Hard News by Russell Brown


After Len

Even though he had apparently been privately dropping hints to the contrary, Len Brown's announcement yesterday that he will not seek another term as Mayor of Auckland was not unexpected. It probably came as a relief to most of his supporters.

In his authoritative profile of Brown for Metro in November 2013, Simon Wilson summed up the mayor's political capital thus:

Spend any time with him and you discover he has an insightful and coherent view of the world he works in. He’s a much more highly skilled political operator than you might expect, he’s extremely determined, and when it comes to marrying pragmatic gains and a long-term vision, he may be without peer in the country. Yes, he can seem a bit gormless. But you know what? He doesn’t care.

In the past three years, he has comprehensively outsmarted council enemies to the left and right and won a once-hostile government to his key policy platform, the transport plan. Now, he’s about to be re-elected mayor with no viable opposition. In Auckland City, you have to go back six elections to find the last time that happened.

A year later, the same journalist wrote an editorial about Brown headed Dead Man Walking.

Brown had lost both his personal mojo and the key currency of his first term: the respect and cooperation of the majority of his councillors, who proceeded to get on without him. I doubt there are very many who turned on the mayor solely because he had that extra-marital affair. But the poor decisions revealed in the review of that affair were the thread that unravelled his mayoralty.

Something strange happened. Brown became the magnet for every grievance about the council on which he has one vote and diminishing power. Some of the blaming – Wilson notes Paul Henry's declaration that Brown was to blame for the police not clearing the harbour bridge quickly enough after a traffc accident – was simply farcical, but it often stuck. Left, right, footpaths or finances, everyone blamed Len, for everything.

It didn't help that the Herald's "Super City reporter", Bernard Orsman, has pursued what seems like a personal vendetta against Brown. (Orsman writes this morning that Brown "began with a strong mandate, put the structures in place for the Super City, and then got consumed by his own hubris.") But there were always buyers for what Orsman was peddling – hell, there were plenty who professed to take seriously the Herald on Sunday's preposterous and deceptive "secret rooms" story last year. 

But history will ultimately be kind to Brown. In his first term, under a structure developed by Rodney Hide and lambasted in a Herald editorial as "anathema to democracy" (interestingly, the editorial also predicted that Hide's corporatised design for Auckland Council would lead to "spiralling" rates), he got the city moving in the right direction on crucial long-term projects. Auckland is a better place than it was five years ago.

And yes, there are the rates. We paid ours and we're not wild about it, believe me. We're in the middle-class zone hit hardest by the rebalancing of rates across the region (about 20% of ratepayers are actually paying less). But part of our rates rise is also the temporary transport levy the council was obliged to impose after central government refused to approve alternative ways of raising revenue.

It may be – as Brown's critics insist – that the council's rising wage bill is to blame for some of the city's spending. But a majority of the council itself rejected stunt amendments from Cameron Brewer to freeze staff costs, not only Len Brown, and staff costs as a percentage of of operating expenditure are not unusual.

The council and its agencies added about 200 full-time equivalent staff in the past year – but Auckland's population rose by 45,000 in that time. The biggest increases by far – 116 at Auckland Transport and 58 at Watercare services – were at CCOs who needed to meet additional service delivery needs. (Yes, those are the CCOs devised by Rodney Hide.) There are still 230 fewer FTE jobs than under the old separate councils.

This operational expediture adds nothing to the council's debt (indeed, the council made an $80 million operating surplus), which is used to fund long-term capital expediture. As Bernard Hickey noted recently, the council's debt burden is not out of hand, especially given the growth forecast in population and infrastructure demand.

So, basically, these are easy bombs to throw from outside, but it's a bit more difficult when you're actually charged with balancing the books. We're going to hear a lot of this stuff in the year ahead to the election and we can only hope these claims are properly scrutinised.

Whether the next mayor is Phil Goff, the local authority geek favourite Penny Hulse (who has been doing much of the heavy lifting this term) or some candiate yet to emerge, they will not have any easy options available. And they'll need to get whatever iniatives they do have past the councillors we all elect.

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