John Banks commands attention. His biographer, Paul Goldsmith, attributes this to a harsh upbringing and the need to speak out to survive. Banks's arrival in Parliament in 1981 certainly startled us. His rat-a-tat rhetoric, big words (some of which he misunderstood), and a penchant for exaggeration, led one MP to interject that he needed a tranquilizer dart in the backside. But members on all sides warmed to him. Under the bluster was a simple, often old-fashioned, even chivalrous message, and seldom malice. Yet he was often before the Privileges Committee; outside Parliament he attracted law suits like fly paper.
Banks is certainly Auckland's most colourful mayor since Sir Dove Myer Robinson. That's what worries his opponents. Opposition forces are anxious to land mortal blows before he becomes entrenched. Yet the protest march last Saturday - despite TV1's efforts to talk it up - was small by modern standards. Protesters have only enhanced his standing with voters. The city is tired of blandness at the top.
By any standards, Banks's victory in last October's election was impressive. According to Goldsmith, he knocked on 7,000 doors, and won by a margin that surprised everyone. As an independent, he then teamed up with the Auckland Citizens and Ratepayers Now which won a small majority on the council. Opposed is a City Vision minority. It's a loose amalgam of Labour and Alliance, plus one renegade ACRN councillor with ambitions. The majority set about pruning expenditure which, had it not occurred, would have increased this year's total rate take by about 8%. Last year's spending binge by the dying City Vision council on Britomart, plus commitments to public transport, left a huge burden. Even after Bill Birch's suggested cuts, total rates will increase by about 2%, maybe slightly more. This is much less than Banks's opponents inflicted in their first year of office.
Rates are at the heart of last week's fracas. Manifesting the charm of Mugabe's War Veterans, the protesters (and City Vision) seem determined to inflict big increases by preventing economies. At stake are things like the continued sale of the remaining 138 council general houses, and a slow phasing out of pensioner units. Councillors argue that housing is a central government responsibility, not a local requirement. They probably won't save much, but are entitled to make the call, especially since the sales regime will hurt virtually no one.
What made last week's meeting chaotic was that protesters insisted on bringing banners, and heckled throughout. As Wellingtonians well know, people can legitimately demonstrate outside Parliament, and lobby their MPs, but banners and shouting inside the chamber lead to immediate ejection. The rules for councils aren't much different. There is a standing order allowing one or two protesters by prior agreement to address councillors, but that pre-supposes civil behaviour. In my days as a city councillor I saw that process used most effectively.
Most of the current protesters would be unelectable to a rabbit board. They want to force their views on the elected councillors. Their leaders specialise in the bizarre. Two years ago they took a fire engine into a flash Remuera street to hose down the Bolivian honorary consul's home because a Bolivian city had privatised its water supply. One or two protesters claim to be Militants for the Revolutionary Communist International. Others are radical Greens. Their bumper sticker issues range through housing, water, road tolls, chemical weed-spraying, East Timor, Nicaragua, and any councillors who disagree with them. They collapse at the ballot box. Several named in the press have had costs awarded against them for futile electoral challenges. Others drive a van bearing signs attacking councillors - and a journalist who has been critical. One owns a small printing press. They are professional agitators. Labour gives them a wide berth, and it was surprising to hear Sandra Lee defending them.
Clearly Mayor Banks hasn't experienced anything like them. He seems genuinely perplexed. Banning banners, allowing a spokesperson or two formally to address councillors, then insisting on their silence, would seem the only policy consistent with democracy. However, one of the protesters says she won't obey such rules since she disagrees with Banks's policies! Again I lament our educational system's failure to teach citizens the fundamentals of democracy. Legislation passed in my time as minister authorises the mayor to eject people prejudicing "orderly conduct". Parliament in 1946 went further and banned a pestiferous individual from its precincts. It was done again in 1981. If Auckland's elected representatives are faced with a rabble at every meeting, they may need similar powers. Of more immediate importance: if the protesters had their way, they would cause hardship for ordinary people by unnecessary rate increases, and vanishing jobs. Unchecked, they could make Auckland ungovernable. When Banks and his council are eventually defeated, one hopes it's by a saner group.
Michael Bassett was an Auckland City Councillor 1971-4 and Minister of Local Government 1984-90.