The messy business of democracy

THE PORTER REPORT - A monthly update on the business world from leading writer David Porter

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Tauranga’s local body voters can look forward come July to what has been a rare experience in the last couple of years.

For the first time since the now former Labour government ousted the then council following former mayor Tenby Powell’s abrupt resignation, we are about to return to the classic dogfighting that frequently predominates in council meetings around the country – or local democracy, as we used to call it in Tauranga.

The previous mayor of Tauranga was Tenby Powell, a former local college boy who had left the city and become a successful businessman and a member of the NZ Defence Forces.

Powell’s resignation after a tumultuous few months followed censure by his own council for an angry outburst against his councillors. He followed this by calling on the then minister for local government to appoint a commission to replace a council he termed dysfunctional.

Unlike national politics, councils are frequently largely made up of members who don’t have any particular party affiliations to encourage unanimity.

Powell, despite his experience, was unfortunately unable to ensure that his military and business background was sufficient to ensure successful mayoral leadership.

In December 2020, the then minister of local government, Labour’s Nanaia Mahuta, confirmed that the government would be appointing four commissioners to administrate Tauranga. The commissioners’ terms began in early 2021 and were supposed to last until the next local elections scheduled for October 2022, but this deadline fell by the wayside.

There was also a strong body of opinion that suggested the problem could have been solved by the council simply electing a new mayor from within its ranks. Then Tauranga National MP Simon Bridges described the decision as “dramatic and draconian” adding that Powell quitting removed “a significant source of friction”. He felt it was reasonable to assume the council would have become more functional with the election of a new mayor and councillors.

The new commissioners were “shrewdly” – as Bridges put in a post at the time – to be chaired by former National MP and colleague, Anne Tolley – who has been a regular opinion writer for this magazine explaining some of the thinking behind the commissioners’ moves.

At this point, nominations for the new council and mayor open in April 2024, with elections in July.

At the time of writing, no names had been announced, but there has been plenty of speculation in political circles about possible candidates. As one well-formed source told me, there are several former councillors who would have been grateful to work under the conditions of the current commissioners who have been largely left free to proceed with their assignment without hindrance. We do not know what went on behind the scenes. But there has been little of that messy public democracy stuff.

This is not to suggest the commissioners have done a bad job, nor to doubt that for many voters there was some relief in feeling that new projects were being
launched and followed through.

I doubt anyone is other than pleased that ancient water pipes running under Cameron Road have finally been replaced as one part of the commissioners’ work. But the dozens of businesses that went bankrupt along Cameron Rd because the traffic and parking disruptions resulted in much reduced customer flow will not be compensated. And that will not be easily forgiven or forgotten.

David Porter
David Porter
THE PORTER REPORT - A monthly update on the business world from David Porter

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