By Simon Wilson –

**This speech was given at the welcome reception for the Public Policy Network Conference, 29 January 2019, at the University of Auckland**

Professor Jennifer Curtin (Director of the Public Policy Institute) and Simon Wilson. Photo credit: Billy Wong

It used to be local body politics was the essence of boring. Council meetings were the politics no one wanted to know about. Transport was the story no one ever read.

And councils themselves were a refuge for scoundrels. Egotists who needed to see their name in the paper, who loved telling people what to do and who didn’t have the skills to advance in central government. Boring policy wonks who knew how to work community groups for grace and favours but had no idea how to inspire a broader following. Simple folk, devoted to service, who were excellent at running raffles but utterly lost when confronted with a balance sheet or an official report.

There were people who did have the necessary political skills, but they weren’t much better in other ways. Some were on the way up, council to them being little more than a springboard into parliament. Others, with a middling career in parliament behind them, were on the way out. Council, especially the mayoralty, offered them a chance to hold on, for a few more years, to that feeling of being an Important Person.

Actually, councils are still like that.

Public interest isn’t, though. People really do care about transport and they want to read about it. They care about libraries and swimming pools and, in this city, the new Safe Swim system, and access to the waterfront, and the number of trees in the city, and what happens to the drains and beaches when it rains, and did I mention transport, in all its glorious and inglorious forms, and most of all they care about what they’re allowed to build and what their neighbours are allowed to build near them.

Media coverage has responded. We’ve got newsrooms less than half the size of what they were a few years ago and most people thought that was going to mean we’d stop covering councils. But no. In this city, at least, council is quite widely covered, and many of the journos on it are senior.

When I started writing about council, only about 12 years ago, transport was regarded as the most boring issue in the universe. I remember having to make some really careful decisions about how to write about it, so people would do more than read the headline. One thing I tried: a fairy tale. Mixed success.

Boring is no longer true. I like to think it’s because – despite or because of the fairytales – people like me write sparkling prose and uncover astonishing stories and grip the readers with our imaginative fire.

But really, it’s because we live in a period of change. In Auckland, as in many other cities, we can’t continue to live the way we used to.

There are lots of reasons for that. Material constraints: pressure of space, cost of housing, pressure on infrastructure and facilities. That pressure of space is literal, by the way: roads, houses, hospitals and schools, footpaths, sewers, beaches on a good day.

Also growing, the consequences of living like we have been are becoming unacceptable.

It’s true in health, especially in relation to obesity. Also in the return of diseases like rheumatism and rickets: the diseases of poverty. It’s true in the impact on the environment: climate change, degradation of the natural world, the quality of water.

There is growing inequality as a direct component of rising living standards – for some of us, that is. Gridlock. Homelessness. The risk of a collapse of social cohesion.

The striking, disturbing, newly observed reality of our society now is that we have fast-growing mental illness in supposedly highly functional economies. The good life is breeding illness and we are barely scratching the surface of the implications of this.

So we have to change. We need new ways to live.

And rightly or wrongly, for better or for worse, councils have their fingers on the buttons of much of that change.

But. Change. It’s the hardest thing.

We all see ourselves as open-minded people and mostly we think we’re mentally and emotionally equipped to face the future. But most of us are not good at that. The older we get, the worse we get.

In my experience, observed when I was about 40, when men especially, men in authority, I mean, get to 50 they stop taking on new things. They just close down their thinking about the world. I saw it in a succession of bosses.

I didn’t close down, of course, but pretty much everyone else.

There’s an additional problem with councils, by the way. They’re full of men like me, smart enough to understand the problem and convinced we’re the exception to the rule.

Change is the hardest thing, for all sorts of reasons. People are afraid of what they don’t know, and people are legitimately worried about losing what they value.

Beyond that, people are inclined to look back rather than forward. We value what we had, even when we don’t have it any longer. The kicker: usually, our personal experience of something is a good guide to reality.

But when the world has moved on, a gap opens between personal experience and reality.

We deny it. We want roads back the way they were when they were functional and we didn’t have to worry about greenhouse gases and obesity. We want large sections with backyards for the kids to play in. We don’t want apartment blocks anywhere where we live, and we don’t see why there should be so many different-looking people around either.

These changes we’re going through, that cities and therefore councils are going through, we’re just at the very start of them. They’re going to be immense. Climate change will see to it, regardless of any other factors. And difficult, often intractably so, and disputed and resisted and sabotaged every inch of the way.

Often by people you would have assumed were forward-thinking progressive types. Everyone’s a nimby, sooner or later. Figuratively and literally.

In the midst of all this. The job – my job, and yours too – has become enormous.

To make sense of it. To not tear it down. To strengthen it.

Because while people care, and know the issues are important, they don’t believe. A local body in NZ today decided to go all Trump on climate change. A newly announced candidate for mayor in this city has declared he will run on a ticket of transparency, accountability and democracy. That’s all. He wants us to believe the council is corrupt. He doesn’t have any other policies. He doesn’t have any views, as yet, on the budget and spending priorities, rates, or any of the big projects that occupy so much council time.

It sounds good, though, doesn’t it? The council is opaque: you don’t know what they’re up to. Big parts of the council are not accountable to anyone. The people don’t get a say. It resonates.

Why? Councils have lost the trust of the public. Public service, at the local level, is disdained. But why?

Councils themselves are partly to blame. There are some obstructive council officers. There are silly council regulations. The quality of political leadership is not what it should be. But that’s not all.

Media are also responsible, because we always find it easier to sneer, to disbelieve, to affect outrage.

And you guys too. Everyone in the wider world of public policy, to the extent that what you do doesn’t connect, doesn’t resonate, doesn’t help inspire confidence that the mechanisms of local government are worth preserving.

Because that’s what’s at stake now. The ongoing viability of our democratic institutions.

The particular challenge for all of us is this: how do you expose the shortcomings, while at the same time reinforcing the larger credibility of those institutions?

You don’t do it by pretending the shortcomings don’t exist, which is what the politicians in power and council PR would usually like us to do.

And you don’t do it by taking all the criticisms at face value and spreading them far and wide – which is what the politicians not in power would like.

You tell good stories. You mix it up, always. Never only criticism or only praise. You separate the wrongs of individual incompetence and error from the larger structural picture. You promote improvements.

You criticise in order to improve. You adopt a stance of critical engagement. You care, but you don’t go all fangirl or fanboy. I like to say, it’s because I love this city that I want to make it better.

Most of all, you make it exciting. It’s about storytelling. How does the drama work? Who are the remarkable characters? How do you present tension and catharsis?

It’s harder for a journalist to do than it is for a scriptwriter on a TV show. But it can be done.

It’s harder for an academic than it is for a journalist. But it can be done.

What’s this about? Strengthening civil society. Because this is the age of Trump and Brexit and Victor Orban in Hungary and the potential for most of what we value as a society to be torn from us.

Civil society is not very strong. Look at Brexit now: there’s a strong view in Britain that they should just get on and have a hard Brexit because that will truly be us being us. The spirit of the Blitz. Making enemies and fighting them trumps accommodating discourse. Fantasy trumps reason. Yes, he has a handy name.

Strengthening civil society. The awful thing is, we – the media, the academy, people of goodwill – we don’t really know how to do it.

And far too many of our local body politicians, as I outlined at the start, are more part of the problem than the solution.

But strengthening civil society is what we have to do.

Simon Wilson. Photo credit: Billy Wong

  • Simon Wilson is a Senior Writer for the New Zealand Herald.


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