Not waving, but drowning? With John Banks lagging well behind Len Brown, the Left’s candidate for the Auckland Super-City mayoralty (above), the Auckland Right has only one viable strategy for victory: Get Len Brown! Go negative!
THE AUCKLAND ‘SUPER-CITY’ is a prize worth fighting for. It is also, as the strategic exposure of Mayoral front-runner, Len Brown’s, personal spending problems confirms, a prize worth fighting dirty for. The next five months will reveal exactly how dirty.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
The story of Auckland’s unification was supposed to end with the triumphant coronation of the region’s commercial, administrative and political elites. The people who knew what needed to be done, and the people who knew how to do it, were about to take their rightful places around the Super-City’s council table.
The age of puffed-up mayoral popinjays, ponderous city councillors, and tiresome community-board busybodies was over. Replacing the cacophony of competing municipal voices would be the soft susurrus of murmured expertise and the quiet assurance of accumulated wealth. Finally, power would be the hands of those who merited it.
Auckland would be ruled by a twenty-strong board of directors – one for every 71,000 residents. The board chairman – still rather quaintly referred to as The Mayor – would preside over the board’s deliberations and be the city’s principal spokesperson. The role of the Board itself would be limited to receiving and approving the reports of seven "Council Controlled Organisations" (CCOs).
To all intents and purposes these CCOs would operate as independent, stand-alone businesses dedicated to the efficient provision of core municipal services. They would be governed by experienced business leaders who, having gone through the motions of public "consultation" and endured whatever slings and arrows the news media contrived to cast in their direction, would be free to make operational decisions in an environment that was, essentially, "democracy-proof".
The fiction that the new ‘Supercity’ offered its residents genuine "local representation" would be maintained by a score of powerless "Local Boards" whose unenviable duty would be to convey the demands of the hapless citizenry to the all-powerful and constitutionally imperturbable Council, which, like all good boards of directors, would respond to the cavilling of its small shareholders with a judicious mixture of condescension and contempt.
The venerable promise of "More Business in Government, less Government in Business" would, at last, be fulfilled.
That was the Plan.
But, from the very start, things started going wrong.
The natural enemies of the Plan, the Left, were supposed to have been neutralised – they weren’t.
Because it was the Labour Government of Helen Clark which had set up the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance it was simply assumed that the standard neoliberal prescription presented by its carefully selected members would be endorsed without demur by the Labour Opposition. And yet, somehow, and without actually repudiating the Royal Commission’s fundamental principles, Phil Goff’s Labour Party managed to position itself as the defender of local democracy against the ruthless "Gauleiter of Auckland" – Local Government Minister, Rodney Hide.
That was unfortunate, but even more unsettling was the fact that the Left – against all expectations and precedent – threw its weight behind a single candidate. The Citizens & Ratepayers (C&R) group were confident that at least two, and possibly as many as three, left-wing candidates would emerge to contest the mayoralty and split the progressive vote.
The best qualified was Mike Lee, Chair of the Auckland Regional Council. Lee was the darling of the old Alliance Left, and for that reason alone was bound to be challenged by the Manukau Mayor – and Labour Party flagbearer – Len Brown. There was even a chance that the former Green MP, Sue Bradford, might throw her hat into the ring.
With the Left’s votes going all over the place, the C&R choice, Auckland Mayor John Banks, would romp home.
Only slowly did it dawn on C&R that the Left had more-or-less amicably decided upon Brown as its candidate and that Lee had no intention of breaking ranks. Bradford, unloved and unwanted by the Greens, backed away too. For the first time in a long time the Auckland Left was demonstrating some old-fashioned political discipline.
It was rewarded with a string of poll results that showed just how well this unified approach was being received. Backed by a small but strong campaign team, Brown had opened up a healthy lead on Banks – the most recent UMR survey placing him 14 points ahead of his right-wing opponent.
Labour’s assault on National’s and Act’s handling of the Super-City (brilliantly led by the Party List MP, Phil Twyford) melded seamlessly into Brown’s campaign, making it the preferred vehicle for all those voters in the Auckland region who either opposed outright, or had serious problems with the implementation of, the Right’s Super-City Plan.
Far from securing a council of commercially-savvy philosopher kings to preside over the long-awaited neoliberal transformation of the Auckland region, the C&R Group is faced with the terrifying possibility that the whole, immensely powerful political instrument which John Key’s government had created for them will fall into the hands of people with a very different social and economic agenda.
What’s left for the Right to do – except resort to dirty politics ? Even if C&R had a better alternative (which they do not) it is now far too late to ditch their candidate. Their neoliberal vision is not saleable in anything remotely resembling a mass political market but they can offer Auckland voters only minor alterations to the grand Super-City blueprints. When it comes to devising a winning strategy, digging the dirt on Brown is the only play they can make.
Will it work? The answer lies in Brown’s hands. If he borrows from Bill Clinton’s 1992 playbook and sets up a high-speed response unit, staffed with hard-hitting counter-punchers, then C&R’s blows will probably not connect with sufficient nerve and tissue to secure a knock-out.
But, if he behaves like the Democrat’s 2004 presidential candidate, John Kerry, and gifts his opponents the time and space required to negatively frame him, then not only will he lose, but so will the Left. For Labour and City Vision to win control of the first Super-City Council, Len Brown's going to need some very long coat-tails.
So, hold onto your hats, because the race for the Auckland Super-City is about to get down – and very dirty.
This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 17 July 2010.