The price of democracy

Senior lecturer in the Faculty of Law at Victoria University, Wellington, Dean Knight, says handling the behaviour of councillors is a "really vexed issue" for all local authorities.

"Much of it stems from the fact that local authorities do not have a formal cabinet or governing group of representatives.

"All elected members are responsible for governing.

"And all elected members are accountable to voters for actions taken by the local authority.

"That's local democracy.

"But, at the same time, there will be a minority of elected members who disagree with a particular course of action and want to agitate and hold their fellow elected members to account.

"Or they excite interest amongst voters and media - including by leaking information - in order that they hold them to account. Again, that's local democracy.

"The difficulty is there's no clear line between those roles and you can't divorce one from the other.

"Democracy is built on differences of views, agitation and dissent.

"It shows that ideas are being debated and tested.

"The majority are being held to account for their decisions.

"And there are real dangers in trying to suppress dissent in favour of some Utopian sense of harmony.

"Confidentiality associated with public-excluded meetings and allegations of code of conduct breaches - for not speaking in solidarity, leaking information or agitating - are nowadays being used as political tools to neuter differences of views.

"We should be extremely worried about this.

"It undermines the healthiness of our democracy.

"The idea of sacking those who disagree is fundamentally inconsistent with the democratic imperative and would confer absolute power on the majority bloc of elected members.

"While disharmony and dissent looks ugly, it beats having an authoritarian regime."



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