The problems surrounding local board workshops are but the tip of an iceberg. Auckland Council has a whole range of techniques to persuade itself that it is listening to the community.
Take its use of ‘stakeholders’ for example. These are individuals or groups hand-picked by council and the local board to advise them on the formation of plans. The assumption that council and the board have omniscient powers to know exactly who needs to be consulted and who doesn’t is, to my mind, arrogant. Aren’t we all stakeholders in our island? Might not any one of us have a useful contribution to make?
The use of paid contractors to manage ‘consultation’ with the public is another example. Paid contractors need future contracts so they have a vested interest in giving council the answers it wants.
Public meetings, when held, are ‘facilitated’ in a manner that precludes members of the public from presenting a coherent argument. Instead any input becomes trivialised into meaningless, ambiguous words that are written on Post-It notes. Phoney questionnaires are another technique, full of loaded questions. Take the recent one on sustainable tourism as an example. It asks whether you think there is too little or too much tourism, and then proceeds to ask your opinion on how to increase it.
Finally there are the workshops where our elected representative are required to spend a large amount of time listening only to the council proposal with no-one present who might put forward an alternative view.
The whole process is designed as a one-way conveyor belt. Centralised council decisions are rolled out and over the community. ‘Consultation’ is highly controlled in order to avoid awkward questions and to manufacture the appearance of consent.
I am sure every public body has its way of listening to who it wants and blocking out others, such is human nature. But the scale and comprehensive nature of the council’s techniques is something new and potentially very damaging. Councils are becoming more remote from their populations and the level of public support for them is declining.
The danger of this ‘conveyor-belt’ approach to delivering policy is that it stifles local initiative. There is an inherent value, for example, in people standing up at meetings and expressing their views. It isn’t just so that board members can hear those views, it is so that other members of the public can hear them. It is an important way a community comes together, educates itself and engages in dialogue through which our own independent communal vision can emerge.
In my time on the island I have made presentations to various local boards that the island should seek international recognition as a protected area, and that we should redirect our arts policy towards youth and emerging artists. In both cases the boards I have approached looked totally lost because what I was talking about wasn’t in any of the volumes of paperwork that council placed before them. “We can’t support that because we don’t know anything about it”, was too often the response. But no effort was made by those boards to find out more, the process simply didn’t allow it.
The inability of our local boards to get beyond the paperwork that council gives them, and to actively support an evolving island-based agenda is a major weakness of our local government. The SuperCity’s range of techniques listed above (which, to be fair, are shared by many other councils) represent a determined attempt to undermine a collective community voice. We look to our island leadership to react to this by nurturing and prioritising Waiheke’s own agenda.
Post-Covid we should be doing everything we can to bring people together to rebuild community dialogues. It is important both individually and collectively. To act as if all discussion centres around council initiatives undermines the very sense of community the board should be upholding. • Colin Beardon