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State intervention in local politics: a plea for caution

By 'Alapasita Teu October 11, 2021

The cloak of COVID-19 looms large over our democratic process here in Aotearoa New Zealand. As parliament resumes its question time and House sitting after a three-week lockdown pause, we are seeing a case of the fast and the furious in parliamentary business. Making up for lost debating time has meant a flurry of new and amended legislation churned through the House under “urgency” and the COVID-19 pandemic. One particular legislative piece that may change the whole course of local democracy, and local government elections, yet has flown under the public radar is the COVID-19 Public Health Response Amendment Bill. 

The cloak of COVID-19 looms large over our democratic process here in Aotearoa New Zealand.

With an extremely short turnaround for public consultation, this bill proposes new amendments to the COVID-19 Public Health Response Act 2020 that seek to: extend the term of the Act from May 2022 to May 2023, increase maximum fines and fees for infringements, and extend ministerial authority over day-to-day MIQ procedures and operational decisions. These amendments may appear minor and necessary for a more fit-for-purpose COVID response, but the implications are huge, and are being obscured from public debate. One of these implications is the State’s ability to intervene and postpone local body elections limitless times and to postpone them between six weeks to a year. Considering local body elections are carried out by postal ballots and preparations are feasible for the 2022 local elections, any extension of state power that chips away at local democracy is cause for concern. 

Increasing the State’s ability to intervene… disempowers the knowledge, capability, and mana of local communities and local governments to decide what is good for themselves and their people.

State intervention in local body elections is understandable, and necessary, during a pandemic. However, when safety measures can be implemented for local elections to proceed, state overreach in this context undermines the ethos of localism. Localism is governed by the principle that power and authority should flow up from the families and citizens in local communities, not flow down from the State. Increasing the State’s ability to intervene with local government elections on their own terms, and enabling them to dictate the conditions, undercuts localism. It disempowers the knowledge, capability, and mana of local communities and local governments to decide what is good for themselves and their people. Localism doesn’t cut off the cords of central government but instead extends an olive branch for decision-makers in central government to collaborate and work together with locals.

Undermining local democracy that includes intervening with local body elections undermines this partnership and disempowers local communities.

It promotes collaborative partnerships that build on the knowledge and capacity of the State and the local knowledge and aptitude of communities and local governments. In the fight against COVID-19, we have seen the embodiment of ‘teamwork makes the dream work’ in Aotearoa New Zealand’s team of five million. Partnerships between local and central government, and collaboration between community and State, has been critical for enacting the government’s elimination strategy. This partnership has leveraged central and local government’s strengths where local knowledge, communities, and local government is valued. Undermining local democracy that includes intervening with local body elections undermines this partnership and disempowers local communities.

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