As we go into a local government election year and find ourselves mired in populism, personality slanging matches and much public angst about getting voting numbers up, it’s useful to remember one of the cardinal truths in life: That people don’t remember what you say. They don’t remember what you do. What they will remember is how you made them feel.
A case in point would be politicians intoning about how dear people are to their hearts when they and colleagues had sat in a government that threw tenants out on the street in order to sell off criminally run-down social housing stocks at fire sale prices. Rank and file citizens are likely to be left feeling queasy – if not temporarily homicidal.
On the mayoralty stakes, I will always remember Len Brown kindly. He wanted a community swimming pool available to every kid in his Manukau City and told Aucklanders, convincingly enough to be mayor of the whole shebang when the next supercity amalgamation came round, that he was a stand for Auckland to be a great place to live and work.
It was believable and inspiring, at least until a bone-deep tendency for Wellington to play power politics with the purse strings had made nonsense of his goals. At which stage we lamented his departure and loathed a kleptocratic government that denied the funds to improve even Auckland’s city rail, leaving us feeling powerless and trodden on.
I met incoming mayor Phil Goff shortly before his first term as mayor. Fresh-faced and enthusiastic from riding across town on his Triumph motorcycle, he displayed a convincing knowledge of his city’s second-smallest community and expounded the intricacies of unravelling urban gridlock and the proper use of trams.
Since then, as a ratepayer, I have felt little but a crushing frustration. The mayor touted three percent rates rises and the island’s bills arrived with 30 and 40 percent increases. He wanted people to plant a million trees but turned a blind eye every time it came to prioritising between stunning stands of trees in a green and handsome city and a millisecond’s convenience to trucks exiting a roundabout.
Queen Street and the entire central city has sunk under red cones and monstrous holes. Giant CCOs prospered, unchecked by elected oversight and the city’s bureaucracy is notorious for its uncaring and shoddy stewardship of water, planning, multinational monopolies, basic infrastructure, community wellbeing and homelessness. Housing was hailed for its great contribution to GDP as overseas land-bankers flooded through every little block of shops and leafy suburb.
The mayor, the one person we needed to stand up and take issue with Wellington as the great housing lolly scramble tore the city’s fabric apart, mounted an iniquitously structured visitor bed tax, then a fuel tax and now, since we are free to admit that we have an existential environmental crisis, a tax to prepare a plan for that too. It’s 2022 and we are only now starting to think about it?
By now, only activists and lunatics are still shouting. The bulk of us are deeply resentful at best but mostly deeply resigned.
Can we be galvanised? A wide range of candidates – from glib to the promisers to the ubiquitous – are lining up to give it a go (see story page 18)
The country’s best mayors are the ones who keep their heads and a clear eye on outcomes, aligning council chamber brangling, officer agendas and lobby group influencers back to a simple question: “Does this serve the best interests of those most affected?”
It might be a business community, an island like ours, a row of shopkeepers, an individual school or a town that fell down.
It’s the concept of subsidiarity – of embedding decision-making to be as close as possible to the actual stakeholder-citizens – and it was glimpsed during both amalgamations before being hastily buried.
Where it might have stood, we’ve had grey and sclerotic managerialism and, with former mayor John Banks, plain neglect, and it’s not served us.
Auckland Council and its deeply entrenched bureaucracy is just too big. The first 1988 amalgamation fulfilled the dire warnings of its critics but at least left a little room for the mayors of the seven cities and districts to respond to their distinctive communities and prioritise their cultures – green Waitakere, lifestyle North Shore, alive and vibrant Manukau City.
Only the regrettable Auckland City fervently stamped out local colour, a bureaucratic mindset that greatly influenced the second amalgamation in 2010 which extinguished the planning watchdog Auckland Regional Council along with historic boundaries and names.
Mayoral candidate Craig Lord came third in the 2019 elections with 30,000 votes. He lost me this week when he said he would be running a policy-free campaign “because a mayor is only one of 21 votes”. Bad answer. A leader has to lead, or someone else will. And the best leader is seldom the one wanting the job. • Liz Waters