In praise of perpetuating role confusion

Dr Bryce Wilkinson
Insights Newsletter
29 March, 2019

Wellington Mayor Justin Lester says NZ Bus is up to 40 drivers short, with up to 30 cancelled services a day. He now wants the Transport Minister to help improve local bus services.

Local National List MP Nicola Willis also wants central government to step in.

A sceptic might ask what that means for local government accountability to the local community.

The answer is of course that it perpetuates the status quo – inglorious role confusion. Local government is partly responsible to local voters and partly to central government.

Does it matter if central government takes over local government functions, or vice versa?

After all, a former mayor, Ron Mark, is now Minister of Defence, and a former Cabinet Minister, Phil Goff, is now mayor of Auckland – and that is OK.

Yet it can matter. Central and local government dance to different tunes. If central government were to run local buses, whose interests would it put first – the local community’s or those of national interest groups such as trade unions?

Central government could take the view that employers, NZ Bus included, have undue bargaining power. The trick to end this market failure is to empower trade unions.

Empowered unions could organise more vigorous and prolonged strike action. Better organised bus workers could ensure that far fewer drivers turned up for work at the wages NZ Bus is offering now.

Instead of being 40 drivers short, NZ Bus might be 80 drivers short.

Subsequent arbitration that secured much higher wage rates could ensure that NZ Bus could not afford to employ those 80 drivers anyway. That would teach it and Wellingtonians a thing or two about undue bargaining power and market failure.

I know, I know. Bus commuting Wellingtonians would whinge for a while. Fortunately, central government can well afford to discount such parochial, short-sighted selfishness.

In time these whingers would learn to ride e-bikes, saving the planet as well as the regional council’s budget. Diminished accountability to them meantime is just what is needed.

In short, it is all about priorities and accountabilities – if not yours, someone else’s.

Christchurch residents know about this.  They have watched how effectively central government ran Environment Canterbury and earthquake recovery.

Hats off to Lester and Willis for seeing the obvious. Keep the roles confused.

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