Why local democracy needs stronger protection

New Zealand’s constitution doesn’t do enough to protect local democracy, says Sir Geoffrey Palmer.

Local government has a very important and often neglected impact on New Zealanders’ lives. Local water supplies, sewage, transport, rubbish collection and recycling, and maintenance of parks, gardens and beaches are all local government responsibilities.

So are many regulatory functions, like food and liquor licensing, and control of building and land use.

Despite the importance of local government, New Zealand local authorities lack independence. They’re subject to control by central government. And their functions and the principles by which they operate change with each new government.


It’s common for central government to impose extra responsibilities on local authorities without offering any funding – leaving ratepayers to pick up the burden.

It’s also common for central government to interfere with local authorities, for example by passing special legislation.

In A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand, Dr Andrew Butler and I propose a set of principles for local government:

110 Local government

(1) The State must have a democratic, transparent and accountable system of local government based on the following principles:

(a) the principle of subsidiarity, meaning that the provision of services and the solution of problems should take place as close to the citizens as practicable as the nature of the relevant process allows subject to allocative efficiency:

(b) the power of units of local government to manage their own affairs independently within subject-matters established in Acts of Parliament:

(c) fostering within each unit of local government the concept of community:

(d) local government representatives must be democratically elected by secret ballot:

(e) local government must be open and transparent in its decision- making and accountable to its citizens:

(f) the financing of local government by the imposition of rates on land and property provided for by Act of Parliament must be accompanied by a revenue sharing programme with central government negotiated between central and local government:

(g) Parliament may provide special procedures for central government to ensure compliance with the law and the execution of delegated responsibilities, including the appointment of independent commissioners in accordance with law.

(2) When any new responsibility is placed on local government by or under Act of Parliament, that must be preceded by adequate consultation and estimates of the financial and administrative costs of that new responsibility.



You can read more about our proposals in chapter 9 of A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand.

What are your views?