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Ignoring Wellington

There’s a lovely scene in that delightful Monty Python movie The Life of Brian, where the rebels are getting outraged at their Roman rulers:

REG: They’ve bled us white, the bastards. They’ve taken everything we had, and not just from us, from our fathers, and from our fathers’ fathers. And what have they ever given us in return?!
XERXES: The aqueduct.
REG: Oh. Yeah, yeah. They did give us that. Uh, that’s true. Yeah.
COMMANDO #3: And the sanitation.
LORETTA: Oh, yeah, the sanitation, Reg. Remember what the city used to be like?
REG: Yeah. All right. I’ll grant you the aqueduct and the sanitation are two things that the Romans have done.
MATTHIAS: And the roads.
REG: Well, yeah. Obviously the roads. I mean, the roads go without saying, don’t they? But apart from the sanitation, the aqueduct, and the roads–
COMMANDO: Irrigation.
XERXES: Medicine.
COMMANDO #2: Education.
REG: Yeah, yeah. All right. Fair enough.
COMMANDO #1: And the wine.
FRANCIS: Yeah. Yeah, that’s something we’d really miss, Reg, if the Romans left. Huh.
COMMANDO: Public baths.
LORETTA: And it’s safe to walk in the streets at night now, Reg.
FRANCIS: Yeah, they certainly know how to keep order. Let’s face it. They’re the only ones who could in a place like this.
REG: All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

It’s a clever little commentary on how ungrateful we can all be when it comes to the advantages of modern civilisation, but still … what have the big political parties ever done for Wellington?

This isn’t just a hypothetical question when it comes to the recent local body elections, where the involvement of Labour, the Greens and National was plain for all to see. And as the astute Ian Apperley has noted [1], some of that party political posturing seems to have rapidly seeped into the manoeuvring around the council table.

Some councillors have openly worn their party political affiliations for years. Iona Pannett has been a Green Party member for forever, mayor un-elect Justin Lester is a dyed in the wool Labour man, previous councillor and unsuccessful mayoral contender Jo Coughlin was practically married to the National Party, and mayor-elect Andy Foster actually stood for NZ First at the last general election (quite why is anyone’s guess). The question is: what’s in it for the city to elect councillors with such strong ties to a party organisation?

It’s easy to see the practical effects for candidates when it comes to campaigning.

Both the Labour and Green party machines are regarded as highly effective, able to field volunteers who will stuff letterboxes and attend meetings and wear t-shirts – and there’s no argument that logistics count when you’re campaigning, particularly if you have the mayoralty in your sights. Being resolutely independent may look like taking the high moral ground in local body politics, but it sure does make for a lonely campaign trail and a lot of very hard work to try and match the resources of the big political parties.

But once the votes are counted, what’s the advantage to the city in having elected a bunch of party hacks? I’m going to go out on a limb here and offer an unequivocal answer: nothing at all.

The reason is that Wellington is a safe Labour/Greens enclave when the general election rolls around, and all the political parties know it. No-one seriously believes that Grant Robertson is going to be displaced from Wellington Central, or that the party vote for the Greens is going to collapse into single digits anytime soon. So the government of the day can successfully ignore Wellington and get away with it – there just aren’t going to be any electoral consequences.

The same applies but in reverse when National is in power: Wellington is all but un-winnable from National’s perspective, so why bother even trying to keep the city happy? It’s not like we’re about to vote in a National MP and change the government as a result. You might as well campaign on “four lanes to the planes” and win a few more votes in Otaki, given that the burghers of Mt Victoria aren’t going to vote for you anyway.

And you can see the effects of being taken for granted when it comes to big projects, Let’s Get Wellington Endlessly Talking being a case in point. Is the Government rushing to throw $6.8 billion at us for a light rail system so we can get started and there can be a ribbon-cutting during this parliamentary term? Not so much.

Up the road in Auckland, things are a bit different. The debate about how to pay for a light rail system for the City of Sails is raging away, with Transport Minister Phil Twyford at the centre of the blast furnace. And most of the debate is about how quickly the money can flow in the door and when the diggers will start work, rather than endless meetings between officials and consultants.

This matters in a way it doesn’t in Wellington, simply because Auckland is full of marginal seats that can easily decide the shape of the next government, so the Minister needs to demonstrate progress in a way he needn’t bother with in the capital.

Back around our council table, the disadvantages of party political affiliation are by far outweighing whatever the marginal benefits are.

The council is in danger of fracturing down party political lines on crucial issues like transport, the airport and Shelly Bay, with the threat of imminent trench warfare for the next three years as councillors dig themselves in for the long haul.

There’s scant evidence of the issue-by-issue compromise and negotiation that has served the city well in the last, such as the fiercely independent stance displayed by former Deputy Mayor and councillor Ian McKinnon, amongst a long list of others. Party dogma looks like it’s taking centre stage, and it’s hard to see how the city will be better as a result.

So the question remains: what have Labour, the Greens and National ever done for us?