Rule by statute undermining public voice

Emeritus Prof John Highton deplores the declining health of democracy in Southern New Zealand.

A report in the ODT (16.7.16) reignited my concerns about the health of the democratic process in New Zealand, particularly here in the South.

The report was about Environment Canterbury's decision to alter the Waitaki water allocation plan, reducing the minimum flow which was a central part of the plan.

The plan was the result of a prolonged process that allowed ample opportunity for a wide range of people to have an input.

The outcome was expected to be binding.

Now, just a few years later, the plan has been altered.

The process leading to this change, as I understand it, started with a recommendation from a Zone Committee, with members that are not elected, reporting to ECan commissioners that are not elected.

Consequently, I have sympathy with the view attributed to Ian McIlraith, chairman of the Lower Waitaki River Management Society, itself originally set up by ECan to represent stakeholders in the Waitaki River.

His reported view is that the "democratic process has been undermined'' and this does seem to be the case, given that the decision-making process involved bodies with mainly appointed rather than elected membership.

What made me worried was the reply attributed to [independent hearing commissioner] Prof Peter Skelton who was reported as having dismissed the concerns about the democratic process on the grounds that "the statutory requirements have been met''.

To my mind meeting "statutory requirements'' in this case is far from the same as ensuring that the decision was democratic.

In fact, the statutory processes referred to have allowed a decision arrived at after a highly representative process to be overturned by an imposed system that is not subject to representative electoral processes.

We now have a similar process guiding current and future healthcare delivery in Southern New Zealand, with suspension of the Southern District Health Board and its replacement with a commissioner, another statutory process.

With the proliferation of unelected bodies making important decisions that affect all of our lives in Southern New Zealand, I think it is important we recognise the distinction between democratic processes and "statutory requirements'' being met.

One allows us all to have a say, the other facilitates imposition of the will of the current government, regardless.

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