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Local Government New Zealand Conference

Issue date: 
Sunday, 23 July 2017
The Rt Hon Dame Patsy Reddy, GNZM, CVO, QSO

E ngā mana, e ngā reo, o ngā Kaunihera ā Rohe,

An image of Dame Patsy Reddy speaking at the LGNZ Conference 2017

tēnā koutou katoa.

Koutou ngā Koro Matua, koutou ngā Tumuaki,

kia māia, kia manawanui.

Māhau ano, te katoa hei arahi,

te toa takitini, hei whakakotahi.

Māhau ano, e tiaki, te tuakiri, o tō tātau whare.

To you who bear authority and speak for Local Government, my greetings. 

A special encouragement to you the Mayors and CEOs.

Yours is the call to lead the people, to unite the many.

In your care lies the identity of our country.

Disinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen

I specifically acknowledge:

the Rt Hon Bill English, Prime Minister of New Zealand;

Lawrence Yule, President of Local Government New Zealand and  the mayors, chairpersons, councillors, CEOs and council executives present - tēnā koutou katoa.

In 1936, New Zealand poet Denis Glover published his poem “Home Thoughts.” Like many of Glover’s poems, it has been much studied in New Zealand schools.  For those of you who were absent from class that day, the final verse reads:

“I do not dream of Sussex downs
or quaint old England’s quaint old towns—
I think of what may yet be seen 
in Johnsonville or Geraldine”

Glover was making a bold declaration of his faith in the future of this country. It was an attitude that had been growing for some time. In the 1930s, many New Zealanders still talked of going ‘home’ to England but for more and more New Zealanders, home was here. 

Eighty years on, I wonder what Denis Glover would make of 21st century Johnsonville and Geraldine. He died in the 1970s so lived long enough to see the Johnsonville Mall built.  But I wonder what he’d make of Geraldine’s very successful ukulele festival!

When the invitation to speak to you arrived, I did wonder just what I might speak about that would have particular relevance to you.  I’m a lawyer by training and have spent most of my career in business and governance.  I have no special expertise in urban planning, wastewater, dog licencing, facilities management, rubbish collection, consenting or any of the myriad areas that local government has to concern itself with. 

My most direct connections with Local Government have been during the six years that I served on the Board of the Transport Agency, my time as a Chief Crown Negotiator for Treaty Settlements in the Bay of Plenty and the ten years I spent as a Trustee of the New Zealand Festival of the Arts in Wellington.

Luckily, I haven’t been asked to weigh in on the nuts and bolts of running councils and territorial authorities.  What I’m going to do today is give you my perspective on the importance of community and the values that matter most to us as New Zealanders.

These are things I’ve given a lot of thought to over the past ten months since I began my term as Governor-General. I hope these thoughts will be of some help to you as you get to grips with the theme of this year’s conference – ‘Creating pathways to New Zealand 2050’

There’s a lovely connection with local communities at Government House.  Those of you who have visited will have seen the 38 dining chairs, with their individually handstitched tapestry panels, each one bearing the coat of arms of a different borough city or town.  These were created for the visit of King George 6th, which never eventuated because of his ill health.  But the legend is that the Mayoresses throughout the country undertook to provide the tapestry panel representing their district.  These chairs are one of the most popular items on display in Government House – every New Zealander wants to find the chair representing their community, from Bluff to Whangarei, Westport to Wairoa.  It’s a continuing connection, though I’m not sure just how easy it would be to replicate today.

As the representative of New Zealand’s head of state, it’s part of my job to represent all New Zealanders, whether they be rural or urban; born here or born elsewhere. The lives of every person in this country are affected by the success of the communities they live in.  A large part of the success of those communities rests with you – our local government organisations.

What I’ve seen already as I’ve travelled around New Zealand is that people are proud of the places they live in and want to see their communities prosper. We may all be New Zealanders but each of us is tied to this country in different ways. For many of us the place where we live and how we came to be there, is intrinsically bound up with our identity.

I have enjoyed the opportunities I’ve had so far to visit the various regions and see what’s happening there. I’ve valued the support I’ve had from local government organisations during the visits.  I’ve also enjoyed meeting local government representatives and finding out from them what makes their area tick.

I have found that the people I talk to everywhere in New Zealand are remarkably frank about the challenges they face and what they would like to see happening in the towns, cities and regions they live in. I have also found that, even where there are great challenges, there is also hope, innovation and a will to succeed.

Every region has its own particular concerns but there are some common themes.  One of the most obvious is the changing demographics of New Zealand and the flow on effect this is having in the communities we live in.

Now I’m not going to start throwing out numbers. There are a lot of them and I would imagine you know them better than I do.  But there are some clear trends that have implications for how and what we plan for.

Like most of the developed world, our population is aging. The combination of retiring Baby Boomers and a slowing in birth rates is already having a changing effect on what our communities look like.

It’s having an effect on things like internal migration for example, as older people sell up and leave smaller communities for larger centres with more healthcare options.

The mobility of our young people is another demographic game changer. Whether it be young rural residents moving to the bigger cities or our graduates heading overseas for better opportunities, the lure of the bright lights is still strong.

For many New Zealanders, OE is a rite of passage.  That’s something we don’t necessarily want to change. Those experiences make New Zealanders more aware of our place in the world and how we engage with to the people in it.  Those who come back, bring with them invaluable skills and knowledge that benefits us all. The key is making sure that the traffic is not one way and that these people return. World class, liveable and loveable places have their part to play in drawing New Zealanders back home.   

Immigration is another driver of demographic change. Sometimes those changes play out in interesting ways. I was surprised to find out, for example, that Southland is now our fastest growing Catholic community, due to the influx of dairy workers from the Philippines in particular. These societal changes are being seen all around New Zealand as we become more multi-cultural.

I said I wouldn’t do numbers but I couldn’t resist these ones. They come from a wonderful cartoon by Toby Morris called “Goodbye Old Zealand”.  In it he talks of the image we have of what a New Zealander looks like – the laconic, rural bloke, not a million miles away from the Fred Dagg archetype, who knows his way around the stockyards, the rugby paddock and the pub. He is, of course, white.

Now at certain times in our history, that man has been a reasonably true representation of a New Zealander. In 1901, 54% of the population lived rurally.  In 1956, 92% of our population was European.

The picture that Toby draws of the average New Zealander today is a very different one. Today’s New Zealander is more likely to be female for a start – we have a slight edge at 51% of the population and have had in every year since 1968.  She probably lives in a town or city, as only 13% of New Zealanders live rurally, there’s a 35% chance that her ethnicity is something other than European.  And there’s a greater than 25% chance that she was born overseas.

New Zealand is more diverse, and more urban, than at any time in its past. If we are to build successful communities, then it’s important that our many cultures, ethnicities and lifestyles are equally valued and fully integrated into our vision of what being a New Zealander means.

The latest national wellbeing statistics provide some fascinating insights – not only about what we value in Aotearoa New Zealand, but also about our sense of belonging.  Eight out of ten Kiwis have a strong sense of belonging to New Zealand, but across the regions, our sense of belonging varies significantly.  For instance, People living in Northland, Bay of Plenty and Gisborne have the highest sense of belonging to their region –significantly higher than that of Wellingtonians and Aucklanders, for instance. 

The area I found of particular interest was what we value about New Zealand.  Across all age groups, ‘freedom rights and peace’ and ‘the environment’ are rated the highest.  But young people rate ‘multiculturalism and ethnic diversity’ almost twice as highly as older New Zealanders.  Now that’s a positive indicator for our future.

I would like to see all New Zealanders continue to welcome the diverse range of people who have decided to make New Zealand their home.  We are a nation of immigrants. I hope that acceptance continues to be a watchword in our communities and we continue to see past our differences and celebrate what we have in common with each other. 

There’s a Maori whakatau that expresses this perfectly

“Tuia i runga, tuia i raro.  Tuia ki waho, tuia ki roto.  Tuia i te whakaaro kotahi – Woven from above, woven from below.  Woven from without, woven from within.  Woven together as one.”

The broad demographic trends I have talked about demonstrate that making a successful future will depend on how we manage change.  Planning is always a balancing act between the things we know and the things we can only guess at.

Your organisations have a great challenge in making sure that the planning and research undertaken today leads to better decision making tomorrow. This will hopefully be reflected in the shape of our communities in ten, twenty and even thirty years’ time.

The idea of looking towards 2050, as you are doing at this conference, is an important one and you are not alone in realising the need to start planning now. 

 Recently I was delighted to present renowned academic and Maori health champion Sir Mason Durie with this year’s Sir Peter Blake medal for leadership. In his acceptance speech, he issued a challenge for the New Zealanders who have been recognised as leaders to lead a conversation about what we want New Zealand to look like in 2040 – the bicentenary of the Treaty of Waitangi.  I have volunteered to help with this challenge and you can, too.

The theme of this conference shows that you have already set the ball rolling. It’s helpful that the significant consultation that goes on all around New Zealand during the 10-year plan process means you already have valuable information on what people want to see happening in your regions.

It used to be difficult to gauge the temperature of the community. Public forums were few and far between. Information was gleaned from town hall meetings, letters to the newspaper, talkback radio, word of mouth even.

Thanks to the rise of digital technology and social media, there can be no doubt amongst any of our local government organisations what the public is thinking.  Each and every one of us has multiple platforms on which to voice our concerns, opinions, and ideas.  New Zealanders are now broadcasting every day on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat. That’s when they’re not updating their personal blogs, of course.

As an aside, I’m a relative newcomer to social media but I’ve been amazed by what people talk about on my Facebook page and the stories and comments they share with me.

It’s been gratifying to see our social media following grow and I admit to getting quite excited when we get close to a numerical milestone.

We’re only 400 or so people away from our next milestone, so please do friend me or give me a like on Facebook, at Governor-General New Zealand. 

Social media and the internet have been a wonderful gift for local government in terms of facilitating public engagement. Many councils around the country are doing amazingly innovative and interesting things in the digital space.

Access to elected members and council staff has been opened up and simplified. Information on new projects is readily available online for download. Rating databases and land information are just a few clicks away.  Consultation can take place online quickly, easily and cheaply.

There is of course a downside. While it’s never been easier to spread information widely, the same applies to mis-information and criticism.

How we present the information to people can be a great decider in the success or otherwise of our projects. If beneficial projects get mothballed because councils have lost control of the narrative, then we are all poorer for it. Social media seems like such a simple thing but its ability to influence is enormous.

Social media and the rise of the digital realm are just one part of the picture. The rate of technological change in the last twenty years has been large-scale and rapid and there’s going to be more where that came from. In the coming decades the rise of artificial intelligence will have a massive impact on the way we work and organise our lives.  That makes planning so much harder.

Councils and communities must continue to work together to formulate a common vision.  I’m sure every person in this room wants a thriving, stable, prosperous future for their community and everyone who lives in it. I’m sure every single one of your stakeholders wants the same thing. Obtaining a consensus as to the best way to go about it is the toughest part of the process.

You have the difficult task of being leaders, advisors and listeners. Alongside the everyday tasks of making sure the roads are pothole free and the rubbish is collected, you have to gather the thoughts of your communities, take their ideas and stitch a coherent, workable whole out of it.   

It’s a big task. It’s a difficult task. But I don’t believe it’s an impossible task.  Vibrant, liveable communities have always relied on the faith and fortitude of their residents to provide their heart and soul but they need more than that.

They need your inspiring leadership, your sensible stewardship and your effective management.  Working together, we all can help put together amazing places that we are proud to belong to.  I’d like to help you motivate and recognise the leaders in your communities who take on these challenges – our future depends on them.

I wish you the best of luck with your discussions over the next few days. I’m looking forward to seeing what results from them in years to come.

Like Glover, I too think of what may yet be seen in Johnsonville and Geraldine.

Kia ora huihui tātou katoa.

Last updated: 
Thursday, 27 July 2017

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