The list ranges from Novopay to Kiwibuild.

Of course, local government does not always get things right, either. But where programmes are smaller and designed closer to the people, there are better chances to listen to community needs. Perhaps it is also easier to change course sooner before billions of dollars are wasted on an unworkable grand national plan.

In our #localismNZ report we call for a radical shift of power from the centre to the people. And since we started with it, here is the concluding paragraph:

“We hope this essay will make you think anew about New ­Zealand’s structure of government. And we hope you too will conclude that localism could be as Kiwi as pavlova.”

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