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Serving Many Masters

The recent article by journalist - come - politician, Gurunathan, (Kapiti News, 24 Nov, 2010) called ‘Between A Rock and A Hard Place’ reminded me of the difficulties elected representatives face when confronted by more than one master - the reality of being an elected representative

Serving more than one master is indeed a challenge, not just in local government but also in the health sector, in government, and even in cabinet.Help google and blind readers
Who gets the bigger slice of the elected representative? The elector or in many cases the minister? Who takes precedence? Most often the biggest and ugliest!

So Enter the New Councillor

So there you are, bright eyed and bushy tailed, newly elected by only part of the community. What about those who did not vote for you or who did not even bother? Who therefore is your master? Who do you speak for and to?

It is clearer in the health sector. The Act specifically says that board members are responsible to the Minister of Health, not the voters who may still claim to call on you as their representative. Board members are also required to act for the whole community not just the area he or she may live in. This is cause for great tension. But in the end it is the minister who can fire you, even before the community gets its chance at the next election.

Theoretically the councillor speaks for everyone, but practically for no-one. That is the reality. They can only speak for themselves and their conscience on the myriad of issues facing them which no-one outside the system would have knowledge of, or interest in.

Councillor protocols

Councillors are bound by certain protocols, by decisions already made, by legal documents; our Annual Plan, our District Plan and the Long term Community Plan are some examples. They are also constrained by various pieces of legislation and unfortunately by big brothers, the next two tiers of government, by regional and national plans and those decisions of which we may have had no part.

Furthermore, a minister, a business person or any other notable can provide a confidential briefing and part of the job requires that those confidences, and therefore the tensions created by it, are necessary for proper decision making. But Ministers do not elect the councillor! The community does! Which master takes precedent? If we want our councillors to represent us fully and speak collectively for our benefit, then we must accept that confidential briefings are part of doing just that, otherwise things would be done to us, without our knowledge or consent. Confidentially is a necessary part of the job.

Collective Responsibility


Then there is the problem of the concept of ‘collective responsibility’. I have always argued that this concept, of abiding by the collective decision, is an essential part of democracy. They are strange bedfellows as one essentially denies the other. Collective responsibility is the antithesis of democracy.  We may not like it but is the way governments work and democracy is the best we have and it sometimes sucks. It allows the voices of many to be heard even if the result denies a point of view. It allows actions to be taken on behalf of us all. Collective responsibility offers some protection for the individual decision maker and it is a brave and principled person who breaks that convention. It is what martyrs did.

A Place for the Maverick

And there is always a place for the maverick who stands alone in any system of governance. They may be often problematic and sometime destructive but they are our collective conscience.