The government has recently announced its intention of selling off New Zealand’s $5 billion of state-owned housing stock. In the government’s previous term, $5 billion of state owned assets were removed from the ownership of all taxpayers and placed in the hands of sixty thousand or so of the better off. These sales were made despite a referendum, which clearly showed that the electorate was unhappy with the government’s action. So, prior to this September’s election, when their votes were required, the government assured voters that there would be no more asset sales.
Despite multiple pointers to the fact that this government was one capable of rapid changes of mind, the turkeys were persuaded that there were distinct advantages to having Christmas as a moveable feast. Within weeks of the new government coming into its current three-year term, the wealthier members of our society have been informed that they will be able to buy up the state houses occupied by those unable to afford a house of their own. New Zealand’s state housing, from being an asset shared among all New Zealanders, will now become an asset of only a small minority. There could be no clearer demonstration that this is a government under which the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. It is a scenario alien to New Zealand’s egalitarian culture and unwelcome to the vast majority of New Zealanders.
Though the principle of subsidiarity is a key concept of political organisation, it tends to be resisted by governments.
In essence, the principle holds that decisions, should be made at the lowest level at which they can be satisfactorily resolved. The principle has subsequently often been confused with the principle of decentralisation. However, subsidiarity can in certain instances, favour centralisation. For instance, were the UN assembly to be legitimised through democratic process and given executive powers, it would make sense that enforceable decisions involving climate change and international law were referred to that level as being the lowest level at which such matters could be satisfactorily resolved.
An excellent example of real-life debate around the principle of subsidiarity can be found in federal systems. In the EU for instance, there is constant debate as to which regulations are for the decision-makers in Brussels and which should be made by the parliaments of the member states?
The principle also holds good within nation states. How much should be decided by central government and how much by local authorities? With the advent of modern communications comes a tendency for centralisation and micro-management, rather than delegation of powers. This centralising tendency has become increasingly apparent in New Zealand. With centrally gathered taxes and centrally disbursed payments, political power is as magnetically attracted to the centre as it is attractive to those politicians and civil servants who reside there.
So what does this have to do with my present soap-box on state housing? This decision to sell might well be justifiable in parts of the country. New Zealand is a country in which one third of its population is conglomerated in Auckland and the remainder thinly dispersed around the country. Rural New Zealand consists of small townships separated by tracts of relatively empty countryside. Some of these rural centres have a certain prosperity; others are clearly in economic distress. In these circumstances, one hat will not fit all. The decision whether to sell or retain state housing, and the administration of any housing stock that remains, should be left in the hands of local Councils. These are all democratically elected, understand their particular district’s circumstances and are acutely interested in the welfare of their communities. They have a far better knowledge than central government of what level of state house availability their communities require.