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CE Susan Freeman-Greene's Address at LGNZ Conference 2021

It’s fantastic it is to be here, and feels a privilege we can do in the midst of the global Covid pandemic. We are so lucky we sometimes take this for granted and I want to personally acknowledge the role that each of you played in your council in getting us to this point.

When I was interviewed for this role, about a year ago, I asked what the panel and national council wanted to see most from their Chief Executive.  Two things stood out:

  • First, that we need to make sure people always have a voice in decisions that affect where they live, work and play.
  • Secondly that the relationship with central government needs to be a lot stronger.

At first blush these two things do not seem easy to reconcile, particularly in the face of this government’s reform agenda, as many of you have told me.

But I took this job because I believe they can be - and they have to be.

And that’s because the first of these; local democracy, or as it is sometimes called everyday democracy, or democratic wellbeing, or localism which is a platform we have strongly advocated for; is, and has to be, a guiding principle.  It is fundamental.

 It underpins everything we do and what we, at LGNZ, and you stand for.


But the second of these; a strong relationship with central government; is about the ‘how’.  How can we make sure that local democracy is enshrined, that it is part of the vision in all these discussions, so that we can have what we all want, a thriving local democracy.

Because as the Minister of Finance said yesterday his, and Cabinet’s, responsibility, and what they think about every day, is to support the wellbeing of all communities across NZ, and our job/your job is to look after wellbeing in your rohe, in your community. 

And our joint challenge is to make those aspirations meld.

On Wednesday I heard these words:

“Fundamental transformational change comes when we stand side-by-side and work together –and build a bridge in a safe and dignified way and where, under intense pressure, we can say we are not alone, we are together.”

But I didn’t hear these words in relation to three waters or the central-local government relationship, but at the Te Maruata hui; in the kōrero in relation to Tangata Whenua and Tangata Tiriti creating the future for local government in New Zealand.


We heard the same message at the session on creativity and the arts yesterday, where artist Rangi Kipa told a powerful story about the New Plymouth airport.  He told us, after a very challenged relationship between Iwi and the Council, strong leaders on both sides changed the narrative and together developed an airport that is now in his words ‘sitting with our stories’

That concept is intrinsic to localism. And here I want to acknowledge the passing of our former President Dave Cull who articulated so well what this could mean for New Zealand. He described localism as:

“being strongly aligned with Māori kaupapa, where power and authority strengthens the lower you go within the governing structures, from Iwi, to Hapu to Whanau. Concepts like Tino Rangatiratanga (independence) and Mana Motuhake (self-determination) reinforce the importance of place within Māori society.

 The philosophy of localism does the same for Aotearoa as a whole.”

Or as I heard it at the Te Maruata hui on Wednesday, what’s good for Maori is good for everyone.


When I think about what the concept of localism means for LGNZ over the next five years and beyond, I think our fundamental purpose is  to be local democracy’s vision and voice. 

 And I take some inspiration in this also from Rangi Kipa’s korero yesterday around the power of creativity.  Our joint responsibility to local democracy means a range of things: giving people visibility, creating places where they can express what it is to be human, being better partners, seeing each others’ dreams and aspirations, having courageous conversations about what is intrinsic and we need to keep hold of and what it is time to let go of. Those things are at the heart of our communities.


And to put my cards on the table, in my ideal future for local government we have a thriving, living breathing local democracy – one that reflects our modern progressive unique nation and our responsibilities to Te Tiriti.  Where central government, local government and Iwi/Māori are partners in the future. A local government that represents how we now look in Aotearoa and how we will look in 30, 50, 100 years. Where local government is valued, and where our communities are engage. A future where more that 42% vote in our elections, where our talented future leaders want to stand for public office, and our communties want to, and are able to, add their voice to the public discourse. And a future where the headlines about local government aren’t dominated by stories about conflict and infighting around the council table but the value you add. Every. Single. Day.


But how do we get there?


Well we certainly won’t get there on our own.  It will take us working together with central government and Iwi/Māori for starters and of course our communities.

 Which brings me back to the other thing I’ve heard over and over again; how important it is to have a closer relationship with central government.

 Localism isn’t about local government or central government arguing who gets to make the decisions. It’s about recognizing that different decisions need to be made at different levels. Our communities are best served when bottom-up and top-down decision-making meet in the middle. That’s partnership.

 And the partnership commitment announcement yesterday (off the back of a huge amount of work between local government and the Department of Internal Affairs over more than a year) commits to that. This agreement is not just in relation to three waters but holds a commitment to that partnership through the reform to the Future for Local government and invites us to walk together to that end. 

As Minister Mahuta said yesterday, in the context of the three waters reform, “we are not turning away from local. We are turning towards local ”.  And she said the Heads of Agreement we have both signed is the clearest signal we could give that we are committed to a partnership approach and doing this together. 

 But I also know it’s easier said than done.  

 This partnership invites both central government and local government to take a leap of faith into an unknown future. Which is not particularly easy for either side. There has been a history of a lack of trust, (both ways) and it is easy to be cynical. I’ve heard that. Yes, it’s hard to make leap of faith to engage in the spirit of trust in an environment where your experience has been something entirely different, for some of you over many years.


But I have also heard from you, hope, curiosity, ambition and a very real sense of opportunity.

I believe the only way through some of the outrage, frustration, confusion and cynicism is engagement.  And the only way to capitalise on the hope, curiosity and opportunity is engagement.   Truly listening, hearing and trying to see the world from the other perspective, and genuinely thinking about the outcomes we want for our communities, moving past the way to get them.  Because in every part of my multiple years as a lawyer and a mediator and a leader that is the only way I’ve seen people move to a different future that reflects a changing world.

Over the next eight; weeks we will all work hard on the three waters reform; understanding, engaging on it, navigating the complexities of what the proposal means for your communities. Take a realistic hard look at what’s on the table, what it means, and whether the status quo in your community will be able to match what will be asked of you. LGNZ is there to support you on that. 


But while we are doing this, I just ask one question of you, how many of you are even hypothetically thinking of the opportunities, of a positive future in your community and for your council without water service delivery.  What could that look like, what might be possible?

And as you think about the future, let’s think about three things:

  • what can you do to, as I heard yesterday, ‘engage, hearts and minds and passion into this conversation’.
  • Let’s think about how we best harness, as Dave put it, the collective strengths of local and central government to change the system.

 As we think about that, about playing to our strengths, let’s also think about being good ancestors for future generations. The decisions we make today will be the test of that.  

 Yesterday’s announcement was but the first step in this journey to the future for local government.  We have the chance to create our blueprint for our future together if we lean into it. 


And just to finish I want to end with Max from Otorohanga who was last week called an exemplar of post three waters councils. His work with the Mayors Taskforce for Jobs, which is run out of LGNZ with funding from central government, and sees councils up and down the country with their knowledge and proximity to local communities and businesses connecting young people and jobs. 

Max says “we can sit and criticise change, but the reality is, change is coming”. Mayor’s Taskforce for Jobs is an example of what can be achieved through partnership with central government. 

In my view, the more we lean into a way of working that enables partnership – whoever with – the more we can all achieve for the people we are here for. That’s how our influence and our mana grows, and at LGNZ that’s what we plan to do.


Thank you.