A leading political scientist is criticising a Labour Party-aligned group in Christchurch, over a stoush which she says risks putting people off local government.
The clash at the Linwood-Central-Heathcote Community Board has also brought forward accusations of putting party politics ahead of the community, at the most grassroots level of governance in New Zealand.
The controversy arose last week when members of the Labour-aligned group, The People’s Choice and Labour Party members, banded together to try and oust independent board chairperson Alexandra Davids, who was elected to the role in late April.
Davids replaced the late former chair, Sally Buck, who resigned as chair due to ill health and died in September. The Labour aligned group say the election process was unjust.
University of Canterbury Professor Bronwyn Hayward criticised the political clash.
She said that at local council levels, people liked electing problem solvers who aren’t political.
“[People want members to] provide the recycling, fix the potholes, compromise with neighbours. They’re not really looking for grand political arguments, they’re looking for collaborative problem solving,” Professor Hayward said.
“So every time you see an issue like bickering in a local community board which is really the lowest and most practical level of government, I think it does have a chilling effect on putting people off participating, putting their hand up and getting involved. It just looks really unpleasant and like something you wouldn’t want to be involved with.”
Professor Hayward also had some words of advice for The People’s Choice.
“People’s Choice probably think this is in their interest to push this issue, if I was giving them some professional advice I would be very cautious.
“I think it is much more constructive to come across as problem solvers who are collaborative and open to new ideas no matter where they come from and to think about whether or not these are in the best interests of the local community, [rather] than get into ideological debates at your local neighbourhood level.”
Shocked but not surprised
Two months after Sally Buck stepped down as board chair, she also resigned as a member of the Linwood-Central-Heathcote Community Board, which triggered a by-election for her vacated seat.
This was won by Labour candidate Sunita Gautam in October. Gautam was sworn in on 2 November.
The following day, Davids said she received a “courtesy call” that the chief executive of the Christchurch City Council would receive a letter requesting a change in board chair.
Davids said she was “shocked” but knew it was coming as such moves have happened in the past.
She felt the move was putting politics ahead of the community.
“When I did get my courtesy call, they did say that it was nothing personal, and that I had done a very good job of taking charge of the board so I assume from that it is political,” Davids said.
“Look, while we are still politicians, I think within community boards it should be an independent thinking position, based around what is best for the community.”
Davids said “it appears” that The People’s Choice and Labour are making a greater push in local government.
“I think when you look at the structure of it, you have community boards where we are obviously very grassroots orientated, so when you have Labour at the helm or People’s Choice at the helm, you have them controlling the grassroots side,” she said.
Accusations of ‘an abusive process’
Also on the Linwood-Heathcote-Community Board is Labour member and city councillor Jake McLellan, who defeated independent councillor Deon Swiggs following a controversial election campaign last year.
McLellan said after Buck stepped down, there was “an abusive process”.
“There was an emergency meeting held during Covid, at a time when not all members could attend but to call an emergency meeting to hand over the leadership is not an emergency, that’s why we have a deputy chair,” he said.
“The whole purpose of this meeting was to install the desired chair, from the group of people in charge of the board at the time, so that’s an abusive process and it’s one we have to fix.”
The meeting was called by Buck, in one of her last acts as chairperson. “So very much a desire to ensure one hands over to whom one would like to, which is clearly undemocratic, ” McLellan said.
He said the process was “possibly even illegal”.
He also fired back at accusations that it was a political move.
“I think it’s the oldest trick in the book isn’t it, for politicians to call other positions or to accuse other politicians of doing politics. I mean the word politics literally means public participation and discussion.”
McLellan said everyone has a political view.
“I was elected as a Labour city councillor, I don’t know a single one of my colleagues that doesn’t have a party view, whether they disclose it or not,” he said.
McLellan said party politics has always been a part of local government.