Hard News by Russell Brown


Footpaths, not manifest destiny

Simon Wilson is most of the way through his fascinating Metro magazine feature on the Auckland National Party and its designs on Auckland local government by the time he identifies the thing that unites the party's "braided river": the belief that it is National's birthright to run things, Auckland included.

It's easy to understand why party members and supporters would think so. As Wilson points out, its command of most Auckland electorates underpins the party's dominance of national politics. He writes:

When National looks at those numbers, it asks itself, "If we're so popular, why the hell can't we win the council?"

It particularly asks itself why it can't win the Shore. In the council election of 2013, the independent rightist candidate John Palino won the mayoral vote in all five of the ward seats north of the bridge. Yet the centre-right holds only one seat in those fivewards.

The city's wealthiest ward, Waitemata, "is represented by the unreconstructed old lefty Mike Lee and a board full of Labour and Green types. Why hasn't Waitemata turfed them out and voted blue?"

In part it's because the Auckland centre-right is so divided and thus not very effective. Even in this year's local body elections, it will be standing against itself, with C&R declining to make way for the more urbanist Auckland Future. The common answer to this problem seems to be that the elected Council needs managing, via the equivalent of a whipped caucus. Which, as I've noted before, isn't necessarily something Auckland wants – and very probably is not what it needs.

But this belief does seem to have been a key element of the centre-right's own conversation. It must be at the heart of Theresa Gattung's bizarre column in the Herald three weeks ago. She wrote:

What decision making power does the mayor actually have? Even the council website doesn't claim that it's actually that much! Decisions of council are by majority vote with the chair (usually the mayor) having the casting vote. The Auckland Council Standing Orders of the Governing Body May 2015 reads like something out of last century.

It's true that good leadership is about more than positional power. Good leaders inspire people, walk the talk and take people with them. But not relying only on positional power is not the same as not having it. True leadership involves being able to make decisions after getting the best input possible.

The Super City would have struggled to get up without regionally based representation. But what was a good idea then is crippling the city now. And there is no independent review mechanism.

Gattung seems genuinely horrified that the mayor can't make major decisions without the support of a majority of elected councillors. She doesn't seem to grasp the distinction between executive management (and its "walking the talk" cliches) and democratic leadership. She actually believes that local representation on a local council is "crippling the city".

I wonder if this in turn is at heart of the right's conviction that Len Brown has been a hopeless mayor. They don't understand the environment and thus don't value his coalition-building skills (and, importantly, those of his deputy Penny Hulse).

Elsewhere in Wilson's Metro story, he records aspirant councillor Bill Ralston's crack that "If Len Brown can get his own way, how hard can it be?" To which the answer must be: quite a lot harder than you think, Bill.

But that's not the startling part. Wilson writes:

Ralston is not a details person. Even he says that. I asked him about the big Franklin Rd redevelopment project, which is about to start. Which of the three proposals did he like best? He said he didn't know much about them. He lives on Franklin Rd.

This is astonishing. For god's sake I know about this and it's not even in my ward. And the cycle lobby Ralston describes as "ferocious" certainly does too. Local politics is local – this is about people's footpaths, not what you believe to be the natural order of things.

The details are also important because Auckland councillors are currently making decisions for the next few decades. They are setting the shape of a new city. And they matter because an understanding of the detail is civil society's stake in the new city. It's how TransportBlog has achieved its authority.

And it's also absolutely crucial because it's the only way that the elected council can keep in check the city's wilful executive branch. That will only be done through a command of the detail – and not with all your airy-fairy ideas about management.

Ironically, the business community – the people who actually have to do business in the city – understands that much better than the putative business right does. So while Victoria Crone is still reaching around for a stance on the City Rail Link, on the 27th of this month John Key will tell the Auckland Chamber of Commerce that his government has fallen into line with the council's CRL timeline and will contribute its share of the funding from 2018, not 2020.

The announcement will probably be larded with yet more road spending, but it it's pretty clear the businesses the Chamber represents were getting antsy about the fluffing around. It's a big, big win for the allegedly ineffective Mayor Brown.

So this is the challenge for the Auckland centre-right: to not sit around reflecting on its own manifest destiny, or staging a face-off between its own factions, but to actually make a contribution to Auckland at what is a pivotal time for the city. It would be nice to see a sign they're getting that.

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