Smith has gone, but his legacy will mar long

CHRIS TROTTER
Last updated 07:43 23/03/2012

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OPINION: It's depressing. Nick Smith always struck me as a reasonable sort of bloke. There were plenty of flinty-faced ideologues in the National Party - politicians impervious to all but their own opinions; immovable by evidence, reason, or even (in many cases) by old- fashioned common sense - but until Monday, I wouldn't have included Dr Smith among them.

His swansong leaves us no choice. The departed minister's reforms of New Zealand local government are driven by pure ideology: ideas already discredited in their country of origin. In the United States, the destructive effects of artificially constrained budgets are readily observable in the crumbling infrastructure and moral squalor of the communities forced to adopt them.

New Zealanders need to understand that if National and its support parties are permitted to introduce this Far-Right American ideological virus into this country, our own communities will suffer a similar fate.

Our regional, city and district councils will, when it comes to revenue-gathering, be required to operate what amounts to an unending sinking-lid policy.

In a surprisingly short period of time, the funds available for public amenities such as libraries, art galleries, theatres, swimming pools and parks will dwindle to the point where all these public services find themselves struggling to survive.

Initially, they will resort to user-charges, but if the experience of the US state of Colorado is anything to go by, such measures will provide only temporary relief. Sooner, rather than later, they will be forced to close.

Local infrastructure will fare little better. Denied the right to raise local taxes (ie, rates) above the level of inflation and/or population growth, our local councils will be unable to embark on the long overdue refurbishment of this country's water reticulation and sewage systems. The maintenance of roads and footpaths will similarly be allowed to slide. Kerbing and channelling will crumble and our streets will be full of pot-holes. Complaints will be answered with an occasional shovelful of gravel.

In just a few years, our town or city will take on a dishevelled, even decrepit, appearance.

Laid-off council workers will drift away. Entrepreneurs will seek greener pastures. Young people will not return from their studies in wealthier, more exciting places. Our local authority's rating base will shrink.

With even less money to spend, its ability to maintain services and repair infrastructure will be even further compromised. Our communities' slide into decrepitude, and the exodus of their populations, will gather pace.

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Of course, not everybody will be unhappy at this turn of events. Those lucky enough to own their own homes, those with a healthy investment income, those whose children long ago departed the family home, those who, for a very long time, have regarded most of their fellow citizens as shirkers and wastrels: these folk will be delighted. They never used the library. They never visited the art gallery or the theatre.

Their own gardens were always preferable to the city's parks. If they wanted a swim they dived into their own pool.

In Colorado, from whence National and ACT filched this model of local government, it got to the point where small towns were forced to lay off a good portion of their fire department and sack most of the sheriff's deputies. In some places, the authorities went as far as turning off every second street light. Anything to relieve the relentless pressure on their budgets.

Why is the National-led Government embracing this social, economic and cultural disaster? Why has it refused to be persuaded by, for example, the Productivity Commission's draft report on housing affordability, which, according to the Greens' Eugenie Sage, shows that: "Rates have been declining in relation to property values, indicating that in terms of household wealth, rates are becoming less significant".

The answer, like the problem, is contained in the Far-Right's hatred of collectivism. The city, the civis, remains the fount of civilisation. By their very nature, cities are both an exercise and an experience in collective living.

Consider Christchurch: what was the Canterbury community's first and most striking endeavour? Its cathedral.

Would such a structure, constructed at such a cost, and dedicated to such a purpose, be permitted under the Government's proposed new regime? Of course, it wouldn't. The Far-Right's aim is to replace the collective infrastructure of "we", with the private architecture of "I".

- Taranaki Daily News

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