Friday, March 7, 2008

Communication With Your Council.

Another column I wrote for a local community paper.
One of the biggest enigmas about the Far North District Council is how it can spend so much energy, and resources, on “consultation processes” and yet as most candidates at the recent elections would agree, it is verry poorly rated by the public on the issue of communication.
Only last week I met with one of the council survivors who was still talking about how how unfair it was that the council was seen so negatively and what was needed was a “good news” approach in the council’s press releases.
Yeah right. This council has in recent years spent enormous resources on commmunity plan consultation, large scale touring buses with special uniforms, identity badges, conductng special community meetings. It has also conducted polls via professional telphone contractors and by mailouts associated with rate demands.
The council has employed staff to approach community groups and guide them toward developing community plans. And there is more.
In recent years it has employed a number of journalists and press relations officers, and invested in newspaper columns and a couple of websites to promote council activities, and structures.
Incidentally the ratepayer has also contributed extensively to a serious cult surrounding the previous mayor, not only through those columns and websites but also via large colour posters in library/service centres and other public places, and included at every opportunity lots of fresh coloured photographs of elected people in every possible publication.
As far as I am aware the claim during the election that the five volume community plan has cost a million bucks was never challenged or denied.
So what is the problem that despite all these efforts the public insist they are not properly consulted ?
Well it would seem a lot of effort has gone into providing information, and when the public notice processes and the publishing of roading and other engineering projects are taken into account, there would seem to be if anything a surplus of data on council activties and plans.
But there are of course at least two parties involved in any aspect of communication and there is some doubt whether the council was genuinely interested in information from the other direction.
. That lack of give and take and apparent reluctance to change plans, following consultation, contributed to that doubt.
This in part explains such puzzles, as the Hokianga wharf improvements which seemed to upset a hell of a lot more locals than it pleased, and certainly Paihia developments and parking arrangements always seem to disturb those it is meant to serve, and perhaps the most obvious example of all was the Kerikeri green area design, including scltpture and loss of rugby field, which could have been the single most lethal factor in the annihilation the ex-mayor experienced at the election.
So what is the lesson in all this?
I think primarily the council must see media officers as employees serving the requirements of those seeking information, mostly reporters, not as providing spin for the enhancement of the council.
Secondly, community discussion of any proposal must involve practical managers prepared to take on board the issues of public concern, raised during the consultation.
And thirdly, the elected people must take back the responsibility to talk to the public on matters under dispute, rather than hide behind closed doors while public relations officers take on the news management, which more than any other factor will generate an atmosphere of paranoia and defensiveness.
Finally, when there is a genuine element of protest and hostility emanating from the community, the response should be a genuine referendum, not a commercailly conducted poll. After the polling debacle during the recent election, it must be quite clear that such a process has a record in this district of absolute failure.

The Kerikeri Blackhole Theory.

The rain has been falling for most of the day, and I feel very good about that. I was beginning to think the climate had changed so much that we had lost forever these long soft rains, that have been such a part of my life in the Hokianga.
Actually I seem to remember such days in Auckland also, long wet Sundays when the humidity seemed to double the bulk of newspapers. Maybe it is just being a native of an island in the middle of an enormous body of water that makes me feel so at home with quiet, steady rain.
Not that everybody is feeling as laid back as me. I have been hearing people for weeks now getting excited about council plans to move 30 jobs from Kaikohe, and as usual there seems to be more excitement about the personalities involved and town versus town rivalries, than the simple facts of managing a public service.
The facts as I understand them are that Mayor Wayne Brown campaigned openly on the issue that staff working on development applications would be located in offices close to the developments. Very little was said about this during the election by any other candidates, except by a dyed-in-the-wool Kaikohe council candidate who got thrashed in his candidacy for council and community board, whereas Brown raced home in the mayoral race, winning by the length of the straight.
Now the council was due last week to hear the issue, and no doubt witness a loud and emotional outcry from various objectors to the plan.
The concerns seemed to be either that Kerikeri is a “blackhole” that will finally suck into its gravity field every council activity and finally destroy all commercial activity in the west of the district, or that the whole plan is a dastardly plot by Brown and other developers to ensure that a certain high rise building will be fully occupied.
I see myself as pretty neutral on this issue, as I live almost exactly an hour’s traveling time from the district’s three centres, Kaitaia, Kaikohe and Kerikeri. I have never known the council to employ anybody from this area for a full time office job, and wonder why Kaikohe should be seen as having a special preference over all other residents in the district.
Certainly in these global warming times, it seems quite proper to be locating staff close to potential customers, to reduce travel time for all concerned. I am also aware that the Kaikohe office was already crowded and further construction would be needed (the rumour before the election was for Auckland contractors to build a half million dollar extension).
It would seem to me the ratepayers of the district would be best served by staff being located where they are needed, and no subsidy should be paid to special communities at the cost of others, unless a larger good for the whole district is being served.
By the way, I see my concern about the conduct of a meeting in the Hokianga was challenged in a letter a couple of weeks ago. The letter writer mentioned the number of prominent people in the community who were present, and named one person in particular. I totally agree it would have been a good thing if this person and other representatives of our local services had been given an opportunity to speak. My complaint was that the unruly behaviour of others prevented this from happening

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Waitangi Televersion.

Probably no Waitangi Day has ever had better weather for the occasion than this year, and yet despite those long sunshine hours and the genuinely beautiful surroundings of the place, the events at the treaty site as reported by the national media seemed seriously lacking in conviction or .freshness.
Every year there is the same rather silly combination of big city media teams justifying their budgets with celebrity interviews and overcooked accounts, trying to make significance from rather muddled ceremonies, lengthy speeches and ego tripping protestors and minority politicans.
And the 2008 “televersion” appeared not so much like a nation’s leaders observing an historic occasion, as yet another “reality television” show where a few wannabes act out ever more desperate and corny scripts on the themes of survival tests and group rejection and betrayal.
Helen Clark , I think got it right by keeping her visit to the treaty grounds to a minimum , focussing on meeting the people, and then moving on to other places and other people.
Titewhai Harawira, always in danger of being a parody of herself, repeated the walk on acts she has made in the past with other National Party leaders, and her leading of a haka party by motor car seemed straight out of a television comedy hour.
Whereas John Key fell into a rather familiar trap for the Pakeha at Maori ceremonial events. He worried too much about looking like he was doing something and was far too grateful of the attention of those willing to greet him. That can be the only explanation for his willingness to be snapped being so friendly to Tame Iti.
Does the leader of the nation’s Opposition really want to publicly suck up to a man out on bail for violence and firearms charges, which include a plan to assassinate him, personally.
These charges are yet to be settled in a court room, but John Key has given a very public impression that he has dispensed with the notion of a trial to decide anybody’s guilt or innocence.
That was not a good look, and apparently members of the Iti family were not too impressed when he said of one of the children, “Even he could one day be successful.”
I think the real dramas on where the Maori leadership in this country is taking us were not so visible on television reports, although some of the papers hinted at the undercurrent of gang participation at Waitangi.
There was a strong presence of at least two gangs which are known to be recruiting in the north, and a large contingent of gang members lead the march of Tuhoe protestors on the first leg up to the bridge.
Maori politicians in this election year are increasingly being pressured into taking very clear positions of this issue.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Pat On The Back.

In a regular column for the Doubtless Bay Times I have written:
We should give the members of parliament a pat on the back, without risk of prosecution, for the manner in which they have at last resolved the legal hassle over prohibiting violence toward children.
It was interesting to see that in the final showdown all parties seemed willing to turn away from the public outcry, go against the results of the polls, and to do what they considered was best for the country.
It was the representatives of the Maori Party who first made the call. They recognised when push came to shove, that they had to come out against family violence, for the good of the people.
The other critical move was by John Key, when he asked for talks on the subject. I would guess that in his own wealthy, well informed circles there was no clamour to beat up the kids. It must have been quite politically embarassing to be associated with the fundamentalists of the Christian right, and enthusiasts for traditional discipline, when he was so keenly moving the image of his party away from Don Brash’s brand, characterised by Maori baiting and financial support from religious cults.
It would be not comfortable in well educated and informed circles to be associated with “Bishop” Tamaki and that strange mother with the horsewhip.
I applaud this decision, by Helen Clark and John Key to be seen together, working toward an agreement, when the public was being rarked up into a mob frenzy by a few extremists and most of the newspapers.
I think the incdent shows that this country is being very badly served on such issues, by our media, especially the major newspapers, but also of course talkback radio and much television.
Our major newspapers are now almost exclusively owned by overseas interests, and the Australian and British style of right wing and irresponsible journalism is becoming the norm.
Quite clearly, throughout this public controversy, there was strong support for the bill from all the professionals who actually dealt with violence toward children. Social workers from government agencies, independent social agencies and churches, who actually work with these problems, were united in support of a change in the law.
Police and lawyers had concerns about confusion that might arise, but were generally in favour, but were also not given little space in the news.
In the haste for television ratings, or in greed for the dollars of Sunday morning shoppers, the journalists ramped up the opposition to the bill, and virtually shut out the voices of good sense and responsibility.
Finally our political leaders stepped up and resolved the problem, without too much concern for their egos, or the sound and fury of the violently disposed.