Learning From New Zealand’s Local Government Experience

Reforms of local government rarely, if ever are advanced by local governments themselves. Invariably reform will only occur as it did in New Zealand if higher government driven by determined reformers do it, not the units of local government themselves.
Published on May 29, 2009

My subject, chosen for the AUMA President’s Summit simply put and according to the event’s agenda is …‘The New Zealand local government experience … Reflecting on New Zealand’. I have been asked to … focus on the process of New Zealand local government reforms and to be mindful of the fact that local Canadian conditions … may vary significantly from New Zealand experience. ‘Now that’s an understatement … of significant proportions!’

The direction and the principal thrust of local government reform in New Zealand occurred in two bursts, thirteen years apart starting with the far reaching 1989 reforms and followed in 2002 with comprehensive new legislation.

These legislative changes were accompanied by widespread council reorganisations and amalgamations the bulk of which occurred in 1989.

Obvious environmental and political differences aside, New Zealand’s experiences are I believe at least instructive for others. Many lessons and consideration of a number of change models could be applied to similar local government reforms currently in the winds for Alberta. This premise underpins the argument of this paper.

Our New Zealand experience is indeed a matter for reflection, particularly the manner in which the reforms emerged. The way in which the local government reforms proceeded in New Zealand can fairly be described as unique, certainly for New Zealand they were unprecedented. It is important to add though that local government reforms were accompanied by much wider and very radical public sector (central government) governance, financial and administrative changes.

It would be extremely unlikely for these events to reoccur in Canada – or elsewhere for that matter, such was their uniqueness … and their serendipity. Progress was possible only because of the confluence of many influences necessary for change. Given this proviso the New Zealand scene of the mid eighties still most definitely warranted drastic remedy. The New Zealand economy was in a parlous state, public sector practices at every level were antiquated, productivity was low and change was generally agreed to be essential and unavoidable.

The state of the local government sector in the eighties is hinted at by the number and size of council units. These were too numerous and small in size to achieve good economies or to attract good people and meet modern public service level standards.

Read the entire speech (11 Pages)

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