A “crisis” of credibility

By Tim Wilson May 31, 2021

Participation in local body elections is at historic lows, so when someone spray-paints “YOUR TAX DOLLARS WASTED” on the large plywood planter boxes that the local board has commissioned to prevent cars from entering your street, you know something is up.

Then when someone else spray-paints over the “TAX DOLLARS” so the message reads “YOUR WASTED” you understand how village vexations can quickly get personal, as well as political.

It’s a dispute about the nature of power, and how power is exercised.

This all happened in our suburb, partly because of safety concerns; one suburban street getting as many as 5000 cars a day. But this isn’t simply a stoush over neighbourhood access, rat-runners, or even squandered taxes. It’s a dispute about the nature of power, and how power is exercised. With the state having expanded into new areas of our lives because of COVID-19, this debate seems particularly timely.

The first I knew of the traffic-free fait accompli was a leaflet in our letterbox. Days, yes days later; the planter boxes appeared. The streets emptied and fell quiet. Birds sang, audibly. A nearly-carless utopia had been enforced. My commute time increased by about seven minutes, hardly the end of the world.

But others found their commute had been doubled from 30 minutes to an hour. Parents couldn’t access the pre-school down the road. Traffic spilled over into other streets, outside a local school. The big problem was the lack of information and consultation before the event. “We all want safer streets,” said local Heather Bates, “the main frustration is the lack of community consult.”

Countering this, the project’s champion, Peter McGlashan from the Maungakiekie-Tāmaki Local Board argued “…often once… (the boxes) are on the ground, that’s when the true consultation starts.”

Wait. Is it “consultation” if you’ve already implemented radical change without allowing time for community input and spent more than $400,000 of taxpayer money? True, the scheme was a pilot, but you can’t really consult through a rear view mirror.

Supporters framed the car blockades as (in part) a response to climate change, which has been described as a crisis. During the COVID crisis, government also needed to respond. Parliament was suspended. The Regulatory Impact Analysis, which Treasury prepares to cost out decisions was suspended. There was even talk of suspending the Official Information Act. Many found these moves alarming. Authority needs scrutiny to have true validity.

We need real opportunities to be part of the problem-solving, otherwise people lose faith in the democratic process.

And the low-traffic trial? It’s been called off, due to “vandalism.” After an overwhelmingly negative community response failed to get the local board to halt the pilot, the planter boxes were moved unofficially, one enraged local even bringing in a forklift. The board capitulated, citing public safety. I’m not praising the vigilante use of force. But this angry outburst underlines why power needs to explain itself reasonably, and consult with those it represents.

What happened in my suburb is a warning to leaders everywhere. Periods of duress make due process more necessary. We need real opportunities to be part of the problem-solving, otherwise people lose faith in the democratic process. Someone jumps on a forklift; leadership loses credibility.

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