Are we moving to a more local democracy?

The New Zealand Initiative (NZI) released their Go Swiss report last Monday. The NZI is a right leaning think tank, but the Executive Director, Dr Oliver Hartwich identifies subsidarity, exemplified by Swiss governance, as a feature of our new coalition government.

Subsidiarity means that problems should be solved at the lowest possible level. Where a city can deal with an issue, a region should not do it. And where a region can tackle it, national government should stay out of it. Dr Oliver Harwich


Switzerland is remarkably decentralised. A lot of decision-making happens at the local level. Switzerland is divided into 26 Cantons (regions) and 2,294 communities. This video elaborates on their democracy, highlighting its strengths and some deficiencies.

Note that the 2016 democracy rankings place Switzerland second (after Norway) and New Zealand seventh.

Dr Hartwich notes that both Labour and the Greens have a common tradition of subsidarity and New Zealand First is strongly focussed on the local and regional. By contrast, the National Government was very centralist.

The previous, National-led government was the party of traditional, New Zealand centralism. Its view of the world was hierarchical, looking from the capital to the regions.

No wonder that National was fond of council amalgamations. It did not trust local government, least of all smaller councils. Dr Oliver Hartwich

Our increasing trend towards centralism inhibits the innovation that can occur in a more decentralised governance design. The “one size fits all” regime concentrates power in the governing cabinet and fosters dependance on government largesse – very dangerous when moneyed vested interest is eroding democracy around the world.


Hopefully this coalition will pathfind an evolution of our democracy. We will not become a South Pacific Switzerland -– we can evolve a democracy unique to us and based on the as yet unrealised partnership embodied in the Treaty of Waitangi. While our former Government consolidated centralism, an alternative was in plain view for those that wanted to see. In the Māori world subsidarity is alive and well. Hapu form around age-old patterns of the movements of people into new territory.

The tension between local autonomy and Iwi based leadership is playing out in Tai Tokerau as Ngapuhi work to secure a Treaty settlement. There is still much raruraru, but there is also much promise.

Perhaps we will see a time when rural communities are reborn. Perhaps the marae will be integrated into an evolution our democracy. They are well situated to become kaitiaki of the catchments they are situated in. It can be achieved through mutual respect between the marae and locals.

Maori values of kaitiakitangi, manakitanga and oranga are more fit for purpose for a prosperous post-carbon world than our prevailing governance norms. The model below, from Amokura Iwi Associates, He Tangata, He Whenua, He Oranga is the best model of sustainability I have seen.

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Local and global

A seventh placing in the global ranking is something to be proud of. For example, we led the way with universal adult suffrage and as social innovators. Devolving to a greater level of local autonomy and learning from good practice globally will move us up the ranks. Besides the Swiss example, Otto Scharmer’s thinking about co-creation and collaboration are worthy of consideration.

Lets be cheerleaders for governance change. And we can also work to inculcate these changes in the organisations we work in and volunteer for.

Election outcome a great result for MMP and sustainable food systems

Our new government, led by Jacinda Adern is a win for MMP and sustainable food systems.

A win for MMP and the evolution of governance

To form a government in New Zealand a party has to obtain a majority of seats. In a mixed member proportional (MMP) government, any party will need to work effectively with smaller parties to sustain their government. Our new Prime Minister, Jacinda Adern has skilfully woven a coalition agreement with New Zealand First, with support in supply and confidence from the Green Party.

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Winston Peters and Jacinda Adern signing the coalition agreement (source RadioNZ)

This result represents another advance in our political system. It is fitting that 124 years after Kate Sheppard led the fight to win the vote for women, a female Prime Minister is the first leader who has only voted in the MMP electoral system. Ms Adern must be aware that the continuation of her government can only be achieved by the continued success of her coalition partners. Early signs are that she has the skill and awareness to lead us to a new style of co-created governance based on strong consensus.

A win for the environment

The new government also represents a win for the environment with the three partners supporting the establishment of a Climate Commission and agreeing to legislate emission reduction goals to comply with the Paris agreement. Climate change action is touted as a clear winner in the Labour, Greens agreement. Climate change was on the agenda this election and we can be sure that it will be even more prominent next time, so it will shape future governments. This will cause the National Party to rethink its stance.

For the first time the Green Party will have ministerial roles (albeit outside cabinet). These roles include climate change and conservation.

A win for a sustainable food system

A feature of the coalition agreements is the commitment to regional development. Both New Zealand First and the Green Party are champions of local economies. The agreements also include the intention to prevent foreign ownership of farms.

I have no doubt that we need to turn back dairy intensification and diversify farm incomes to reduce environmental impacts (more about this in future posts). The new government will discontinue subsidies of irrigation that fuel intensification.

The plan to increase the minimum wage potentially has a benefit for regional economies. We are a low wage economy and government assistance for wage and salary earners enables employers such as the foreign owned fast food chains to keep employment costs low. In effect this is a tax payer subsidy for these employers, and in the case of foreign-owned corporates, part of our taxes disappear off-shore.

Engaging with Government

According to the Drawdown Project, the 31% reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions can come from food system and a further 14% from land use. We need to engage with government to ensure that the synergies between climate change action, their new forestry programme, and regional development aspirations are realised and support the development of sustainable food systems.

Let me count the ways… food makes us sick

A new report from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food (IPES-Food) outlines how industrial food and farming systems are making people sick in a variety of ways. An Overwhelming Case for Action lead author Cecelia Rocha says “Food systems are making us sick. Unhealthy diets are the most obvious link, but are only one of many pathways through which food and farming systems affect human health.”

This infographic from the report summarises the carnage and the resulting economic impact.

IPES Food costs of health impacts

In addition to highlighting the perils of the industrial food system, the document identifies five co-dependent leverage points for building healthier food systems. Among these are lines of action we can all champion.

  1. Promoting food systems thinking.
  2. Reasserting scientific integrity and research as a public good.
  3. Bringing the alternatives to light.
  4. Adopting the precautionary principle.
  5. Building integrated food policies under participatory governance.

This report follows on from their ground-breaking first report From Uniformity to Diversity: A Paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems. 


Food policy from our election candidates

The Northland Food Policy Council is asked political candidates from the Far North, Rodney, Te Tai Tokerau and Whangarei electorates five questions. Their responses are published here. Please pass this link on through your networks.


Here are links to the candidates’ responses. Each electorate has its own webpage.

The questions

1: What do you think your role as an MP or potential MP is in our region’s food system?

2: Should NZ be protecting prime agricultural/horticultural land from urban sprawl? What’s your position on how best to do this?

3: The World Health Organisation recommends implementing a 20% tax on sugar-sweetened beverages as a measure of reducing childhood obesity. NZ has the third highest rate of childhood obesity in the OECD.  Are you in favour of a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages?

4: Do you support Local Councils having the power through the Resource Management Act to declare Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO)/Genetic Engineering (GE) free growing zones in their regions?

5: How will you ensure that food system policy, such as the Food Act is scale-appropriate for small and medium scale farmers, growers and producers (e.g. on farm meat processing).


Why we need food policy

Our current food system doesn’t serve us well. My perception is that it has evolved into an ideal money making machine – for those who have positioned themselves to harvest the economic benefits. Most of us identify the dynamic below that would seek to lock us in to dependency on big players in the food and health industries.


A recent report from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems identifies food system dynamics and advocates for a European Union Common Food Policy.

In Europe, as here, there is increasing consumer choice around food purchases, but little choice around the food systems that produce that food and deal with its consequences. Problems are exacerbated by siloed thinking, conflicting motives, disconnected policy and self-interest.

The need for new policy responses is made all the more pressing by the multiple crises now afflicting food systems in the EU and around the world, from burgeoning obesity to environmental degradation and pressures on farmer livelihoods. Our current political systems and policy frameworks are ill-equipped to address these crises. The policy tools affecting food systems do not respond to a set of agreed priorities. Instead, our food systems are the by-product of political compromises struck in various fora on the basis of various competing interests. The lack of a coherent food policy, cutting across sectors and joining up different levels of governance, means that accountability is hugely dispersed. When poor outcomes arise, no one can be held to account. With neither a pilot nor a flight plan, it is possible to ignore how badly food systems have veered off course (page 1).

The report positions this problem as a major opportunity. This resonates with our Northland experience.

Food is an entry point for joined up policymaking across multiple sectors and governance levels; sustainable food systems can provide a benchmark for actions in all of those areas. It is also a promising entry point for repairing democratic deficits and reconnecting European citizens with the policy measures put in place by their elected representatives (page 1).

The report is part of a “three year participatory process of Research, Reflection and Citizen Engagement”. With little sign of our government showing such resolve, we are at least raising awareness of the dire need for food policy reform. Please help – the first step is to engage. You can read the report here.

Growing the sticky economy

The defeat of Labour leader Andrew Little’s procurement bill is another reason to have a regional food policy council. The bill, Our Work Our Future, proposed an amendment to the the Principles of Government Procurement, and the Government’s Rules of Sourcing to include two considerations, job creation and fairness.

The bill was supported by Labour, the Greens, New Zealand First and the Māori Party, but it was opposed by National, ACT and United Future. A National List MP, Paul Foster-Bell stated, “Jobs are not going to be created by trying to sell more things to ourselves,” and “And this bill is contrary to a number of our free trade agreements.”

The Government’s focus has been on driving down expenses and multinationals, with their  sophisticated systems and logistics, have been allies in that process. But if we factor in the negative externalities created by multinationals and the positive externalities created by fostering more local economic activity, any savings will prove to be minimal, or, false economy when total tax take is factored in.

The benefits of local procurement go beyond the benefits of jobs. There are social, economic and environmental benefits. Our knowledge of the food system, for example, suggests that there are diverse benefits from increasing local provision to name just a few:

  • more jobs, and therefore greater prosperity
  • reduced carbon emissions (through shorter food chains and supporting soil sequestration)
  • strengthening of rural communities.

If we look back over time, a number of multinational food service companies have arrived and established themselves here. They have significant resources to secure a foothold in local markets. One strategy is to identify key staff from local competitors and poach them, with the combined impact of reducing the local competitor’s capability and providing the newcomer with ready-made networks. If they face significant local competition, they can draw on head office for support. These multi-nationals have been seeking long contracts to embed themselves. Once they have achieved a foothold and they are the incumbents – they have an advantage in future government tenders. Thus an unlevel playing field emerges.

Fact based policy

It would be nice to think that government policy is based on evidence. Our research into the Social and Economic Impacts of the Whangarei Growers Market, reveals a 2.99 economic multiplier when local food displaces food from outside the region. This fits within a multiplier range of 2 to 4 times reported internationally. The 2.99 multiplier is based on the grower to customer transactions at the growers market, but what if we add in more complex value chains, for example, food cooked in restaurants, and that includes dry goods sourced from local or national suppliers. And what if we factor in the health benefits as we foster a greater appetite for local food?


Examples of benefits of local procurement

These multipliers are the basis of the “sticky economy” – an economy where money circulates longer locally. By contrast companies owned offshore are more likely to extract money for dividends to shareholders, head office costs and offshore suppliers. You can see a video explaining the multiplier here.

Kiwibank has a counter that calculates the quantity of bank profits lost offshore. This counter started from 28 October, 2016. You can get an update here. The total for the year to  31 March 2016 was $4.525 billion. Imagine if half of that money remained in New Zealand and we factored in the local multiplier. We don’t know how much of the Government’s $40 billion expenditure goes offshore, but with multipliers applied, this figure would be significant.


It is very difficult to quantify these impacts in dollar terms, but the assumptions that support the rejection of this bill need to be challenged.

I am not against globalisation and regard myself as a global citizen. But the shareholder ownership structures that characterise most of the foreign companies that operate here are driven primarily to extract profits for those shareholders. Economist Shamubeel Eaqub argues for a balance between globalism and localism.

Let’s trade internationally, but do it intelligently. Enabling extractive foreign companies free reign here is not in our best interests.

Murry Burns on food safety plans

Murry Burns, one of the two founders of the Whangarei Growers markets featured on Radio NZ Bulletins today.

He is commenting on the impact of food safety plans mandated by the The Food Safety Law Reform Bill. This was featured in an earlier post about artisan cheese makers.

As discussed in the earlier post, a Food Policy Council would be a voice in policy for smaller food producers on this and related issues. Local Food Northland are working on this now.

“If I am forced to wash my greens in chlorine and use fungicide like the big producers I will simply close my business.” Murray Burns

Here is an image from Hydro Healthy’s Facebook Page. Nicki comments that “when there are frogs in the water, it shows how clean and pesticide free the water we grow in is”. Murry and Nicki have developed an innovative hydroponic system that integrates chooks and liquid composts into the growing media.



Changes to the Northland Regional Council

A growing number of us are aware that “business as usual” just isn’t good enough anymore. Those who privilege economic priorities over social and environmental concerns are yesterday’s men.

Its hard to determine who to vote for in local body elections. Several NRC candidates make generic statements about growing the economy and enhancing the environment. These statements sound good, but it is hard to find clues about how they might do this.


New NRC Councillors, Jocelyn Yoeman, Rick Stolwerk, Justin Blaikie, Penny Smart, Mike Finlayson (Images from the NRC website)

Five new councillors have been elected. Four of these five demonstrate clear commitment to sustainability or environmental restoration. I don’t have sufficient information about Jocelyn Yoeman yet to make a call, but there is clear evidence for the others. Here are some extracts from their candidate information. I have also spoken with three of them ,confirming what is written here.

Mike Finlayson

“We need to work together to ensure: Rates increases are kept to a bare minimum, if any; More jobs are created, especially protecting our environment, by complimenting council funds with outside sources; Development is environmentally sustainable; Northland remains GE Free; Council decisions are made locally, not in Wellington”.

Penny Smart

“…A firm believer in the four pillars of sustainability: environmental, cultural, social and financial; Committed to positive progress for our two greatest assets; the people and the environment; Passionate about Northland’s potential, yet practical and solution driven toward our challenges…”

Rick Stolwerk

“I am passionate about our Northland environment, protecting it as well as encouraging sustainable economic development in the region. I believe in healthy communities, which support one another and I understand the pressures on the environment and on people. Environmental, economic and community integration is vital.”

Justin Blaikie

…having environmental policies that protect and enhance the regions natural resources, particularly water quality, soil quality and the coastal/marine environment; and maintaining and enhancing a stable and diverse economic platform, that can provide for the wellbeing of Northland’s culturally diverse population.”

Jocelyn Yoeman calls for balanced decision-making.

“I believe we need to strike a balance between protection and use of our natural resources and elect decision-makers who will listen to all points of view before making rules that affect us all.”

Of the other four incumbents, David Sinclair has a strong commitment to Seacleaners and cleaning Northlands foreshores of litter.

By the time the next local body election comes around in 2019, Local Food Northland will be ready to pose a series of questions to identify where candidates stand on issues related to moving to more sustainable food systems.

This election featured a number of close calls. Justin Blaikie trailed Joe Carr by two votes in Hokianga-Kaikohe, but took top spot when results were finalised. The Hamilton Mayor had a narrow 9 vote lead over his closest opponent. This demonstrates how important it is to engage in our democratic processes.