C&R look creaky & rusty, and where's John Key?

Citizens & Ratepayers look to be on the ropes in the Auckland elections as voters tune in and the Prime Minister is notable by his absence

We're half way through voting for the new Auckland mayor, and the signs aren't looking great for the grand old party of the biggest city, Citizens & Ratepayers, or its de facto candidate John Banks. Early indications are that Len Brown's supporters are, as they say, voting early and often.

It's far to soon to draw conclusions, but it's interesting to pass an eye over what we do know. First, when Aucklanders stop and think about their council, it's mostly because of the traffic, and Brown's hitched his caboose to a much more popular message than Banks.

Most folk under 40 (and over 65, given Gold cards) loves trains and better public transport, partly because of comparisons they make with large cities overseas that they've visited and partly because the price of parking is insane. Brown is backing the inner city loop, rail to the airport and a rail link to the North Shore, and is giving time frames. You can argue about the cost, but politically it's a simple, popular message. Banks is backing the loop, but is getting in a tangle about rail to the airport.

According to the New Zealand Herald, that airport link is what Aucklanders want most... at a gut level. Feeling the politics, Banks doesn't want to go against the mob, so he's saying it's part of his "vision" for Auckland.

But his core message in this campaign (alongside his 'I'm John Key's friend' line) is that he's a careful money manager, so he's also compelled to argue that the airport link would "send us all broke".  

It's a muddled message which voters till take to mean he wants a railway line he doesn't think we can afford or his "vision" is a gimmick he never intends to realise. As I said, a tangle; and not a debate he wants front and centre as people are filling out their voting papers.

Brown, while he still has a lot to prove, seems to be hitting the right messages at the right time.

Second, the Herald reported today that 20 percent of eligible people have voted. That's already more than half as many as in the previous election, which suggests a decent turn-out, something that Brown desperately needs to counter the pasting he's expected to take in the eastern suburbs.

And the worst news of all for Banks? The highest vote return so far has come from Otara, which is Brown country.

The Banks vote is sure to turn up in the next 10 days, not least because it was prompted by the front page of the Sunday Star-Times. It reported on Sunday that a poll of those who had voted showed Brown on 49% and Banks on 23%. Again, the early turn-out seems to be running in Brown's favour.

What's interesting is that the government hasn't seemed to be throwing its support behind Banks. He continually stressed that he's the best man to work with the government; many are old caucus colleagues. But ministers have not been flooding to Auckland to look matey with Banks. In particular, where has the PM been?

Banks has tried to get a bounce from his political allegiance to Key, yet, apart from giving him a speaking spot at the National Party conference, Key hasn't stepped up to back his man with photo ops and the like.

Looking at the lay of the land behind the mayoral race, Auckland's right-wing seems to at odds with itself. Devoted free-marketeer Deborah Hill-Cone last week described C&R as "a mess".

My observation seems to be that its 'born to rule' attitude has caught up with it at just the wrong time. When barely more than a third of Aucklanders bother to vote, it's easy for the engaged and wealthy to dominate; but it's different with city politics all over the media. And C&R is looking jaded and out of touch.

One of its local board candiates, Hinurewa te Hau, announced at the last minute that she was pulling out and standing as an independent, because her "ethos as a Maori woman" was at odds with the party. C&R is trying to argue that it doesn't have a policy on Maori representation, yet its candidates seem to be of a mind that Maori seats are undesirable. Again, the message is a muddle.

One bellweather for all this is what's happening in Orakei, which doesn't look pretty for C&R. I hosted a candidates debate there last Friday and have been trying to find time to post on it ever since. I'll get to it asap.