3 September 2015
The country quota – which operated in New Zealand from 1881 to 1945 – seems set to return, at least as far as the people of Canterbury are concerned. Under the country quota, rural seats in Parliament were about one-third smaller in population than urban seats, to preserve the power of rural (conservative) voters. Of inherent value to the National Party and its predecessors, the country quota was abolished by Labour in recognition of New Zealand’s increasing urbanisation. Since then, there has been no serious attempt to revive it, or to give rural votes greater weight than urban votes.
However, there are signs that may be about to change through National’s plans to delay the restoration of a fully elected regional council in Canterbury until 2019.
At issue is the allocation of water rights over the central Canterbury plains, which has brought the interests of the last vestiges of the old provincial squattocracy and the urbanites into stark relief. The squattocracy wants more irrigation to facilitate dairy conversions, and therefore, so the argument goes, boost the economic potential of the Canterbury province, while the denizens of Christchurch are somewhat more ambivalent. And their seats on the regional council will be greater than the squattocracy’s. Indeed, the last time they got to elect a full regional council, Cantabrians opted for choices that made it difficult for the squattocracy to achieve its ambitions. So, on the pretext of the council’s dysfunctionality (in other words, one working on the basis of majority rule, not the squattocracy) the National government dismissed it and replaced it with appointed Commissioners to sort things out.
The legislation by which that happened is about to expire and Cantabrians had reasonable expectations of being able to elect a new full regional council in 2016. But, worried by the sustainability of the water management plans developed by the Commissioners, the Government has announced a two-stage process which will see a minority of regional councillors directly elected in 2016, with full democracy not restored until 2019.
Consistent with UnitedFuture’s previously expressed view that the key to successful regional development is supporting regions to implement their agreed priorities, not telling them from afar what their priorities ought to be, it is surely now time to restore full democracy to Canterbury, and for the 2016 regional council election to be for a full council.
The old country quota created many problems – particularly in the area of land and resource management – that took decades to resolve. It would be a very backward step to re-impose its equivalent now, especially in one of our largest and most wealthy provinces.
The people of Canterbury have a right to elect a full regional council in 2016. If it fails to perform, or does not meet their expectations, they have an equal right to expel it in 2019, 2022, or whenever. But after six years, it is now time for the government to trust the local people to make the right decision, as they see it.