What do Housing Minister Phil Heatley and North Shore City mayor Andrew Williams have in common – beyond a couple of bottles of wine?
Try the following for starters: media witch-hunts, a penchant for hyperbole, significant differences with John Key, an ability to embarrass Rodney Hide, and strong survival instincts – and, sometimes, they can be dangerous to be around.
Andrew Williams has been a high wire act in the circus of Auckland local body politics since he took on the mayoralty of North Shore City two and a half years ago.
His rise started with an account of his fist-swinging revival when ambulance officers gave him a sternum rub to bring him round after he collapsed during a function at the Devonport navy base. Then there was a run-in with the Sunday Star Times over the cost of new couches for the councillors’ lounge. Then he gave a brisk and public dressing down to the trustees of the North Shore events centre over their opposition to a Youthtown development. His late-night emails on anything from double-parked Lamborghinis to discourteous café staff started leaking into the public domain.
Twelve months into his rein, the city’s community newspaper The Aucklander profiled him under the headline: “Is the Mayor Mad?” His response to the question: “Ah, I guess everyone would say you’d have to be mad to want to be a mayor.”
A month later, Williams was back in the headlines when he refused to apologise for calling one of his councilors a “smart arse” during a committee meeting.
Williams declared war on Auckland city mayor John Banks, giving away Christmas gifts of wine with a “Stop Banks” label. Banks reciprocated by calling him a “lunitic” [sic] in an email that accidentally found its way into the hands of the New Zealand Herald. Former North Shore mayor George Woods copped a late night Williams e-blast letting him know that he was “a buffoon” and a “disgruntled, failed has been.
Andrew’s anger at Woods and Banks was largely inspired by their refusal to join him in a more frontal assault on local government minister Rodney Hide and his super-city plans. Williams decided to take more direct action himself. He regaled the Prime Minister with “rude” messages at odd hours. He used the Official Information Act to extract Hide’s Cabinet report on his now infamous work-and-pleasure trip to the United States and Britain last year, and then used it to rub more salt into Hide’s wounds.
It was small wonder that Hide was the first to call on Williams to resign when the Sunday Star Times ran its latest beat-up about the mayor buying a couple of bottles of wine in a crowded North Shore bar and peeing on a tree as he walked back to his official car. Williams had declined to confirm or deny the SST’s report or comment on its claim that he had gone home to fire another e-blast to his executive team expressing contempt for Hide and the acting housing minister Maurice Williamson.
Instead of folding his tent, the defiant Williams dug in for 24 hours, announced he was about to make a significant statement, and suckered the media into covering his announcement that he would be standing for the Auckland super city council. This rebel with a cause will probably romp in – if the current mood of fickle Auckland doesn’t change.
So, where does Phil Heatley fit into all this? Heatley is noted for being a young, pleasant and adroit political operator, but in his own quiet way he is also a maverick.
When the dreaded Dominion Post used the Official Information Act to extract credit card records of Ministers’ expenses, they queried expenses claimed by Heatley and his colleagues Gerry Brownlee and Tim Groser. It was Heatley that caught most of the flak, for using his card to buy a couple of bottles of wine for colleagues at a National Party conference.
After it emerged that Heatley had described his wine purchase as “food and beverage”, he decided it was all too difficult for him to explain, repaid all the queried expenses, turned his expense records over to the Auditor General, and handed in his resignation to the Prime Minister. His action obviously puzzled John Key, who tried and failed to talk him out of resigning, and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition Annette King, who thought it was all so strange that there had to be more to it. And there is.
The Auditor-General’s report found that only $1,402 of the $2,852 Heatley had already repaid was outside the rules, and that he had not intentionally broken the rules. Heatley is now happy to “get back on his horse” in Cabinet instead of spending that “long time on the back benches” he was expecting such a short time ago.
However, the comeback kid’s principled stance is going to make life difficult for others on both sides in Parliament. Auditor General Lyn Provost has also found that the Parliamentary Service was administering a rule incorrectly – and had been telling MPs, including Heatley, that they had a right to claim unlimited travel for their children under the age of five. Potentially, 16 other MPs will be affected.
Provost also revealed that Speaker Lockwood Smith has been conducting talks behind the scenes to have the rule changed to remove any restrictions on travel for members’ children between their primary place of residence and Wellington. But it gets worse.
The Department of Internal Affairs is only 20% of the way through the task of responding to another Official Information Act request from the media – for the credit card spending records of all the ministers in the governments led by Helen Clark. This exercise involves processing some 7,000 documents, will cost about $50,000 to complete, and no-one is putting a date on when the outcome will be released.
So, Phil Heatley has shaken the tree, Andrew Williams probably irrigated the tree, and there’s more fruit to fall. Meantime, if either of these blokes turns up at your tent with a couple of bottles of wine, invite him in, or dive for the oilskins... or do both.