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Local Government Conference

Issue date: 
Tuesday, 13 June 1989
The Hon and the Rt Rev Sir Paul Reeves, GCMG, GCVO, QSO

I was in Rotorua on Saturday and only got to Auckland because a chartered Air NZ 737 carrying delegates to the Conference of Local Government managers and engineers paused here long enough to offload its passengers and take me on board.

So this is an incredibly busy week for you. Your Conference programme looks impressive and very full. Seminars on managing change and the implications of the Treaty of Waitangi for local government will be balanced by addresses from politicians and economists. Doubtless some of you heard Mr Quigley yesterday when he spoke on the Private Provision of Public Services. That must have been food for thought.

I can say with some pride that I have read your President's rather lengthy report. In his penultimate paragraph he says: There must be a legitimacy beyond mere power. I warm to that. In Local Government the number of territorial units will reduce from 214 to 73 and there will be 13 large regional councils. The issue though is not just the shape and task of local government. It also includes asking how well you do your job, whether you want to improve your own performance and remain credible in the eyes of the electors. Richard John Seddon could say "Keep the [*******] on a string and they'll keep you in office". Those days, if they ever existed, have gone. Any legitimacy you have as elected members or paid employees in local government rests fairly and squarely on your competence. I believe that the great structural changes in the State sector and in Local Government has created a public which is more demanding and more discerning.

Let's go back in history. Julius Vogel needed money to fund his public works schemes. He had a better chance of borrowing from the banks if New Zealand could be presented as united, with central government in control. So provincial government was abolished in 1876. The Municipal Corporation Act reconstructed existing boroughs and provided for more and The Counties Act divided the country into 63 counties.

The social and economic scene continued to develop under Vogel, Grey and Seddon who with his colleagues sketched the outline of the social security state. Local government expanded to meet this evolving situation.

Now you can argue the principle and the detail of local government reform if you wish but it occurs to me that no one can seriously question that once again New Zealand has changed radically in economic, social and political terms. Furthermore, changes in the community inject new values and new challenges into the government of that same community.

A parallel would be the development in our attitude towards land. The pioneer settler of the last century did not see this land as heritage to be safeguarded for the future as it had been cared for in the past. Land was there to be developed and conservation and sustainability were not issues.

Samuel Butler made his famous comment:

"A mountain here is only beautiful if it has good grass on it if it is food for sheep, it is beautiful, magnificent and all the rest; if not it is not worth looking at."

The 19th Century New Zealander of European origin saw the land as something which either broke your back or made you a pot of gold. For most people it did neither, but there was a general attitude, namely, it was you or the land.

Robert Frost speaking of America said:

"The land was ours before we were the land's
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people."

For us, 150 years after the beginning of European settlement, the questions about land have changed. We are beginning to be her people. How free should a freehold be? Do I own land like a slave so it's mine to do whatever I like? What interest has the community in what I do with my land?

My point is that just as the community can inject new values into land, so the community can reshape itself and require those who govern it to reshape themselves. That is the considered political judgement of this Government and so we stand at the beginning of a new era. It is up to you to make it a better era.

Political equality would be when everyone shared equally in making a decision and everyone supported the final outcome. Such perfection does not exist and that's why we need politicians. But if someone claims to know better than we do ourselves what is good for us, I'm sceptical. I readily admit though that we may know what we want but not know how to get it. That's why we need politicians. Local Government members are well placed to be in touch with the views and attitudes of people. You live and work among your constituents and my experience is that the New Zealander is readily available with advice for politicians and quite prepared to call a spade a bloody shovel. I wish you well in your task.

I am reading an autobiography consisting partly of letters written by the author as a young woman. In one of them she said:

"We walked hundreds of miles in the direction we'd seen the Brooklyn trams go, and finished up in Newtown. What a desolate place - people must only consent to live there because they're too downtrodden to protest at such filthy conditions."

I have worked out that when she wrote that letter I was ten, living in Newtown and loving it because it was my home. I belonged there. I still live there, though in a slightly larger house.

I have discovered that the office of Governor-General can express the principle of belonging, sovereignty you may call it. A very rough expression of sovereignty would be that we should embrace this land and each other because we belong here together. Now the democratic system of voting, representing and being accountable serves sovereignty. The relationship between democracy and sovereignty needs fine tuning from time to time. Tomorrow there will be a seminar on "The Treaty of Waitangi and its Implications for Local Government". All I would say is that with the proposed devolution of functions currently exercised by the Department of Māori Affairs to iwi authorities, that is, to regional groupings representing tribal and other interests, there are going to be other bodies out there exercising control over their affairs, meeting needs, managing resources. They will be acting on behalf of Māori people. It is a reminder that Māori structures of tribe, hapu, trust boards, incorporations and now iwi authorities make up a tried form of local government with which you have had a tenuous relationship.

Have you read Maurice Gee's novel Plumb? The central character believes thoughts are more important than actions. Consequently, Plumb luxuriates a little in coping with his conscience. Going to prison for sedition becomes more important that finding food and clothing for his children.

Most of us blend idealism with practicality and we struggle. We don't live with perfection but we edge our way to a better situation, step by step. Local Body Government is no exception. It is only as good as the people in it.

Sir Duncan McMullin when he retired from the Court of Appeal said:

"The search for justice is dependent on the honesty of the witness, the integrity of solicitor and counsel and the character of the Judge to find the facts fairly, and conscientiously to address himself of herself to the issues. If one of these processes fails then justice may not be done; if all of them fail, justice will certainly not be done."

To transpose Sir Duncan's words: The search for quality local government is dependent upon the integrity of the elected representatives, the skill and enthusiasm of the employees and the confidence of the electorate. If any one of these elements fails then local government may not be done. If all of them fail, the result will certainly be confusion and stagnation.

It was said of Sir Frederick Whitaker that he always did more as the adviser of others than as a performer in his person. I have no advice except to assure you of the support of the office which I presently hold as you now set about the task of Local Government.

I have pleasure in declaring this Conference open.

Last updated: 
Tuesday, 13 June 1989

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