Wellington Scoop

Democracy, the living wage, and Jonah

The Chamber of Commerce should be having second thoughts about its legal challenge to the Wellington City Council’s living wage decision.

It should be studying last week’s statement by law firm Chen Palmer, which explained why the courts have been reluctant to undertake reviews which challenge the merits of decisions made by councils. Most recently in 1996, when the Court of Appeal ruled that the Courts should defer to elected council members on matters of policy “except in clear and extreme cases”.

Nick Russell, Chen Palmer Litigation Partner, says the law governing local councils has changed since then and

…”the Court will need to decide whether that principle still applies … Ultimately, the Chamber is asking the Court to rule on whether spending decisions made by democratically elected councils should be subject to judicial oversight, in addition to the democratic accountability provided by local elections.”

And then comes a warning which should be causing the Chamber – always worrying about the costs for its declining membership – to reconsider its “reluctant” legal action:

“If the Court upholds the Chamber’s claim it will have extremely far reaching consequences for local government in New Zealand, as it has the potential to open up a wide range of spending decisions to scrutiny in the High Court. It would provide disgruntled ratepayers with a powerful new weapon to hold councils to account, but it would also risk making local government decision-making slower and more expensive – a cost ultimately borne by ratepayers. The Court will have to grapple with these implications in deciding whether the final word on the matter rests with the judiciary or the voters of Wellington,”

The wisdom of the Chamber’s living wage challenge is also persuasively challenged this morning by Dave Armstrong writing in the DomPost about Jonah Lomu.

Rugby has been good to its elite PI rugby players, but what about the rest? How many Pacific Islanders are there on the New Zealand Rugby board? It’s still No Country For Brown Men … Why are there no Pacific Super 15 teams, and why did it take so long for the All Blacks to play a test in Samoa? That Manu Samoa didn’t make it out of World Cup pool play should concern Kiwis.

Nonu or Savea could walk into any corporate box at the Cake Tin and would be treated like royalty by the mostly palagi members of the Wellington business community. That’s the same business community who are currently suing our council for paying their lowest-waged workers a decent living wage. Can you guess the ethnicity of many of those cleaners, parking wardens and security guards who might be saving to buy their kid a pair of rugby boots?

Lomu’s health condition could have afflicted anyone, but what about all the preventable health problems faced by young Pacific Island kids, many of whom have enormous sporting, creative and academic potential? Pacific Islanders suffer more strokes, rheumatic fever, obesity and other diseases of poverty than most other ethnic groups in this country. That should deeply concern us, yet palagi barbecue conversation is more likely to focus on the very few PIs who come over from a remote island to ‘bludge’ on our health system. The All Blacks have shown that, when you combine Pacific fire with Maori flair and Pakeha class, New Zealanders are world beaters. If we made the playing field more level in other parts of our society we might find ourselves excelling elsewhere. What a fitting malo aupito (thank you) that would be to Jonah.

At the Stadium on Saturday night, the living wage may not have been discussed much, but the death of Jonah Lomu was still on everyone’s minds, and the crowd sang along with Elton John in a musical tribute to the fallen hero.

So now, who’s going to start looking at the level of our society’s playing field …


  1. Councillor Helene Ritchie, 24. November 2015, 22:51

    Thank you for this thoughtful and well considered opinion along with the opinion of Nick Russell, litigation partner of Chen Palmer re the Chamber of Commerce threat of legal challenge to the Council’s living wage decision.

    For your information, on 6 November 2015, I wrote the following to the mayor and councillors:

    “The Courts are generally reluctant to intervene in (elected) political decisions. See the landmark case re commercial ratepayers vs WCC re the rates differential (Woolworths v. Wcc) while testing different legislation, addressed issues of (elected) Councils’ powers and demonstrated reluctance (of the Courts) to intervene in political decisions. I believe the CEO should carry out the Council’s decision. I gave my reasons at the Council table, but will not be making public comment at present regarding the Chamber’s challenge.”

    That was November 6. Today I have decided to make a public comment in response to your opinion piece, albeit against the CEO’s advice to the mayor and councillors. The deputy mayor has also made a public comment as has the mayor in a limited way.

    Today, I urge that the good sense of the Chamber’s President, Peter Cullen prevails. As employment lawyer, friend, a person well versed in the law, whom I have known since his earlier days when he was a Trade Unionist and Secretary of the Hotel and Hospital Workers’ Union, and as a person obviously well versed in the law, I urge him to now unequivocally withdraw this threat of legal challenge to Council’s decision, in the High Court.

    Can we now look forward to an unequivocal withdrawal by the Chamber of Commerce, of that threat of legal challenge through its President, Peter Cullen?

    Councillor Helene Ritchie

  2. Lyndy McIntyre, 25. November 2015, 20:27

    This is a sensible comment about an important decision. The decision to extend the Living Wage to council workers employed via contractors was widely consulted on and was supported by nearly 80% of submitters in the Wellington City 2014 Annual Plan process. The councillors who have voted for this are exercising democracy. The Chamber has been virtually the sole dissenter. Their legal action flies in the face of democracy, is a waste of money and is mean-minded. We have to wonder why they have not questioned ballooning expenditure on high salaries at WCC.

    50% of UK councils are now Living Wage councils. This trend will be replicated in New Zealand as councils respond to communities who want to see their civic leaders show real leadership and set the standard in their cities.

  3. Rory McCourt, 25. November 2015, 20:49

    I agree with Dave and Helene. This is an issue of democracy.

    Isn’t it better for the Chamber to fight this battle at the election, rather than disputing the results through the courts? Surely, in a democracy, it is the arguments that take place around the ballot box that should carry the day, rather than rearguard actions by those who have lost?

    Peter Cullen is a good man, and a great friend to the student movement. He proudly recalls his time as a student radical at my alma mater, VUWSA. But surely during that time he came to understand that we win and lose at the ballot box, not through sour grapes or nitpicking? It’s the force of arguments, our ability to convince the masses, our hard work to get the message out, that should count. The Chamber disagrees with a Living Wage for Wellington workers. That is fine, let them make their case at next year’s election. Run candidates, challenge the others on the podium. Fund an issue-based campaign. Knock on doors, present evidence. Win the argument.

    This legal battle, however, is public cowardice. Surely the Chamber is more confident in its argument than that? It’s the people of Wellington who should decide, not a judge.