Friday 18 June 2010

Brown & Dirty

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.


Robert Winter said...

Spot on. And you are particularly right about the need for effective political organisation and action by Mr Brown. He is not particularly damaged at the moment, and swift and deft footwork can put the credit card stuff behind him. I think that he needs to start addressing the major issues facing Auckland by strategically and positively introducing key policy planks, which require Mr Banks to respond. Take the high road in terms of policy, and head off the wave of dirt that will inevitably come his way. The Cits and Rats must look at Mr Banks in growing horror, for he is unsaleable across the Auckland region (which is why, I beleive, people like Mr Roughan are touting the Wilson Whinerays of this world as alternatives).

Adolf Fiinkensein said...

Of course it's a dastardly plot.
John Banks went down there and made sure the council's officers approved all that spending without documentation.
John Banks encouraged your boy to lie through his teeth about the night out at the restaurant.
John Banks made sure your boy put on a televised performance that made Laws Shadbolt and even Hubbard look like normal intelligent people.

Yes, it's always somebody else's fault.

Just has to be.

Olwyn said...

One heartening thing about this "spending" PR initiative, is that a growing number of people seem to be waking up to what is actually going on, and demurring. With luck, the MSM and their right wing PR buddies have gone a spin too far. For a long time, they have been able to form a critical mass of opinion by repetition, sensation and sloganeering, but it seems as if too many have seen it all before. If enough people buy out, the critical mass will instead be one of scepticism, and they will be left howling into an empty room.

Anonymous said...

Wishful thinking. Banks will romp home now, more then ever. The Left just cannot control their spending, can they, the Right seem to be more thrifty, and more accountable. It's a right wing govt, of course Banks will win.

Joe Carolan said...

Carter, Jones and now Brown- it's a bad look. Workers are taxpayers- and don't take too kindly to these taxes been blown on what politicians consider entitled little luxuries. Its endemic of how a large section of the Labour party are out of touch with the rawer feelings of the working class, that they try and make excuses about this.
And they shouldn't cry about it either- own up and own it.

I'd like to see some real left wing policies start entering this lacklustre Supercity debate.
How about Brown takes a leaf out of Livingstone's book, and campaigns for an Auckland that is a Living Wage city- promising to end the Contractocracy and hire council workers directly, for no less than $15 an hour. Even Boris Johnston now supports this policy in London.

Or how about we cancel the contract of Veolia, guilty of building an apartheid railway to illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, and take rail services back for the people of Auckland? Let's cancel Lockout-mad Infratil's contract too- spent the subsidy they get on quality public transport and decent pay for Auckland's bus drivers.

The campaign against Bank's shouldn't just be defensive, anti privatisation- it should be a positive, pro worker campaign that takes some power back too.

But what would I know. I'm a bloodthirsty, silver eyed Trot, foaming at the mouth :) The main job in Mayoral politics is to be...Nice.

Cactus Kate said...

Chris, I agree it would be "dirty politics" if there was allegations of sexual abuse, affairs and other things that cannot be directly proven all designed to smear an opponent in the traditional sense of dirty politics.

But what we are talking about here is Brown having NO administrative restraint or control over his spending, a poor audit process and basically ineptitude to run his own office.

This can be proven by documents released that show he has broken his own rules on spending, lied about it and then to top it all off when under pressure he has shown at a meeting with a virtuoso performance he is unfit for office with a display that makes John Banks look like a safe, stable, mature option for governance.

As we've discussed before - no mean feat.

JiveKitty said...

I can accept that it may very well be a campaign based not on policies but on personalities and their failings, or that those on the "right" (let's be honest here, the "right" in NZ is centre-right and such simplistic terms are fairly meaningless in and of themselves), if not campaigning based on such failings, may take joy in them.

However, these are serious failings, if true, and Len Brown doesn't appear to have been honest about them, which is an additional failing. Honesty, integrity, prudence, restraint and the ability to accept where one has been in the wrong are important characteristics to have especially for those in a position of power In line with this, one can't be seen to be profligate with other's money. How is it the right's fault that Len Brown apparently has few, if any, of these positive traits?

Simply, is it the right's fault Len Brown appears to have misused his credit card, apparently failed to be honest about it and avoided responsibility? Furthermore, given his apparent failings, is it wrong to exploit them, given he will likely take them into the role if he gains it?

Carol said...

I don't think being a bit loose with credit card spending is particularly a left or right thing. It's something that's developed amongst some left elective representatives and some right-wing ones, eg David Carter (Ag minister) during just a couple of years in office:

It says something about the neoliberal environment over the last few decades, in which some politicians have become disconnected from the harsh lives of some of their electorates. The Brown example has exposed to a wide section of the population something of standard right wing tactics. Often the right find it difficult to gain popular support for their policies, so they resort to dirty tactics. Usually they try to do it so it's less obvious where the smears are coming from. This time it's too obvious.

In a way I'm glad it's being highlighted for some politicians on the left, because it gives some impetus for them to get more in touch with their constituents, many of whom struggle to make ends meet.

But, I think in Brown's favour, he has always had strong connections with his grass roots.

For me, and I suspect many others, I will still vote for Brown over Banks. Brown's loose spending pales in comparison to the kind of policies and spending favoured by Banks and the right, which will benefit the wealthier individuals, and businesses in Auckland. And a Banks-led city is likely to mean cuts to council core provisions for Auckland, necessary for many of the less wealthy to lead reasonable lives.

But I agree with Chris that there needs to be a smart and well-executed approach, not just by Brown, but the team that supports him. It requires going on the front foot and showing that Brown can lead an efficient and professional approach to running Auckland, as well as one that will aim for making/keeping greater Auckland democratic. And that will show that for Auckland to be prosperous, it needs to be organised by, through and for the whole community.

Nick said...

Cactus seems to me to be focussing on the latest topical issue of uncontrolled expenditure that seems to blight both sides of the political spectrum. In effect she is saying you have to be squeaky clean to be able to represent a political stance or group. Maybe, but I think the issues as outlined by Chris are bigger than whether an individual meets muster. Its the old "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" principle. Myself, I would gladly vote for a convicted murderer against the likes of Banks or Hide, that is the level of contempt I hold their politics in.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget what John Banks tried to keep secret in relation to his dealings and financial ties:

Auckland Mayor John Banks is distancing himself from a controversial Waiheke Island development plan by two of his business partners.

Mr Banks told the final city council meeting of this term yesterday that he had gone into an unrelated business with two directors of Waitemata Infrastructure, which is planning a $35 million village at Matiatia on Waiheke.

pdm said...

I am in Londonand everything I read about Brown points to his situation being self inflicted. Had he told the truth the story would be well gone by now.

You can hardly accuse the Herald and DomPost of being right wing. Most of the time their left wing bias is clear for all to see.

David said...

really that is a pathetic way to excuse Len Brown. What he has demonstrated is that he cannot be trusted to prudently manage the affairs of a large and complex organisation. With the assistance of two of Labour's finest spinmeisters, he has ducked and weaved and been caught out lying and has been shown to be an incompetent fool who cannot manage his own lunch money. Wrong bet, wrong horse.

Anonymous said...

David, well said. Sums it up. Brown is an incompetant fool. His appointment as Mayor would be a disaster as he doesnt have the skill to make the super city work. Which ironically the "left" would love!
So much for the left caring about what happens in Akld eh.
If they truly cared they should find someone better than Brown.

Nick said...

David and anonymous, ever heard the term Hobsons Choice? Damned if you do and damned if you dont? In this case I would feel double damned if I no choice but to go with the ACT and their flunkies on the issue at stake, corporate versus democratic control of Auckland. You may find it pathetic that I would rather go with the most undesirable criminal but as I say it shows the level of contempt I have for Hide, Banks and their politics.

Having seen Brown in action he may well have damaged himself but I dont see there being time to replace him with a more viable candidate. And I doubt that the electorate will find a greater issue with his honesty and ethicacy than that of the forces opposing him when it comes to casting their vote. Time will tell.

My other point you might also want to consider: "he who is without sin"....the whole process is being run by Hide who is not exactly squeaky clean here having been caught out using taxpayers expenditure to fly his girlfriend around the world...dubious at best. I cant comment on Banks but some scrutiny on his rectitude might also prove instructive, who knows?