Public oversight of Auckland Transport – is less really more?
Mayor Goff’s announcement that Cr Chris Fletcher and myself were to be removed from the board of Auckland Transport and not replaced by any other councillors came as a surprise to a lot of people – us included. That’s understandable given the statements Goff made before his election about getting better accountability out of council controlled organisations, (CCOs), Auckland Transport (AT) in particular. One would have assumed that given AT is wholly-owned by Auckland Council, a democratic body, better accountability would have included democratic oversight – but apparently not.
Transport, public transport in particular, has always been the core business of local government – ‘roads, rates, rubbish’ as they old saying goes. This was the situation in Auckland until 1 November 2010 and it is still the situation in the rest of New Zealand. Moreover the directors of Auckland Transport are more than just a CCO board, they also form Auckland’s Regional Land Transport Committee – legally, in terms of transport, a regional council, the legal successor to the Auckland Regional Council – but now a completely undemocratic one.
The arguments for and against democratic governance of the Auckland Transport CCO – overwhelmingly for – were heard early in 2010, by parliament’s Auckland Governance Legislation Select Committee when the ‘Super City’ was being formed. The Select Committee’s recommendations in the Local Government (Auckland Council) Amendment Act (2010) included the option of two of Auckland Transport’s directors being councillors.
This was a concession from the Government to provide some reassurance to the ratepayers of Auckland that there would be continuance of at least some democratic representation on the new transport CCO; representation, as in the age-old principle – ‘No taxation without representation’. Still even this was considered insufficient by most of the 786 submitters – including the parliamentary Labour Party. Labour was so concerned about the ‘Super City’ bill it lodged its own ‘minority report’ which stated ‘…this bill corporatises much of Auckland local government with no democratic mandate.’
As for Auckland Transport, Labour reported: ‘We have particular concerns regarding the Auckland Transport CCO. It will be larger than any existing transport body in Auckland (and larger than the one contemplated by the Royal commission), with the power to make bylaws, and an annual budget of $1 billion soaking up 54 percent of rates. However, there is no evidence that running Auckland transport as a CCO would be more efficient than running it in-house. No other council in New Zealand has this arrangement. …it lacks transparency and accountability to the ratepayers.’ The report was signed-off by the leader of the Labour Party at that time – Hon Phil Goff.
The Green Party expressed similar concerns: ‘We strongly oppose the bulk of the Council’s work and assets being put into the hands of appointed rather than elected representatives, given the near certainty that the organisations will claim that commercial imperatives can override the public’s right to know how their assets are being managed.’
Six years on, the Super City and its CCOs are still very much experimental – and still very much peculiar to Auckland. Whenever given the opportunity to vote on ‘Super City’-style amalgamation, (which Aucklanders were never given) other regions of NZ have always voted against. Recently, the government had to withdraw its Local Government Act Amendment Bill that sought to impose Auckland Transport-type CCOs nation-wide, after a furious backlash from regional and local councils across New Zealand. The rest of the country is not impressed with what they have seen of the Auckland model. In fact they don’t want a bar of it. Aucklanders themselves are not that impressed either – if the Council’s own opinion polling of earlier this year is anything to go by. Only 15% of Aucklanders were reportedly satisfied with Auckland Council and only 17% had confidence in Council decisions. Candidate Goff shrewdly capitalised on that dissatisfaction when he targeted CCOs and Auckland Transport especially, during his mayoral campaign.
Now, rather than providing increased oversight and accountability Mayor Goff has done the opposite. Much attention has been given to his counter-intuitive arguments that removing councillor oversight from the AT board will somehow improve accountability. But there has been no media scrutiny of Goff’s removal of another accountability mechanism (arguably as least as important as democratic representation on the board); that is the specialised council transport or infrastructure committee that AT was required to report to. This is something that the Royal Commission into Auckland Governance recommended as essential in its report of 2009. Still, despite the impression given in the media, the question of councillor representation on AT is not yet over.
Something councillors need to bear in mind: Nothing is more critical in shaping the city than transport. As my colleague Wellington Regional Councillor and former Green MP Sue Kedgley reminds us: ‘More than anything else transport shapes a city… So if councillors are unable to make key transport decisions, their influence on how a city is shaped is incredibly limited.’ What kind of job can we as elected representatives of the people of Auckland do if we abrogate our remaining transport responsibilities?
This article was published in the December 2016 issue of Ponsonby News