A Safe Pair Of Hands: The whole point of the neoliberal Auckland supercity is to ensure that “big visions” and “bold execution” in the pursuit of anything other than neoliberal objectives is rendered impossible. As a tried and tested neoliberal himself, Phil Goff gets this. Producing “incremental improvements with greater efficiency” constitutes the outer limits of his political imagination. It’s what makes him the perfect candidate.
SIMON WILSON is an odd fellow – with some odd opinions. Here, for example, is the Metro Editor-at-Large's opinion on the general public response to the National Government’s forced amalgamation of Auckland, North Shore, Waitakere and Manukau cities. “Aucklanders were cynical about everything before he [Len Brown] and the supercity came along in 2010. But we lost that cynicism and we set about reinventing the city.”
I would be most annoyed if I thought Simon was including me in that “we”. Long before the legislation setting up the supercity came into force the level of my cynicism was already off the scale.
Everything about the supercity’s establishment: from the man chosen to oversee the process (the Act Party leader, Rodney Hide) to the deliberate exclusion of the people of the Auckland region from any meaningful say in whether or not the merger of their four cities should finally proceed; highlighted the profoundly anti-democratic spirit in which the entire process was conceived.
The reason for this hostility to democracy wasn’t difficult to discern. Far from being a bottom-up exercise: driven by angry residents’ from across the Auckland region; the supercity was a top-down exercise: the joint creation of local and national elites. Their common purpose? To create a model for local government in the neoliberal era. And the central feature of that model? The almost total disempowerment of the citizens of Auckland and their elected representatives.
The full measure of the supercity’s creators’ contempt for democracy was revealed in the proposed size of the supercity’s “Governing Body”. In the equivalent decision-making structures of Auckland, North Shore, Waitakere and Manukau cities, the ratio of elected representatives to citizens was roughly 1:15,000. In the new supercity it would be 1:70,000! Supercity councillors were being asked to represent more citizens than a directly elected Member of Parliament.
My own level of cynicism (and, I suspect, the cynicism of thousands of other Aucklanders) was in no way lessened by the Ports of Auckland dispute. It was during this brutal test of strength between the supposedly municipally-owned Port and its employees that Aucklanders learned just how misnamed their “Council Controlled Organisations” (CCOs) truly were.
Aucklanders elected representatives turned out to be equally mischaracterised. Far from being the people’s democratic tribunes, Auckland’s elected councillors proved to be little more than powerless pawns. The real game was controlled by legally cocooned CCO boards of directors – over whom the so-called “Governing Body” (including the Mayor) exercised no effective control whatsoever.
Indeed, so politically impotent was the Mayor made to feel in relation to the day-to-day management of National’s neoliberal supercity, that the poor fellow felt obliged to demonstrate his potency “by other means”. A better symbol of Auckland’s vast democratic deficit than Len’s and Bevan’s affair is difficult to imagine. Turned out the Mayor’s Office was good for very little else!
Even Brown’s signal achievement: the National Government’s final approval of his beloved City Rail Link; owes as much to the projected massive inflation of property values along its inner-city route, as it does to any rational realignment of Auckland’s public transport system.
In his latest Metro article, Simon Wilson opines that the job facing the next Mayor of Auckland is “not simply to produce incremental improvements with greater efficiency and better relations with the government in Wellington. Auckland has fallen into crisis. Growth has far outstripped expectations. Housing policies have had a catastrophic outcome. A big vision is required, all over again, and bold execution has to follow.”
Except, of course, the whole point of the neoliberal supercity is to ensure that “big visions” and “bold execution” in the pursuit of anything other than neoliberal objectives is rendered impossible. (That the Unitary Plan was so heavily promoted by the National Government and the Auckland City bureaucracy, both of whom threatened dire consequences should the councillors fail to approve it, tells us all we need to know about the document’s ideological complexion!) As a tried and tested neoliberal himself, Phil Goff gets this. Producing “incremental improvements with greater efficiency” constitutes the outer limits of his political imagination. It’s what makes him the perfect candidate.
Poor Simon. He seems to have been both surprised and distressed to learn that in a Citizen Insights Monitor survey released by the Auckland Council in June 2016, “just 15 per cent of us said we were satisfied with the council’s performance. Only 17 per cent of us said we trust it. This is disgraceful.”
Really, Simon? Disgraceful? Frankly, I’m astounded as many as 17 percent of Aucklanders place any trust at all in National’s neoliberal supercity. I do, however, understand completely why 83 percent of us find little, if anything, to like about the “governance” of the unresponsive bureaucratic monstrosity into whose tender care we were delivered without so much as a confirming referendum.
Nor am I surprised that only 35 percent of eligible voters bothered to return their ballots in 2013. Not when the people elected by those ballots are so bereft of power that – even if they wanted to – it wouldn’t be “within the purview of their lawful governance function” to make the trains run on time.
In terms of empowering the people who live within its boundaries, there’s nothing I’d rather do, Simon, than “reinvent” the Auckland supercity. It’s why I’m voting for Chloe Swarbrick. Not because she stands the slightest chance of winning, but because, alone of all the Mayoral candidates, she demonstrates some understanding of just how much we have lost.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 13 September 2016.