Chris Trotter: Democracy’s disappearing hand

Any candidate promising to do great things for their city in the 21st century is either naive or dishonest, Chris ...

Any candidate promising to do great things for their city in the 21st century is either naive or dishonest, Chris Trotter writes.

OPINION: If the future is determined by the "invisible hand" of market forces, then what purpose does the democratic hand serve? With barely a third of New Zealanders bothering to participate in the recent local government elections, the answer would appear to be: "Not much." At their current rate of decline, our democratic organs may soon be reduced to useless vestigial remnants, like the human tail-bone. Of interest only to political anatomists.

For more than 30 years we have been encouraged to look upon "politics" and "politicians" as not quite respectable. From the Reserve Bank Act to the Local Government Act, the ability of elected representatives to "meddle" too closely in the administration and delivery of "public goods" has been steadily whittled away. The setting of monetary policy and the efficient delivery of core civic amenities are matters best left to unelected experts. The days when any old butcher, baker, or candlestick-maker could run a city (let alone a country!) are long gone.

This "professionalisation" of the formerly rather amateur enterprise of democratic government is what lies behind the explosive growth of what has come to be known as the "political class". Like any group of specialists, these administrators and managers have been quick to spread the self-serving message that the increasingly complex business of modern "governance" (a word which has very little to do with the art of government by the way) has moved well beyond the competence of the average citizen.

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Just how pervasive (not to say pernicious) this professionalisation has become is illustrated by the presence in practically every large local authority of a special unit devoted to "democratic services". Its job? To advise and monitor (some unkind souls might say control) the conduct of their "governing body's" elected representatives. Newly elected councillors are briefed on the "responsibilities" of their new "job" and familiarised with the Codes of Conduct and myriad legal constraints in which all of them are now well-and-truly entangled.

Nor should these responsibilities be taken lightly. Woe betide any council attempting to assert its democratic right to know better than its professional advisors. Just ask the people of Canterbury what happens to an elected body which the political class deems to be conducting its affairs "irresponsibly" or, even worse, "irrationally". Central Government intervention, the sacking of elected councillors and their replacement by appointed commissioners, cannot be far behind.

The public has had little difficulty deciphering these messages. Even before the Government sacked Environment Canterbury in 2010, it was clear to voters that the ability of their elected representatives to translate election promises into practical policies had been seriously compromised. Councils no longer seemed to own and/or control anything. Services that had once been provided by the council itself were increasingly being contracted out to the private sector.

There was a time when, if the bus you took to work was consistently late, you simply picked up the phone and complained to your local councillor. He or she then raised the matter with the municipal transport manager, who, in turn, had a word in the ear of the route inspector and – ta-da! – the punctuality of your service was restored. Unfortunately, what the travelling public regarded as an eminently sensible and highly accountable public transport system was actually hopelessly inefficient. By contracting-out the service to privately-owned bus operators, said the experts, efficiency would be improved dramatically and the council could save millions of dollars. If your privately-owned service starts running late, however, don't bother calling your local councillor. It's no longer his problem.

Clearly, any candidate promising to do great things for his or her city in the 21st century is either naive or dishonest. "Great things" may well be an excellent description of the achievements of past councils and mayors, but today's local government politicians would be most unwise to offer the voters anything more than competence and a comprehensive understanding of how the system works. Perspiration counts for much more than inspiration in the neoliberal era. Perspiration and an unwavering adherence to the proposition that local government's only legitimate role is to hold the ring while self-interested private-sector businesspeople unconsciously, but inevitably, make our cities better places in which to live.

That being the case, the argument for mass democratic participation in local elections becomes increasingly difficult to make. When the professionals from "democratic services" are able to transform our democratically-elected representatives into house-trained lap-dogs practically overnight. When even the mildest assertions of local government autonomy are met with central government threats to depose elected councillors and appoint commissioners. And when a council's only acceptable objective is to facilitate the naked pursuit of commercial self-interest. What possible motivation could voters' have for treating local government elections as anything other than an increasingly pointless political ritual? A vestigial remnant of the democratic hand that once built nations.

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