Wellington Scoop

Democracy and ideology

by Ray Chung
Do we have a dysfunctional Council or is it democracy in action?

There were two very interesting opinion articles in the DomPost last week. One by Dr. Andy Asquith who’s a local government and public management specialist in the School of Management at Massey University, and the other by Neil Holdom who’s the mayor of New Plymouth District.

Both articles have similarities and broach the same subjects but other than that, one is written from an academic perspective and the other from a practical viewpoint.

I’ve always maintained that academic education and qualifications are important but so is the practical experience of working in a business environment. I’m not knocking the academic perspective from Dr. Asquith and in fact, I’m a graduate of Massey University with a business degree and Diploma in Marketing and International Business. Probably the most useful thing that I learnt at Massey was the discipline and research into analysing situations to seek better or alternative solutions whereas my work experience is more useful in resolving and achieving everyday situations.

Firstly, let’s see what Neil Holdom says:

“The role of a mayor is to build a consensus one vote at a time to keep their community progressing sustainably while taking a balanced and long-term view. In looking to develop effective strategy and guide quality decision-making, one of the critical success factors of a mayor is the ability to build a team, focusing elected colleagues on common values and aspirations. But what do we do in Wellington where Andy Foster, a centre-right career local government politician, was elected mayor of a council with an established Labour-Green voting bloc where within days of his win being confirmed, the Labour-Green bloc walked into Foster’s office, laid out their demands, including the appointment of a deputy mayor, and effectively signaled their intentions to dominate the next three years in office with their party political manifesto.”

“The Local Government Act requires elected members to keep an open mind right up to the point of making a decision, based on the proven theory that the highest-quality decisions are achieved by considering all available information right up to the last minute.”

“Those who make decisions early tend to disregard information that doesn’t align with their thinking and often miss a trick. But the bloc within council that confronted Foster wasn’t there to be open-minded; they were there to project political power and drive their agenda, regardless of the information from management about the actual issues they might face, or the views of their peers or the wider community.”

This was confirmed to me following the vote on selling the council land at Shelly Bay by two councillors who told me that one of their colleagues had not read the council briefing notes because she was voting according to her and her colleagues’ ideology.

Neil Holdom goes on to say:

“It pays to consider the capability of elected officials and essentially, the bar to being elected in New Zealand is one of the lowest for any job. In the case of local government, it involves having two people who live in the ward to sign a nomination form, filling out the rest of the form correctly, paying $200 and winning a popularity contest. If you make the cut, you will find yourself making decisions on billions of dollars of complex and interconnected projects which will ultimately determine the quality of infrastructure and services the people who live in your community will have access to in decades to come.”

Dr. Asquith has a similar message about our councillors:

“A significant part with the breakdown of governance in the council is the calibre of many of those elected as either mayor or councillors. Having a higher bar for candidates to clear might be a start here. Far too many people stand, and are elected, without having any idea as to what the role entails, or what the legal requirements are. In the 2016 triennial census of elected officials in local government, it showed once again that our average councillor is male, pale and stale.”

Not so for the Wellington City Council that was elected in 2019 – it consists of 10 women and four men so evidently gender hasn’t improved its effectiveness. Additionally two councillors are in their 20s.

So what do we consider are the contributing factors to a council being dysfunctional? Education? Party alliances? A dearth of business nous? Or all of these? I’m all for having a council who represent a cross-section of the community but I oppose having an allocation of councillors selected on gender, LGBTQ, race, ethnicity or other criteria.

We’re already halfway through this triennium and there’s only 19 months before the next local body election so we’d better start thinking about who we want on the Wellington City Council next time round – otherwise we’ll be doomed to repeat the imbroglio that we have at present.

Summarising the opening question, I do consider that this council is a perfect example of democracy with duly elected councillors, but it seems the issue with many of them is not that they are male, pale and stale but that they expound their ideological doctrine as a substitute for commercial and financial reality.

An example of this was last Thursday, when the council approved a rates increase of 13.65%, possibly the highest increase in New Zealand and far greater than Auckland’s 5%. But despite this, councillors Laurie Foon, Sarah Free and Iona Pannett patted themselves on the back for spending more ratepayers’ money on a resource recovery centre, an additional $45 million on cycleways and increased budgets for Otari Wilton’s Bush, Begonia House, funding for the needs and aspirations of Maori, increasing payments to events in Wellington and supporting Jill Day’s increase of the Maori co-operation funding from $650,000 to $3 million with no business plan or even documentation on how this is to be spent.

I’m not questioning whether any of these projects are worthy. But having just voted to increase rates, shouldn’t they have been aware of the difficulties this increase will cause, and shouldn’t they have held back from any more spending initiatives until (if ever) ratepayers can afford to pay for their largesse?


  1. Harold Rodd, 8. March 2021, 8:38

    Congrats on an excellent article. Please stand for the mayoralty next year.

  2. I blame remuera, 8. March 2021, 9:42

    I keep seeing this non-sense about some councilor or other voting solely along party lines. The councilors we have were elected on their own platforms and mandate and if the system is supposed to work with them doing something other than pursuing that agenda then the system is broken and appears to have been designed by someone with naïve notions about politics. We have a large block of democratically elected Green and Labor councilors and wellington overwhelmingly voted Green and Labor at the general election. So those pleading that Andy Foster’s razor thin win in the mayoralty gives him a mandate to push through his agenda other than that of the other elected councilors are clutching at straws. Mayoralties ought to be abolished, let the councilors select a chair from amongst themselves to build consensus like on the regional councils.

  3. Claire, 8. March 2021, 11:08

    The problem isn’t Labour Green or Centre right politics. It’s a bloc of councillors working to limit any other agenda. For example the library. This wasn’t a bad idea by Foster. It would have saved some money. But it was then blown out of proportion and manipulated. It’s the lack of cooperation enmass not the different affiliation.

  4. Claire, 8. March 2021, 12:15

    Ray yes I agree in the main. The thing I disagree on is that sometimes the minority does not get a representative voice, through a larger group being the mainstream reps.
    This actually happened to women, and may still be. So I am for a very representative council. Split along gender quite evenly and race and LGBT. If this doesn’t happen on its own it needs a nudge. This doesn’t mean any group of the above is better. But a diverse group will make better decisions. As long as there is not a deliberate bloc.

  5. Pedge, 8. March 2021, 13:27

    Claire. You commented about how the council struggles for avenues of income, yet you advocate for joining with private companies and selling part of the library. Can’t you see why rates are the only stream of revenue left? Because every other avenue stream, be it companies, buildings or land has been sold off by successive councils, trying to save money. Someone on this site recently put it best when they said neo-liberalism has failed us, and it looks as though no one can see it.

  6. I blame remuera, 8. March 2021, 13:44

    Claire you are still accusing people who got elected on a different platform of not going along with what you want; austerity and keeping rates artificially deflated relative to costs to keep infrastructure maintained is not common sense. You’ve decried private developers building needed homes but now you want to sell public assets to robber barons; have you paid no attention to what has been happening with other PPP’s like transmission gully?

    I also do not trust what Foster has said about the proposal and think the left councilors are right to also not trust it. Everything supposedly sensible about it only came out after Rebecca Matthews kicked up a stink about a single line last minute amendment to the budget proposal.

  7. Concerned Wellingtonian, 8. March 2021, 17:24

    I disagree with I blame remuera that Councillors “were elected on their own platforms and mandate.” In one ward, a first-timer who had never taken an interest in local affairs (let alone governance) was elected because Grant Robertson MP sent a letter to most voters saying that she had served faithfully and well in the Labour party’s policy section. This was nothing to do with a platform let alone a mandate.

  8. TrevorH, 8. March 2021, 17:49

    Good column Ray. I think Councillors should be held liable for their decisions, like Directors.

  9. Tinakarori, 8. March 2021, 17:54

    Ray Chung has given us a very clear and practical exposition of the situation with the WCC, the reasons for it, and the expensive consequences for the ratepayers. I also agree with Claire’s comments above. Unfortunately, I have to suggest that i blame remuera’s comments are unrealistic.

  10. Ray Chung, 8. March 2021, 19:35

    Hi Concerned Wellingtonian, you bring up an interesting point about Grant Robertson sending 15,000 letters out to Onslow-Western voters. Grant was reported to the Electoral Commission about these letters and asked to explain who paid for these? Did it come out of the Labour Party coffers, Parliamentary Services (we taxpayers) or paid for by himself? He declined to comment when asked these questions.

  11. Dave B, 8. March 2021, 19:58

    An important thing to remember is that electors are only given the choice to vote for candidates who stand for election. If we do not like the choice then our only recourse is either to stand ourselves, or to lobby others who are more to our liking to stand on our behalf.
    I admire those who stand, both for councils and for parliament. They are prepared to stand up and do something that most people are not. Sure, some lack business experience, but this is but one out of many skills required in leadership. Business people can lack skills and awareness in other areas. As an example from parliament, I seriously question prominent-businessman Steven Joyce’s judgement in committing billions of dollars of our, and future-generations’ money to a handful of poor-business-case motorways. Or the judgement of other supposedly business-savvy politicians, Fran Wilde, Chris Laidlaw and Paul Swain, in orchestrating the loss of our trolleybus network.

    What we seem to be expecting in our candidates are multi-skilled and accomplished all-rounders with education, experience, impeccable judgement and a complete lack of any personal agenda, self-interest or political allegiance. These paragons must also be willing to put themselves forward for office and have sufficient ‘wow-factor’ to persuade an electorate of very-ordinary individuals without super-powers and with lots of their own personal agendas and self-interest, to vote for them. Do the people who criticize our current crop of councillors possess these exemplary qualities? If so, let them be the first to stand.

    Given the motley bunch of Johns and Janes that comprise humanity, I don’t think we do too badly to raise a council or a parliament at all. As Winston Churchill said, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government – except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…”

  12. Peter Kerr, 8. March 2021, 20:00

    @Trevor H – I think you will find that councillors are held liable every three years.
    @Concerned Wellingtonian – None the less the candidate (whoever it was) was duly elected.
    @Tinakarori – Ray Chung has been anything but clear about “the situation at WCC”. He poses questions but isn’t explicit about what his answers are. There are too many conditional statements to be sure what he’s proposing.
    The Council “is a perfect example of democracy with duly elected councillors, but”….
    ..”academic education and qualifications are important but”…
    No “questioning whether any of these projects are worthy. But”…
    “I’m all for having a council who represent a cross-section of the community but”…
    I blame Remuera’s comments are on the money. They don’t disparage people’s voting choices, and don’t make assumptions about how representatives choose to exercise their right to oppose or to agree with local legislation.

  13. Andrew, 8. March 2021, 23:16

    There seems to be a sudden increase in the amount of vitriol being leveled at the left side of politics in the comments section of this site and, of note, a tremendous media pile on against the government in the last week (which may or may not be related). I’d like to point or that it was largely those on the right who have got us into this pickle in the first place with grandiose plans for expensive privately built motorways and the like along with asset stripping and privatisation of our public services such as transport and other previously publicly owned infrastructure. I include in that those people who started it all – in the first Act led parliament voted in in 1987 – some of whom are still playing their neoliberaal wares in the commentariat today.
    I’m no fan of the current council and will be placing all of them at the bottom of my list at the next election. However, trying to smear councillors for voting together as a bloc when they are all I the same side and were all voted in by the people because of their views, and not for the completely crazy idea that Grant Robertson was pulling on voters’ strings in the background forcing them elect Labour and Green candidates, is insulting.

  14. Northland, 8. March 2021, 23:32

    Perhaps the trouble with Councils is that there is not enough party politics? National government is run by a party or coalition of parties. Consensus is reached on a policy platform and decisions are progressed and implemented.

    Perhaps Councils would function better if they worked along similar lines with one block being in power and the other in opposition. Then the local population would be able to kick out the ‘ruling’ block each three years, if desired, and decisions such as raising rates by 13.5% would be clearly labelled as being the ‘fault’ of whichever block was in power. This would provide much better accountability for the public.

    I guess this is probably akin to suggesting a more federal system of local governance for Aotearoa / New Zealand.

  15. Claire, 9. March 2021, 10:08

    Ibr. I am not anti housing. As with the majority in the DPS submission report just want them put in appropriate places.
    Trying to find solutions to a big rates rise should include discussions of all avenues. Left and right. Privatising part of the library building is hardly the same as transmission gully. I don’t believe the Government owns all the buildings it is occupying. Anyway the review will likely turn up a few surprises.

  16. hel, 9. March 2021, 10:13

    Councillors come and go, some are committed and capable others aren’t. The constant is the executive and management, they are largely unaccountable and are responsible for providing advice to Councillors to make informed decisions. Whether it be Shelly Bay, the Library, Wellington Water – are the Councillors getting quality advice and oversight of Council activities from its executive – I suspect not. This is not a one dimensional issue and just focussing on the elected Councillors misses a big contributor to the issues facing Council.

  17. Claire, 9. March 2021, 12:48

    Hel good comment. However The councillors get the final vote and this may be against all reasonable advice. And resident interests.

  18. Ray Chung, 9. March 2021, 14:54

    Hi Peter Kerr, I apologise if I wasn’t sufficiently succinct about my views and what I consider the issues are. Yes, I explain what I consider the problem to be but I like to listen to the opposing viewpoint as well so this could be why I have a “but” following my view. I appreciate there are always other viewpoints and would like to think that I consider the validity of these as well. If you like, I’m happy to elucidate further on any of my statements:
    The Council “is a perfect example of democracy with duly elected councillors, but”…. Why aren’t they working together for the common good?
    ..”academic education and qualifications are important but”… I think I said business experience is also necessary and not just have academics who have no “real world” experience.
    No “questioning whether any of these projects are worthy. But”… I’m saying that it’s the wrong time to be going for any projects at all apart from fixing the leaking pipes. How can I make this clearer than that?
    “I’m all for having a council who represent a cross-section of the community but”… I said I wouldn’t support electing people on their orientation or race as running for council is available to everyone, there shouldn’t be a “quota!” Peter, I’m more than happy to clarify anything that you feel I haven’t explained succinctly enough. Claire, I understand what you’re saying about the different groups and hope this also clarifies my viewpoint.
    Dave B, you make some very valid points. I spoke with a few people who I considered would be very strong mayoral candidates before the last election trying to convince them to stand “for the good of Wellington” but they all had a reason why they wouldn’t be interested and if you’re interested in their answers, I’m happy to detail these. I’ll be asking these people to reconsider before the election next year and I hope they’ll give this some thought. I’ve always maintained that if I think the council are doing a good job, I’ll be happy to support them in any way that I can but (I now have a phobia about saying this word now in case Peter may say I’m not making myself clear!), I’m obviously not happy with this council so am planning on running as an independent in the Onslow-Western ward next year. There’s a common saying that “you should never expect anyone to do anything that you wouldn’t do yourself” so thanks for this Dave.

  19. Ray Chung, 9. March 2021, 15:09

    Hi Claire, in reply to your comment about a representative council, in the last election, I helped a candidate who falls into the gender, race and LGBT categories but they weren’t successful in being elected. Afterwards, they were told by friends that the “average kiwi” might very well think they’re a great person and would make an excellent councillor but they still wouldn’t vote for them. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps this advice also applies to me and I just don’t know it, despite being born in Wellington but I have greater confidence in my fellow man or woman that it isn’t true. I’m trying to convince this candidate to stand again next year.

  20. Michael Gibson, 9. March 2021, 17:20

    hel, re “quality” advice and Shelly Bay: I am still disturbed that WCC officers gave Councillors an otherwise uncirculated note immediately before the fatal vote. In answer to the question “Is $10m the maximum that ratepayers will have to pay for infrastructure?” the answer was “Yes” which is simply untrue.
    Luckily there are avenues I am still exploring on this one but the next stage is the decision from the High Court.

  21. I blame remuera, 9. March 2021, 20:20

    Claire. If appropriate places means crammed up against busy roads you’re wrong. On the other hand allowing more building more widely would be less disruptive than a mass of apartments along the main drag. It would have been easy to find out if the people on the other side of the argument might have had a point, or to find out why the council might not have gone with what appeals to you from the start.

    Getting back to the issue of rates and councilors, a 4 bedroom villa I found searching on trademe with an RV of 960,000 pays $4,360.57 annual rates for 20/21 financial year. Even the top end 23% rise that was mooted would amount to $20 per week. As a young professional, $20 per week is what I could expect as a yearly rent increase for a bedroom in that house, So I’m inclined to wonder what the problem is when interest only and reverse mortgages exist.

    People can vote for who they like and the nature of democracy is that you can complain about that as much as you like. If you don’t like a politician’s politics complain to your hearts content! I do and don’t intend to stop.

  22. Claire, 9. March 2021, 22:41

    Ibr. The DSP was suggesting dotting large buildings through heritage areas next to one storey cottages. In anyone’s design language that is vandalism. Yes there are many great designs out there. Hobsonville is a new suburb and the heights are fairly uniform. It is more complex melding old and new. Victoria Street could be replicated along Adelaide Road. The idea is to get WCC to work with developers and designers and hopefully the community like ACC does. Some of the design around Wellington is very poor. Of course we are aware of all the things you mention.
    Ray you are right to have greater confidence in your fellow man. Things have improved but are still not perfect. Judging from the makeup of parliament nowadays it’s looking more diverse and balanced.
    Good you mentored a candidate. Maybe we should all put up new candidates for our wards.

  23. Ray Chung, 10. March 2021, 10:53

    Hel, yes, I agree with you and I’ve had meetings with both the WCC and GWRC about various issues in addition to attending their seminars and workshops. These officials say they welcome consultation and engagement with residents but often we still end up with what the council’s first preference was so I wonder how seriously they consider this engagement. I’ve spoken to councillors about the decisions that Town Planners make in approving Resource Consents but they say they can only address this with the CEO. We (ORCA) are having a public seminar on transport issues in Wellington next Tuesday 16th March at the Khandallah Town Hall at 7.30pm and you’re all welcome and please feel free to come to chat with me about your views there.

  24. Ray Chung, 10. March 2021, 13:46

    Ibr: good for you complaining if you’re not happy with a politician’s politics! More people should do this. I hear from many people about things that they’re not happy about and their dissatisfaction with councillors but they’re too busy or are unwilling to write submissions, attend council workshops, be active in their local residents associations etc. Regarding rate increases, I agree that an extra $20 a week doesn’t sound much but remember that for some people, this would be an extra burden on top of all the other bills and particularly for those on a fixed stipend. The council continues to increase rates at well above the inflation rate so they’re far above any salary/benefit increases that residents can earn. It seems to me that there’s no incentive for the council to reduce its budgets and on the insights that I’ve received about itsspending, there’s plenty of fat that should be reduced. When I query councillors about the value of some expenditure, they reply that this comes out of operating expenditure so councillors don’t have any input to question these. I believe that a lot more can be done but councillors don’t seem to be interested in looking at these budgets.