by Andi Cockroft

An Otago Daily Times report (23 January) that nearly two-thirds of Dunedin residents think public consultation is lacking at the Dunedin City Council, according to the latest Dunedin Residents’ Opinion Survey, is yet another example of the erosion of the public’s voice.

Underlining the diminishing of democracy was Dunedin Mayor Aaron Hawkins’ reaction to the survey which seemed to ignore public concern and seek solace in other convenient angles of his choosing.

Increasing awareness of limiting consultation

The Council of Outdoor Recreation Associations (CORANZ) has been aware of the quelling of public opinion in the bowels of both local government and central government.  This has evolved even more so immediately after elections when politicians seem to relax and forget who elected them. 

The words “accountability” and “transparency” used to be used often. They still get uttered, but trends indicate that they are becoming increasingly meaningless. This has been further aggravated by a lack of consultation, and when consultation does seem to occur, a closer examination shows it to be only token.

CORANZ has encountered the token nod to consultation in central government’s select committees where members of the public are now given just five minutes each.

Rudeness by MPs

Earlier this year, the Council of Outdoor Recreation Associations of New Zealand (CORANZ) expressed concern that parliament’s select committee democratic process was being undermined to the detriment of the public giving submissions.

I made an oral submission to a select committee dealing with the Resource Management Act (RMA). After being beforehand granted 15 minutes speaking time, the chairman, Labour MP Duncan Webb, interrupted my submission after five minutes and said the committee had heard enough thereby cutting the oral presentation short by ten minutes. The rudeness and snub to democracy left me bewildered and angry.

It has been happening for some years now. Several years ago there was The Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) 1080 poison review in which submitters were mostly given just a token five minute slot. It was evident the ERMA 1080 review was nothing more than a “kangaroo court” with a token nod to consultation.

Rapid firearm law reform – far too rapid

The manner in which firearm law changes following the Christchurch mosque tragedy of March 2019 were rushed through with “thoroughly indecent haste” showed a total disregard for democracy. Consider the manner of the select committee dealing with 13,000 submissions in just two days. Forget the subject — in this case, assault firearms — the issue might have been something else completely. 

The point is that public opinion was totally shunned, defying credibility and showing a total lack of integrity and respect for public opinion.

The convenience of Covid-19 as a cover

Currently the government, under cover of the Covid-19 scare, has been pushing law changes through which lack proper democratic scrutiny. Perhaps the Governor-General should be stepping in and giving government a stern reminder about its duty to democracy?

It’s been happening for quite a while and it’s fair to say the erosion of democracy is not confined to the current government.  

The National coalition government (2008-2017) was guilty of a shocking and blatant breach of democracy when Environment Minister Nick Smith sacked the democratically elected Environment Canterbury Council and grabbed control by installing its own “state puppet” commissioners.

Another example was Environment Minister Nick Smith taking resource consents over 1080 poison aerial drops away from regional councils and public scrutiny and giving the government the sole, unassailable power to approve. 

Public opinion through local government was obliterated.

MP are Public Servants

Politicians are treating the public with disdain, just making a token effort consultation. 

MPs are in reality public servants and the Prime Minister is not the people’s leader, but the most senior servant of the public.

Behind central and local government elected representatives are bureaucrats who seem to manipulate MPs and the procedures to suit political and/or self-serving agendas.

The public believe Parliament is the centre of democracy – where you can get a fair hearing from elected representatives based on a historical and moral constitution of honour, truth and justice. It should not be a charade.

So whether it’s local or central government, consultation and democracy is under threat. Dunedin’s Mayor Hawkins’ attitude reflects this cancerous disdain for democracy by publicly elected representatives.

(Andi Cockroft is Chairman Council of Outdoor Recreation Associations of NZ)