The tangled web of central v local government

18:46, Jun 12 2013

When local body politicians go knocking on government doors, the door they knock loudest on is that of fourth-ranked Cabinet minister Steven Joyce.

Nicknamed the "minister of everything", Mr Joyce is in charge of economic development, science and innovation, tertiary education, skills and employment. In other words, he's the minister in charge of the lolly-jar. If Wellington, Auckland, Christchurch or any other city is seeking central government funding, chances are it will need Mr Joyce's support to succeed.

How often does Mr Joyce see Auckland mayor Len Brown? "Very regularly, informally and formally."

How often does he see Christchurch mayor Bob Parker? "A little less often."

How often does he see Wellington mayor Celia Wade-Brown? "Aaah." Mr Joyce scratches his head. "I'm trying to work out whether I've seen Celia formally this year. I saw Celia recently somewhere . . . um . . . I can't remember exactly."

For those fretful that Auckland and Christchurch have superseded Wellington in the Government's affections, Mr Joyce's answer is confirmation that the capital's influence is waning.

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"It's nothing to do with [Wellington mayor] Celia [Wade-Brown]," says Greater Wellington regional council chairwoman Fran Wilde, who has been leading the push for the Wellington region's nine local bodies to amalgamate.

"We are not relevant to the Government and we have to make ourselves relevant. We are not going to magically become relevant by talking about how clever and creative we are. We become relevant by making ourselves more relevant and being more unified is an essential part of that."

To be fair, Mr Joyce is adamant Wellington gets its fair share of resources from government - "just about any way you count it"; Prime Minister John Key says he meets Ms Wade-Brown and the Wellington City Council's chief executive every four to six weeks, almost as often as he meets her Auckland counterpart, and Finance Minister Bill English says he probably sees more of Ms Wade-Brown than most other ministers because he is "around Wellington a bit. I sat beside her at the opera the other day".

Ministers also report cordial relations with the mayors of the other councils in the region. (They usually meet them when attending functions in their patches.) However, it is Wellington that has traditionally served as cheerleader and champion for the wider region.

RELATIONS IN A CUL DE SAC

You do not have to scratch far below the surface of the Beehive to encounter frustration with the way the council is operating. Last month, Mr Joyce went so far as to offer Labour's Annette King his campaigning assistance, if she chose to run against Ms Wade-Brown for the Wellington mayoralty.

"I have to say Annette that you would do a moderately better job than the current mayor," he said in Parliament.

Mr Joyce says the offer was "tongue in cheek", nevertheless, it suggests relations between the Government and Wellington's biggest council are not as good as they could be.

The prime cause of government frustration with the Wellington City Council is the council's reluctance to accept the $75 million the Government has offered to spend on a flyover to improve traffic flows around the Basin Reserve.

"Personally I think it's disappointing," says Mr Joyce who, as transport minister in the last government, green-lit the construction of Transmission Gully, the alternate route north from Wellington that has been under discussion for almost 70 years.

"You've got to have the local debate but normally, at the council level, at some point you say 'Let's get on with it and stop looking the gift horse in the mouth'."

Mr English is equally perplexed and contrasts the attitude ministers encounter in Auckland with that in Wellington. "They [Auckland] are always trying to do transport projects, as opposed to not doing them."

The other cause of bemusement in the Beehive is the region's indecision over the future shape of local government. Mr Key, Mr English and Mr Joyce are all at pains to stress the Government has no intention of forcing amalgamation on Wellington, as it did on Auckland's dysfunctional local bodies three years ago.

"In the end it's for the people to decide whether they want to amalgamate or not," says Mr Key.

BEEHIVE WILL BACK BOLDNESS

But neither do the prime minister, nor his ministers, make any secret of what they think Wellington should do.

"If you take the national convention centre, I'm absolutely convinced the SkyCity convention centre would not have occurred if there hadn't been a single city and that's because government would have had to deal with seven mayors," says Mr Key.

"You can bet your bottom dollar that three or four of them would have decided that this was a good issue to launch their re-election upon and they would have been opposed. Even though it is, without doubt, absolutely the right thing to do from an economic perspective."

The same holds true for the agreement reached between the Government and the Auckland City Council, to speed up the processing of resource consents for new housing, says Mr English. "We couldn't have done a housing accord with eight councils."

The finance minister says he has stressed the importance of Wellington developing its non-government strengths in his conversations with local body leaders and others in the region. The environment has changed. The Government is not going to fuel growth in the region by increasing public spending as its predecessors did.

There have been some positive responses, he says. A couple of years ago the city council staged a "very successful" business expo at Parliament. "I thought they might pick that up and run with the idea.

"They need to spend a lot of time reinforcing the idea that there isn't just government here and that they're not just waiting for government to start spending money again."

However, in contrast to the way Auckland was now operating, the initiative had not been repeated.

'They [Auckland] are just a bit more energetic about pushing their case," he says.

The view from the Beehive is not totally gloomy, however.

Mr Key and his lieutenants say being the centre of government gives Wellington advantages other regions cannot match.

It's just that the way they see it, they are more aware of the capital's potential than the region's leaders.

"You get the sense that they haven't quite shifted their model yet," says Mr English.

The Dominion Post