Hard News by Russell Brown


The McCully Touch

Being in government while New Zealand readies for and hosts a Rugby World Cup should be a gift. The reality is not always so happy, as Trevor Mallard discovered when he tried to give Auckland a stadium. But I don't think anyone expected that the current government would contrive so hard to turn the chance to play host into a political vulnerability.

Actually, "current government" is a little unfair. It is the Minister for the Rugby World Cup, Murray McCully, who is the problem.

Well, him and his "ambassador". Let's walk back a little to Andy Haden's first embarrassment: the claim about the Canterbury union and its alleged quota of "darkies" – a claim that was not only offensive and damaging to the image of the game but demonstrably false.

If there was any doubt about the wisdom of appointing Haden as a "Rugby World Cup ambassador" (not, despite what you've read, the actual title of the post, but read on) surely it was confirmed by that incident? But did he ever really sit well in the company of the other five former players recruited for the role; Jonah Lomu, Sean Fitzpatrick, John Kirwan, David Kirk and Andrew Mehrtens?

It's hard to imagine any of the others grandstanding in the way that Haden did in first mouthing off on television, then offering a lame defence for his bullshit in the days that followed. But the half-arsed apology eventually granted was ample for McCully, who quoth:

"Look, if we were to take out everyone who made a mistake and shoot them, we'd sooner or later run out of people to do things in this country," the minister said.

"Mr Haden accepts that his use [of] a particular term caused offence. He has - without any prompting from me - already apologised for causing offence ... That, as far as I am concerned, is the end of the matter."

"Prompting" Haden would still not seem to be high on McCully's agenda. As John Roughan pointed out last month in a withering column: "A private enterprise would certainly have sacked him, particularly one that needs to project the image of the very people he has insulted."

The column's concluding point – that diplomatic World Cup CEO Martin Snedden has probably "been privately pounding a wall" --- was somewhat undermined by the misspelling of Snedden's name throughout.

But you might think that Haden, having apparently had such a let-off, would thereafter commit himself to doing credit to the role of "ambassador", and avoiding any further embarrassment to those who appointed him. You'd be wrong, of course: again on Murray Deaker's show, Haden demonstrated that still he puts his own grandstanding above the interests of the game and the tournament.

Like his first media blurt, Haden's new pronouncements ran in tight circles of ignorance:

"There's a bloke called Hugh Grant. He got into a bit of trouble like this and I think if the cheque bounces sometimes, they only realise that they've been raped, you know, sometimes," he said.

No, you moron, Hugh Grant was busted by the police in the process of getting a blow job that he'd paid for. That is not what rape is, and rape was never, ever an issue in that case.

And then there was this:

Haden said there were two sides to every story.

"It's an equal society now, some of these girls are targeting rugby players and targeting sportsmen and they do so at their peril today, I think."

Okay … I've actually been uncomfortable with people effectively convicting Robin Brooke of rape on the basis of some fairly celebrity-addled news stories, and mindful that the most alarming accusation against Brooke, that he had sex with an unconscious teenager, was apparently not mentioned in the historical complaint to the NZRU.

But let us parse Haden's statements. They amount to:

1. Convicting the complainants in the Brooke case of concocting a rape complaint after the fact.

2. Appearing to state that young women who seek to hook up with sports stars for sexual fun "do so at their peril" because, hey, players be rapin'. It's hard to imagine anything more undermining of the image of the game than that.


The Rugby World Cup in New Zealand next year is being planned and delivered by Rugby New Zealand 2011 Limited, a 50:50 joint venture between the New Zealand Rugby Union and the government. You and I should wish the company every favourable breeze – because as taxpayers, we're underwriting its losses.

But the RWC ambassadors scheme is (like "party central") an initiative of the government itself. And, actually, the anointed six are not "Rugby World Cup Ambassadors", they are "the New Zealand 2011 Government Ambassadors."

This whole thing is a concoction of the responsible government ministers, and it is currently doing a big, smelly turd all over the rest of the event.

So you, as minister, very publicly fire the idiot, and place some distance between yourself, and him, right? Because it's the good of the event that's important, right? Ah, but you are not Murray McCully.

Had the good of the venture been the priority for Murray McCully, Haden would have been gone last month. But this is Murray McCully. And it's pretty clear that his response is the usual rich mix of butt-covering, poor strategy and misguided calculation.

That there is a constituency in New Zealand that thinks – as it did the first time Haden let fly – that this is all a bunch of PC nonsense is no concern of Rugby World Cup 2011. But it is of political significance, in McCully's mind, to the government.

How else would you explain this?

Mr McCully says Mr Haden has made it clear he is still available to help with preparations for next year's event. The Minister says he will be looking forward to that input.

And this?

Late this afternoon, he said he had received the resignation "with sadness".

"While it had been my intention to discuss this matter the Mr Haden later today, I have, in the interim, received an email from Andy Haden relinquishing his position as 2011 Ambassador," Mr McCully said.

How convenient for the minister that he, again, was able to avoid taking action until it didn't matter any more. Such is leadership.

But a word for Andy Haden: there's a reason that your comments have created, in the words of your pissy little non-apology, a "media beat-up" and a "media backlash". It's because you uttered them in the media, you fool.


Had this been McCully's only cynical and stupid foray for the week, it would still have been a pretty bad week. Unfortunately, he also chose to launch an attack not only on Auckland local government, but Auckland's whole attitude. He also demanded to know "what Mike Lee was smoking at the time".

Thus obliging his Prime Minister to make clear from afar that:

"I would certainly talk to Mike, I don't run away from our partners...as I said yesterday I am a little frustrated by the process but I am not the sort of person who holds grudges, but if party central can't be located at Queens Wharf under conditions that's acceptable to the Government and ultimately the ratepayers and the taxpayers, then we'll have to find somewhere else."

The same pattern – the pursuit of some version of the politics over the good of the venture – was also at play in the farcical wrangle over bids for New Zealand broadcast rights: McCully was regarded as a menace by some of those involved in the bargaining. One might even say that's been a hallmark of McCully's entire career.

Yes, the ARC's change of mind is messy. It's also the right thing to do. It's probably easiest to explain this by answering the arguments.

In a column that read even more like a Holmes parody than usual, Paul Holmes wrote:

So the sheds of Queen's Wharf are not the hill to die on. They are just not worth it. They are an eyesore.

I rented for a few months an apartment on Princes Wharf that overlooked them.

They are pointless. They are nothing. They are not something anyone is ever going to drive past and gape at in wonder, crying out, "what foresight our forefathers had in designing and building such celestial constructions".

I accept there might be features within those buildings that are worthy of conservation.

Certainly, the Historic Places Trust, whoever they are, think so.

I imagine, however, that its members are the kind of people who look down their noses at rugby and the delights of the common people, generally. I may be wrong but I have very keen instincts.

What's more, some fairly flash architects seem to think the sheds are something worth preserving, although where the flash architects have been in recent years when the high-rise slums were being built, I've no idea.

Designing them, probably. Or designing Mark Hotchin's house.

Whatever. I'm not convinced of the overwhelming heritage value of the sheds ether. But the ARC's proposal – to move Shed 11 and redevelop Shed 10 as a venue and cruise-ship terminal for less than $20 million – is better than either of the minister's plans – to spend $10 million on an uninspiring temporary structure, or to spend $100 million of Auckland ratepayers' money on a palace. (Yes, with all McCully's bluster and issuing of edicts, it's easy to forget that apart from the shared purchase of Queen's Wharf itself, he's not putting up the money.)

Auckland local government is in even more chaos than usual – not least because someone thought it would be clever to rush through a huge and complex amalgamation while the region has been trying to stage a huge and complex event.

But ARC committed itself to seeking the approval of the Historic Places Trust from the outset. And – difficult as that may be at a time when it faces abolition itself – it has opted for something the city actually does need (the cruise ship terminal) over something it probably doesn't even want.

That's not to say that Kerre Woodham was thinking clearly when she said this in the same paper:

Why, if you are an international rugby fan, would you leave Eden Park and hop on a train, eschewing the delights of Kingsland's cafes, going directly past the thriving night life of Ponsonby and taking a right on to a bleak windswept wharf instead of a left to the maelstrom that is the Viaduct?

Most revellers don't want to be stuck in one place, miles from anywhere. They like to go from bar to bar, soaking up the atmosphere and the charms of the different places. Well, from what I understand and from what I remember. It's years since I've been out after dark.

Clearly. Look: there is not room for 60,000 people in the bars and restaurants of Kingsland. That's why we're spending all that money on shipping people out from the CBD and back. Visitors will also be in town between games. That's where their hotels are, and near where their camper vans will be parked. We'll want to entertain them if only because we are their hosts.

And here's the thing the amateur architects don't seem to be able to grasp: the ARC's Shed 10 terminal will be perfectly serviceable as one of multiple places where things happen in the CBD. Mike Mizrahi will happily make good things happen there. There is no need to waste money on the government's temporary folly, no matter how much the minister wishes to hector us.

I am delighted that, whatever happens, the red gates have opened and Queen's Wharf is public space. I'm feeling great about the All Blacks, after that tremendous performance on Saturday night. I'm really looking forward to the tournament, and to playing host as a nation.

But in the midst of all this good portent, the minister and his mates are contriving to harsh my buzz. I'm hardly the only one. And, when there are so many reasons we need this to work, that is really the problem.

McCully got himself this gig because he desperately, desperately wanted it. The same was perhaps true of Trevor Mallard (another stalwart of the Parliamentary rugby team), and perhaps he'd have committed similar political overreach. But that didn't happen.

And now, it's hard not to think that the reins should be handed to someone who wants the job less -- and thus stands a better chance of getting it done before the entire country is sick to death of it.

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