Editorial: Councils must get their act together

"Turkeys," Richard Prebble once observed, "don't vote for an early Christmas." The former Labour Cabinet minister and ACT leader was commenting on the improbability of politicians voting to reduce the size of Parliament, but his words hold just as true for local body politicians contemplating a potential shakeup of local government.

Why would the plethora of mayors and councillors in the Wellington region act to do themselves out of jobs? The answer is they won't.

If the region is to follow Auckland's example and amalgamate its nine councils into a single body, it will be in spite of local government politicians not because of them. With a handful of notable exceptions, Greater Wellington regional council chairwoman Fran Wilde prominent among them, the region's local body politicians have determinedly stonewalled all attempts to initiate change.

In 2010, the Wellington Mayoral Forum commissioned a report that set out six alternative options for the region. It has gone nowhere. So has the discussion paper produced by a group of Wellington regional councillors last year in a forlorn attempt to stimulate debate. Local councillors would rather talk about the possibility of "shared services" than debate reforms that could do them out of jobs.

Yet the need for reform has never been greater. Auckland's super-city is under way; rebuilding Christchurch will consume much of the nation's finances for the foreseeable future.

To gain the attention of government ministers the region needs to achieve critical mass. A council representing 197,000 residents does not have the same clout as one representing 1.5 million. A council of 7500, such as Carterton, has even less.

To attract new inhabitants and employers, the region needs to make doing business here as simple as possible. It is ludicrous that by-laws differ from council to council in the same region.

To hang on to its title as the events capital of New Zealand, the region needs greater financial clout. It is only a matter of time before Auckland attempts to outbid the capital for events such as the Sevens, the World of WearableArt and the Festival of the Arts.

Whether the region would be better served by a single council covering the whole region, or whether it would be better served by two or three unitary councils, is an open question. So is the balance of responsibilities between regionally elected councillors and local community representatives. However, the need for reform is not.

That is why The Dominion Post is this week running a four-part series canvassing the arguments for and against amalgamation, the options open to the region and detailing Auckland's experience.

The future shape of local government is a matter for the public to decide, but the debate should be had. The region is slipping off the pace. It cannot afford to fall further behind a rejuvenated Auckland and the new Christchurch that will emerge from the rubble.