Hard News by Russell Brown


The Minister's Brain Has Exploded

Since the events on Auckland's waterfront last Friday, officials from central and local government had been discussing what both sides wanted in order to prevent a repeat of the Rugby World Cup's opening night problems. Most of what needed doing could be done, but it was felt the Auckland Council needed the ability to obtain consents at short notice, principally in order to close more CBD streets, including a larger part of Quay Street.

The easiest way to do this was to use the Rugby World Cup minister's powers under the Rugby World Cup (Empowering) Act. So the council would still manage the area -- and it's important to understand that this will largely continue to be the case regardless of anything the minister says -- but would expedite the consents as necessary by asking the minister's office to seek them.

This is what Section 48 of the Empowering Act does: it gives the minister the power to declare, by Order in Council, a Rugby World Cup "permitted activity".

And then, out of the blue, Rugby World Cup minister Murray McCully called a press conference yesterday afternoon and announced, as a done deal, that the government would be taking control of the downtown area -- including two working commercial wharves, Captain Cook and Bledisloe, as new "fan zones". The wharves are owned and operated by Ports of Auckland, which is in turn owned by the Auckland Council. (Update: Brian Rudman says goverment official only requested that the council make the wharves available as a contingency, for emergency overflow. The new fan zones seem to have been a figment of McCully's imagination.)

He did not bother to inform the Mayor of Auckland he was doing so. The mayor and his council appear to have believed, understandably, that any statement would be made jointly, and would follow the multi-agency report on Friday's transport problems that is due today. That would be the customary way of doing things.

McCully's next media appearance, 90 minutes later on Checkpoint (link here if the embed's not working for you), was bizarre. It opened like this:

Mary Wilson: "When did you decide?"

McCully: "Well we certainly haven’t made any such decision whatsoever."

At which point, a rational person might be moved to ask exactly why he held a damned press conference.

McCully spent the rest of the interview virtually talking himself out of the idea -- and repeatedly shifting responsibility to "some officials" who had, apparently, told him what was necessary.

By that time, most journalists were, understandably, off and running with the "takeover" theme. After all, the minister had said so at his press conference. But Todd Niall's report, later in Checkpoint (link here), was the first to shed some light on what exactly had actually been going on before McCully staged his intervention.

Capricious behaviour and poor decision-making from the minister isn't really news to anyone who has been involved with planning for the Rugby World Cup. He and John Key sprang the "Party Central" theme and location not only on the city and the nation, but on the CEO of Rugby World Cup 2011, Martin  Snedden.  Snedden was subsequently required to apologise for frankly expressing his views on the matter.

By the middle of last year, McCully's office was something of a law unto itself, sometimes treading in areas that properly belonged to MFAT and Foreign Affairs. At one point, the Prime Minister had to mediate between McCully and his co-minister, Gerry Brownlee, so difficult had their relationship become. (Watchers of these things may care to note that Key has left McCully to try and rescue this week's debacle himself.)

As many others have observed, McCully's announcement of a takeover of responsibility implied that it had not previously been responsible for organisation. This is very, very far from the case, as anyone involved will tell you. McCully had been micro-managing the project, to what sometimes seemed a weird level, for some time. He was driving everyone nuts.

I think it's important to recall that Friday night's opening festivities were in the first instance a victim of their own success. No one seriously expected 200,000 people to descend on downtown Auckland. There was not enough space and there was certainly not enough public transport -- in part because the party was being held right on top of Auckland public transport hub. On Quay Street, a relatively minor technical failure -- to one of the big screens -- had an outsize effect.

The situation was chaotic, and some people clearly had an extremely unpleasant night. But a great many more Aucklanders had a wonderful time on Friday night too. I came down Queen Street on my bike about 3pm and the atmosphere was marvellous -- although by the time I reached Quay Street I was seeing families and thinking "you shouldn't be here with your small children". (There was actually a family-friendly fan zone up at the Auckland Museum -- it even had its own share of the firework -- and why it was not better promoted I don't know.)

Over at Wynyard Quarter, I watched the waka fleet come in, from the balcony of the Viaduct Events Centre. It was something I suspect I'll never see again.

Later in the evening, our family watched the brilliant opening Eden Park opening ceremony on TV before rushing down to one of the streets at the end of Point Chevalier to watch the fireworks display across Meola Reef. When the fireworks finished, the 50-odd locals gathered with us in that street applauded. I remember thinking how happy I felt as we headed back to watch the game.

Even in town that night, it could have been much worse. Even the police seemed at pains to emphasise that the majority of people there were simply in high spirits. And although we clearly as a people still have some problems with alcohol, there was no Stanley Cup riot.

Certainly, more could have been done. Auckland Council failed, although it did not fail alone. Council-Controlled Organisations -- created by Rodney Hide, their chief executives appointed by government ministers -- failed. Veolia -- operating trains in Auckland since 2004, its contract extended by the last council through to 2014 -- failed. And the responsible minister, by definition, failed.

It might also be noted that not everything is the gummint's fault, local or national. People failed too.

But yes, marshalling of the crowd was poor. Queen's Wharf -- touted as the party place for the whole city -- was large enough only to hold 10% of the people who turned up. It should have been ticketed in advance, which would have done away with the hopeful crush at the gates. I'm told that ticketing was proposed at a local level, but was rejected -- by, among others, Murray McCully.

It seems unlikely that the phenomenal crowding on Friday will happen again -- it was a perfect storm on a clear blue day. It seems equally unlikely that, except in a real emergency, Bledisloe and Captain Cook wharves will be useful (or even safe) as additional fan zones. Apart from anything else, on the day of the All Black-France pool game, a huge Japanese cargo vessel will be unloading cars at Captain Cook.

I've been ribbing my friends about their negativity towards the event we are hosting: just enjoy, I've been saying. But what happened yesterday has markedly cooled my enthusiasm for the party, and I'm sure I'm not alone.

Yet in the long term, the lesson is this: it's not just about the Rugby World Cup. Aucklanders have shown they will flock to their newly-opened waterfront precincts. We need to re-engineer our transport systems and the downtown CBD to make that work. And we need central government to help and not hinder that change.

Len Brown could have responded in kind to the insult he received yesterday, but he didn't. He did, several hours after the debacle broke loose, send this tweet:

In light of today’s events, my very earnest advice for the Prime Minster is for us all to keep focused... need to work together for #RWC2011

Brown showed measure and leadership in his response. It's a pity those qualities are not more widely shared at the moment.

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