Thursday, January 19, 2006

We can't see the wood through the trees

Is ‘Save Auckland Trees’ spokesperson Lesley Max setting herself up to take on Mayor Dick Hubbard at the next local government election in 2007?

Ms Max (MBE) has several strings to her bow as a lobbyist and activist and is also chief executive and co-founder of Pacific Foundation and a committee member of the Brainwave Trust.

To me she has come across as a mad woman but for many Aucklanders the issue of the tree removal from Aucklands Queen Street was one of unification bringing together a united voice against the current council (or possibly just the love of trees). For the Auckland City Council this is another PR nightmare in a long string of council mistakes this term (as well as Khartoum place and Vulcan lane pavers etc etc).

Although it does please me that Ms Max will forever be known as the ‘save the trees lady’ or the ‘crazy queen street tree woman’, I am concerned that she has made a mockery of our cities governance processes and has not acknowledged the processes of consultation that existed before her. I am also worried that she is creating a platform for herself where, if successful, she will only fall flat on her face through ignorance of process and an obsessive interest in outcome (for her benefit).

I am quite astonished as to how the whole tree debacle has been handled. I am taken aback by the rallying that has taken place to save the diseased trees of Queen Street to the extent where activists wished to stop a renovation of Queen Street (that is long overdue). Although I am first to approve of protesting against injustice I feel that this was more a stunt than a campaign against any wrong doing.

I am more astonished that Mayor Dick Hubbard has been such an appeaser and undermined his council, community representatives and his staff by taking the decision back to the council table under pressure from a few groups to save 3 trees.

Auckland city needs leadership and for that controversial decisions, if you can call the Queen Street upgrade controversial, need to be made. This city is stagnant in its inability to be visionary we are desperate to develop our floundering city with no heart. We must demand strong leadership from this council not one that revisits decisions that were made with community consultation and ones that were made over a matter of years not months.

What seems to be clear is that we are unsure as to what consultation means. If you are consulted with you are heard but you ideas and suggestions are not necessarily implemented. This could be for many reasons. The Hobson Community Board (Cits and Rats dominated) was consulted over the Queen Street plan so I don’t buy the argument that this is a left wing bulldozer. What happened were rounds of consultation and information and Ms Max and friends didn’t know about it until it was too late and then made an issue of it – it’s as simple as that.

For a city council, a governance body, this is not good process to change decisions on an emotive whim when they have been through a rigorous process. I have no problem with governors revisiting decisions when new information comes to light but for this decision to be revisited due to a small public pressure only kept alive through the New Zealand Herald, I disagree.

Ms Max has helped to exemplify bad governance. Some would say that she has demonstrated the power of the people to change what is wrong but by ‘saving’ three trees it seems pretty obvious that this was, in reality, a hyped up over the top attempt at getting media attention and to try and by dog whistling a lack of consultation by the council.

The Auckland city council could improve its consultation, it could make it 100 times better but this would mean a rates rise, it would mean staff and publicity which they currently do not have. I would personally pay higher rates to increase democracy, to reach more people, to explain the ramifications of decisions but most would not.

A lot of the consultation is down tihe representative bodies from business associations and community groups which are democratically elected – often consultation is made with people that come forward and are put on task forces and working groups, it is not a perfect model but it’s a model that involves those who really care.

I doubt that this will be the last we will see of Ms Max and I doubt that this will be the last time that Mayor Dick Hubbard undermines the institution of council, his colleagues and his staff. My masochistic side looks forward to the next time, I am interested in how we as a society interpret what is good governance procedure and what is not. I am interested in how we justify to ourselves neglecting process and how we define a good outcome.

In some instances good governance is just as much about backbone as it is about knowledge of process and procedure – Dick Hubbard needs to get one.