Black day for democracy in Canterbury and the nation

The brief statement announcing the continued suspension of democracy at Environment Canterbury will take a place in New Zealand history. It outlines the most radical denial of voting rights that this nation has experienced in recent times - a fact that disadvantages Cantabrians and besmirches the Government.

For another four years voters will be unable to elect ECan councillors, meaning a basic right will have been denied citizens for more than half a decade. In that time, ECan will have gathered something like $450 million in rates and spent it without the input of the providers. It will without voter guidance have set the rules on the use of water, issued and denied thousands of consents, changed the province's transport system, ruled on how people heat their homes - and they are just some of the important functions in the organisation's dictatorial purview. On some of those issues, rights of appeal will continue to be curtailed.

That is objectionable not just on the theoretical ground that it is a denial of democracy but also because in practice it is faulty. Those affected by ECan's policies have a point of view and often what they say is sensible. They, after all, are the people who know what it is like to live without a log burner or how well their bus service is working or how polluted their back-paddock creek is. Their input is largely now denied, putting vital decisions entirely in the unmoderated hands of unelected commissioners and unaccountable bureaucrats. We voters cannot hear their deliberations or fully appeal their decisions or sack them.

That the Government has prolonged this system - it is called dictatorship - is deplorable and foolish. It not only denies the province healthy administration but it strengthens a backlash against National in the province.

At the time of the original appointment of the commissioners, people were outraged, even though ECan was not popular and regarded as partly paralysed. Cantabrians hated a main branch of their democracy being removed. Had the earthquakes and the difficult and prolonged recovery not diverted the anger, National would have paid a penalty here in the 2011 general election. The anger will return now, this time with an added intensity.

Concerns about the nearly unbridled power of the Minister for Earthquake Recovery were expressed from the time he received his fiat but they were tolerated because most people realised that someone had to be firmly in charge of a challenge unparalleled in our experience. But tolerance of Czar Brownlee is now less, as the problems of the rebuild grow and greater input is desired by citizens.

Those feelings will amalgamate with the displeasure at the ECan decision and might grow to some significance and be difficult for the Government to handle. It would have been in a stronger position had it advanced a convincing case for the reappointment of commissioners, but it has failed to do so. It justifies its move by saying little more than that the commissioners have done well and are suited to continue to supervise the province as it reorganises water and transport. Why an elected council could not do that job the Government does not say. Instead, it relies on the assertion that the commissioners provide efficiency, strong governance, effectiveness, problem-solving, stability.

Those are the justifications of every tin-pot dictator, echoing the sentiments of Suva. They count as nothing against the imperative of citizens controlling their governors by means of the ballot box, the free flow of information and the right of appeal.

Condemnation would have been out of place had the Government retained the commissioners while a reorganisation of the region's local government had taken place - while that necessary thing, a greater Christchurch, was created, or while the future of all regional councils was considered. Instead, the Government has relied on the reasoning of dictators and the problems of the earthquakes to deny us democracy. It does not trust the voters.

The Press