Squawking seagulls, lunatics, and lone sheep

Debate quickly degenerated into abuse as the steam started rising over the Government’s bklitzkreig plan to unite Auckland into a single super-city. The worst is yet to come

Auckland city mayor John Banks nursed dreams of being the diplomatic ambassador who would quietly negotiate the reefs created by the Royal Commission on Auckland and smooth the way for the creation of a single council to provide local government for a single, super-city of 1.4 million people.

“I only want what’s best for Auckland,” was the Banks catch-cry.

We are all rapidly discovering that there are probably 1.4 million different views on “what’s best for Auckland”. Some of the differences are substantial. The only major point of agreement is that central government led by John Key and Rodney Hide is not going to bulldoze through its vision of “what’s best for Auckland” without a fight. They may have the power—but they don’t have the right.

John Banks has taken a different, solitary tack from most of his Auckland mayoral colleagues. He points out that he has been a Minister of Local Government. His National Party credentials and connections are strong. He knows how things should be done.

Head-on confrontation is not the Banks way to win gains from a Government that has already staked out its basic policy position. He would not get into any “dog’s breakfast” discussions with other Auckland civic leaders, “rain-dancing in Titirangi” and shouting at the government like “squawking seagulls”. Not while there is an opportunity to negotiate change quietly and privately as well as through the formal select committee channel during the passage of empowering legislation.

John Banks’s chances of becoming the great negotiator were always slim. Many of his peers on the Auckland local government scene see him as being too close to the National-Act wing of the coalition Government for comfort. He also rubs many up the wrong way with off-the-cuff comments that are more notable for their colour than their diplomatic content.

Many share the view that the Key-Hide plan will produce a super-city council dominated by the rich or famous with the funds or the fans to secure sufficient support from difficult-to-motivate local body voters across the sprawling Auckland isthmus.

They do not see any balancing influence being exerted by the Key-Hide plan for 20 or 30 appointed local community boards— instead of the six elected local councils proposed by the Royal Commission.

We are still waiting to hear just how the Key-Hide community boards might differ from the existing ones that were dismissed as toothless tigers by the Commission.

Meantime, North Shore city mayor Andrew Williams has been leading the critics’ charge. He accuses Rodney Hide of misleading colleagues into believing that Auckland mayors had been consulted during his revision of the Royal Commission proposals. He also slams the Government as a whole for total arrogance, acting in an anti-democratic fashion, and making a mockery of the Royal Commission.

Hide has lent some substance to Williams’s claims with his response. “It is too late for them to develop new proposals for Auckland. The mayors didn’t do it when they had the chance to take the initiative,” he told the New Zealand Herald.

He overlooks the fact that most mayors were generally happy with the Royal Commission’s recommendations but had no opportunity to provide input into the substantial modifications that he made to them in the week after they were announced.

Hide has added further fuel to the fire with an announcement that Parliament would deal with legislation to establish a transition agency with statutory power to implement the super-city plan under urgency.

In the middle of this dust-up, “Banksy” probably blew his chances of becoming the great negotiator. He accidentally flicked a text intended for well-known blogger and Auckland city councillor Aaron Bhatnagar to Andrew Williams. His text describes the outspoken Williams as a lunatic.

Somehow, that resulted in a dribble of undiplomatic texts and email exchanges between local authority leaders reaching the Herald, and the emergence of a new claimant to the role of peacemaker-negotiator—Waitakere mayor and former Labour Party president Bob Harvey.

Harvey has managed to cool tempers sufficiently to pull off a meeting between Hide and the council leaders that Banks labeled as “squawking seagulls… rain-dancing at Titirangi”. It would be a minor miracle if this lifts the level of debate from the abyss of abuse.

Meantime, the Labour Party is gearing up to enter the super-city debate. With one eye on the upcoming by-election in Mount Albert, Phil Goff used his first extended television interview as Opposition leader on TVNZ’s Q+A  to start staking out Labour’s new pitch to greater Auckland.

He thinks the planned structure for the single Auckland council—with 12 members elected by wards of Auckland and eight members and a mayor by the region at large—is badly flawed.

If you elect people at large across an electorate of 850,000 you'll get the great and the wealthy, they’ll be the people that can reach out and win those electorates,” Goff told Paul Holmes. “You will permanently bias Auckland towards the affluent suburbs, not across Auckland.”

The Labour Party is now rushing to close nominations for the selection of its Mount Albert candidate by 22 April. New president Andrew Little says party members will be “choosing a candidate who will be very involved in promoting local issues such as the Waterview tunnel, the future of Auckland city and ensuring a sustainable public transport system”.

Labour’s ability to hold the mammoth 10,351 vote majority won in Mount Albert last year by Helen Clark will be an early acid test of the leadership capabilities of Phil Goff, John Key, and Rodney Hide—and the viability of the Key-Hide super-city model.