Democracy Matters

Airports, growth and visitor levies have been debated to death (by boredom) this election, but we’ve forgotten to ‘have it out’ over perhaps the most important issue of all: our local democracy is heading down a very slippery slope and it’s time we dared to talk about it.

Some of you might think that process doesn’t matter if things are getting done – and recent comments suggest the Mayor might agree with you – but you’d be wrong.

Turn your mind to Canterbury for a minute.  In 2010 the region lost the right to be governed by elected regional councillors.  They also lost the right to appeal the decisions of Nick Smith’s commissioners, whose job was to get things done.  They cleared the way for huge irrigation schemes to ensure intensive dairying could spread across those leaky soils.  And it did.  Back then, those who benefited, and plenty of others, didn’t blink an eye.  This will be the first fully democratic election in a decade.  The big election issue is water – the polluted and dried up rivers and aquifers which were once the pride of Canterbury.  The big corporates and the banks made their money, the Government took the tax, and the farming communities are left with nothing but debt and dirty water.

Democracy matters and it doesn’t take the ousting of elected reps to lose it.  Where there is big money to be made and pressure to grow an industry, it might be enough if councillors are underpaid, kept out of the loop, are poorly advised or simply fall silent when they should be speaking up in the public interest.  Unfortunately, it’s fair to say QLDC is suffering from all the above…

The bed tax and the Spatial Plan

We’re told we must all want a bed tax because 81% of us who voted in the referendum ticked ‘YES’. Even though it was pitched as a veiled threat (‘tick yes or watch your rates rise’) and there were no options.  There was no options assessment and neither the bed tax option nor the referendum question was signed off by councillors.  But my greatest concern is that the levy seems to be linked to the mysterious ‘Spatial Plan’ and that we voted not really understanding the connections or the consequences. The Plan is being developed by staff and Central Government – councillors have been excluded. Does it plan for tourism growth and is it a condition of the levy?  The cone of silence around this Plan means we can only speculate but the ODT’s reporting suggests this is about partnership with Government and that it’s the Spatial Plan that would enable QLDC to investigate a visitor levy:

“The council has been clear that the ability of the district’s community to support growth in Queenstown Lakes through rates alone is simply not possible.

“Such a cost threatens to undermine the wellbeing of our communities.”

The council was seeking a partnership with Government that would consider long term growth and development, investment and future funding in Queenstown.

“Such an initiative recognises the unique role that Queenstown Lakes District plays in the international and national reputation of the country, and the stress that this popularity places on our local communities.”

The work would be centred on a 30 year spatial plan for the country’s fastest growing district and would enable QLDC to investigate a new funding model to enable new infrastructure investment based on a visitor levy.

The government has said it recognises our district’s challenges are exceptional, and that if there is clear support expressed through a referendum it would consider our proposal for a sustainable growth partnership, and legislative change to allow a visitor levy to fund the infrastructure the town desperately needs.”

Also: https://www.odt.co.nz/regions/wanaka/airport-depends-qldc-‘spatial-plan’

The Airport Statement of Intent (SOI)

Emails released under the LGOIMA show that in March there was a clear steer from the councillors to QAC not to extend the existing airport noise boundaries. So why the rather strange game of SOI hot potato? The released documents shed some light on that – they suggest that the Council’s Chief Exec Mike Theelen might have crossed a line. The CE assumed a governance role of sorts, penning the Council’s way forward via the Mayor’s Wanaka speech without the guidance of councillors. He worked closely with Colin Keel on the SOI, but not the councillors, and discouraged councillors from directing the CCTO. Along the way, through all the mess, he’s neatly managed to avoid ruling out expansion of noise boundaries in Queenstown. 

The Wanaka Airport lease and Project Pure

And then yesterday, QLDC released the Wanaka airport lease agreement between QAC and the Council.  It was the first time all councillors had laid eyes on it because the lease was negotiated under the delegated authority of the the Mayor and Councillors Hill and McLeod.    

It includes some fairly scary provisions to allow for airport expansion, provisions that never went back to the council for discussion or sign-off.  Those include the 100-year term and the ability for QAC to prevent the expansion of or demand relocation of Wanaka’s wastewater treatment plant and discharge field:

The Lessor [QLDC] will not carry out any future development of Project Pure, including any expansion of capacity of Project Pure, whilst it is situated on the Original Project Pure Site without obtaining the Lesseers [QAC] prior written consent, such consent not to be unreasonably withheld or delayed. The Lessor acknowledges and accepts that the following reasons would be reasonable for the Lessee to deny consent:   if the Lessor is proposing to develop closer to the Lessee’s planned runway;

  1.    if the Lessor is proposing to develop closer to the Lessee’s planned runway;
  2. if the Lessor’s proposing to develop new buildings or plant above the height of existing buildings or plant in Project Pure as the Commencement Date; and/or
  3. if proposed development materially conflicts with any regulatory and /or operational requirements of Wanaka Airport.

And:

The Lessee may on giving a minimum of 3 years prior written notice to the Lessor, require the Lessor to relocate Project Pure. In the case of the disposal fields, the notice can be given any time after the second anniversary of the Commencement Date. For the remainder of Project Pure, the notice can be given any time after the fifth anniversary of the Commencement Date.

These provisions should have been a consideration when councillors were mulling over the draft SOI;  the Mayor and Councillors Hill and McLeod should have highlighted the risk to that vital piece of infrastructure, if unlimited airport expansion was not written out of the SOI.  But they didn’t. 

And perhaps we should be asking whether they even had the authority to negotiate those provisions under delegation.     

Conflicts of interest

Finally, there’s the issue of whether the Mayor’s potential and perceived conflicts were appropriately managed.  He is Chair of Wayfare Group, the largest tourism company in the region if not the South Island, and yet he has been deeply involved in each of the above matters, all directly related to our ability to grow tourism in this district. A complaint has been laid.

Summary

If I had to sum this up, I’d say that under this Council’s leadership the management team has become very skilled at manoeuvring in the grey areas at the margins of democratic process. That’s the nicest way I can put it. And it’s something to be very concerned about.

If we don’t want to end up like Canterbury’s farmers – reliant on numbers to claw back the debt that enabled unbridled growth – we need to need to ensure that industry lobbies and corporate agendas can’t have an undue influence on decision-making. And to ensure that we need to do better than operating at the margins.

So, as councillors continue their public silence in the face of all this, let’s get behind those in the community (Wanaka Stakeholders Group take a bow) who are willing to stand up and challenge poor process.  Naturally, those with a lot to lose will push back and try to belittle, marginalise or discredit the threat – that’s PR 101.  As for the rest of us, it’s time to ditch the apathy, think about the consequences of continuing as we have been, and support those determined to wrestle our democracy back up the slippery slope.   

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4 Comments

  1. Awesome piece. Scary as heck but I thankyou for digging this out and presenting it to us in such a clear manner. Action is sure needed before reading this I had already cast my votes and you got a huge tick from me this piece definitely consolidated that decision. We all need you. Personally I would of voted for you for mayor if you had stood. Maybe one-day in the future. Cheers

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    1. Thanks Shane – for the comment and the tick! I’d be a terrible Mayor – I’m a critic and completely unsuited to that role 😉 But I reckon every council needs one critic/problem spotter/process and policy geek. Fingers crossed.

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  2. Every council, government, business, person and charity needs critics, but not just one. A range of intelligent critique contributes to better outcomes. So, in the spirit of good debate … I will have a go at critiquing your work.

    I share your calls for good democracy and accountability, but find your arguments, at times, confused.

    With respect to your comments on the local visitor levy, it is difficult to accept your insinuations of staff working in the grey on the edge of democracy here. In fact it is quite the contrary. They are figuring out, how exactly to tackle this tricky thing using legislative process.

    It is clear that we must find new funding to pay for infrastructure improvements, particularly with respect to de-carbonisation and water quality. This is urgent, bloody urgent. We must act and act fast. We must use the current legislative mechanisms we have at our disposal, we don’t have time to change them. I do not accept that we can stop visitors coming, or migration.We must act quickly to manage this impact. The proposed type of local visitor levy is new to New Zealand and is uncommon in the Pacific. There is no precedent to manage how this is rolled out. When I look at this opaqueness around this process, I can see a group of over worked, under resourced people figuring out how they might get the right to tax locally (and keep the money locally), exploring different options and approaches with many pathways being explored and no clear pathway identified yet.

    The Chamber agrees that we need more details provided and how the the spatial planning process contributes. More time for intelligent conversation. But, rather than making insinuations, I have another meeting booked, formally with the mayor and the CEO of QLDC to discuss the process, timeline and next steps and make this available to our members (who include a range of business and non-businesses). I am formally asking them to engage as we go through these next steps and are looking to tax policy process design to ensure that the appropriate times for stakeholder engagement are respected and shared with my members. The Chamber is interested in governance, how QLDC will spend the money and levy it. I provide regular updates to our members on my progress (which is also available to the wider community) and would have shared this with you if requested. As to whether the levy will be linked to demand, it depends on whether you are talking people or dollars, but of course, all taxes are linked to demand, including GST and PAYE.

    With respect to the airport, yes, a big deep breath is called for, and new ways of listening and working established. Trust has been damaged and we need all need to work to repair this. The worst thing we can do now is get into litigation that will cost the community millions, money that should be spent on improving water quality, mode shift and harm mitigation. Not sure also that I get your insinuation that Mike crossed the line. He was directed to do this work (according to the record I read on the website). The council were also aware that they need to move “as soon as practicable” to get a signed SOI to meet their requirements under the ACT. To me it looked like he was working to keep QAC and QLDC operating within the law??

    With respect to Jim’s alleged conflicts of interests. I am sorry I don’t get your argument. Are you saying that no elected official should have any interests in any tourism company, nor profit from, earn a living from etc any tourism activities? Where is the boundary? Jeepers! We have to just make do with professional politicians, people who don’t have a background in business or interests in business? Heaven help us. That would put the amazing John Glover out of contention for goodness sake!!

    Your obvious passion and stewardship for this amazing place is great, but it is shared by many others, including our members with different approaches.

    Anna Mickell
    CEO, Queenstown Chamber of Commerce
    Fellow critic, advocate, process and policy geek .

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    1. Hey Anna, thanks for the reply – and the chat 🙂

      Re: the visitor levy – I agree we need visitors to contribute to infrastructure costs – actually, I believe they should pay their way. I voted in favour of the levy but at that point I hadn’t heard about the connection with the Spatial Plan. It’s unacceptable that there’s no information available to either the public or the councillors. It’s also unacceptable that council didn’t put the bed tax option to the community and councillors for discussion prior to the referendum. In my opinion if we are obliged to grow there’s no point having the levy -which will only cover 1/3 of the operating costs of the infrastructure costs due to tourism. That deal (if it exists) would see us worse off not better off. If democratic process were being followed we’d have the information needed to make informed decisions. At the moment we’re discussing this in an information vacuum and we should be asking why that is.

      I disagree on being able to control visitors and migration. We can and we should have that discussion.

      With respect to the airport SOI – QLDC were obliged to direct the airport months ago. They didn’t. Councillors were given conflicting legal advice (their words), they were unable to influence the process and didn’t know what was going on. And not for lack of trying. The CE was in control here – unless the Mayor was, but my request turned up no emails from the Mayor. It’s not the CE’s job to make decisions about the direction of the airport – it’s also not the job of the Mayor and CE team. So I do believe a line was crossed. So does John Glover if you read the Mountain Scene. So do others (including councillors) if you check social media.

      With respect to the conflict of interest complaint, it’s probably best to let you read the complaint (link in the piece). People can have conflicts but it’s about managing them well to avoid the perception of – or actual – undue influence. The idea that the Mayor has a conflict wasn’t an original thought of mine – I’m simply addressing a public concern using the law and QLDC’s own policies. We have those laws and policies to ensure vested interests and bias don’t weaken our democracy. Like any rule, condition or law there’s no point having them if we don’t use them. This will be a good test of what’s acceptable and what’s not.

      For the record, I tried to talk to the Mayor about this but he chose not to get back to me – I got a fob off from the CE instead. Some of us don’t have access to the corridors of power and have to effect change or protect what we love, in a different way. I’m simply using the tools available to me. And in the process I get to fill the public in on what’s going on. Yes, my values and perceptions colour this piece but at the same time I’ve included links to the documents that informed my position so others can do their own research and make up their own minds.

      At the end of the day we should be discussing this stuff and we are! So this bit of amateur writing did its job. Thanks again 🙂

      Like

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