Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

Auckland Mayoralty Race


Soon after being elected to the Auckland City Council in 1971 I realised that our mayor, Sir Dove Myer Robinson, was failing. He fell asleep at committee meetings. On one occasion we finished the meeting and left him snoring in the corner. I asked the most able councillor whether he intended standing next time. He looked at me incredulously: "Me? The mayoralty? It's all covered in bullshit!" I was shocked. But my years as Minister of Local Government taught me there has to be a lot of it or the position of city leader doesn't work. Boosterism, flattery, jollying one's councillors towards a decision are vital. If lucky, we get vision as well.

Auckland hasn't had many visionaries. Arthur Myers, James Parr, D.M. Robinson (at first). Big gaps in between. It doesn't look like much will improve at this election. John Banks is better than his two immediate predecessors. He cut irrelevant spending, and is keen to fix Auckland's traffic chaos. Sometimes he runs at the mouth, and he doesn't always stick to his causes. With his proposed eastern motorway, supported by 67% of Auckland's public, Banks marched us up the hill with an eight-lane corridor. Suddenly, like the Grand Old Duke of York, he marched us most of the way down again with a two-lane replacement. He can rise to the occasion with a forward-looking speech. But the street brawler can muddy his message.

Banks's main contenders don't cut the mustard. Christine Fletcher was a good back-bench MP, liked by constituents. But she was out of her depth as a minister, couldn't understand issues, and suffers odd memory lapses about the recent past. As Mayor 1998-2001 she was a consummate hand-wringer. Some wag has added an "e" to the words "No Spin" on her billboards. Even with a wet council she flubbed most challenges, and was unceremoniously dispatched by her former National Party supporters in 2001.

Dick Hubbard, the muesli man, emerged at the last minute, no one knowing much about him. He shows flashes of ability, but leaves the impression he's stumbled into foreign territory for reasons he can't recall. Fletcher calls him Helen Clark's "toyboy". She means "lapdog", of course, and is probably correct. The centre left didn't like Bruce Hucker, its official standard bearer, and wouldn't touch Fletcher. Clark gave Hubbard the nod when he cased his candidature with Labour. City Vision, a gallimaufry of old communists, Greens, and Labour activists, now embraces him. Hubbard's policy slid left accordingly. Initially he supported the eastern motorway, but the Greens persuaded him to soften it. So, too, with his initial willingness to quit Auckland City's large tranche of airport shares in favour of infrastructural improvements. The sensible businessman, like watery weetbix, went soggy overnight as he tried to edge into Fletcher's 2001 left-of-centre vote. As a result he could lose any business support he still possesses.

Meantime, newspaper coverage is woeful. Readers have a choice between the National Business Review's revelations about Mrs Hubbard's fascination with the holy spirit, and the New Zealand Herald. The latter rushed to support Hubbard. But he's been sliding. The editor went quiet. Old Granny, devoid of direction, has become a community notice-board for reporters with rancid views. All seem obsessively anti-Banks. I attended the recent Chamber of Commerce candidates' debate. Next day Dominion Post reporter Deborah Diaz neatly captured the small substance and sour flavour of the occasion. The Herald's Bernard Orsman reported only a nasty irrelevance concerning Banks's press secretary. I couldn't believe we were at the same meeting.

Some big issues warrant scrutiny. For instance, solving Auckland's transport woes isn't a choice between motorways or public transport, as Labour's left-wing allies and Herald journalists seem to believe. We need balance between the two. Banks stresses motorway completion, although his two-lane eastern corridor won't achieve much. Fletcher opposes any eastern motorway, and wants to resurrect the long-dead corpse of light rail. Hubbard flubbles, and demonstrates his lack of experience. The compromise worked out between the Auckland Regional Council and the Government looks the most sensible long-term transport solution, if only Herald reporters could regain their composure and explain it. The differences between the centre-left and centre-right tickets for Council and the Regional Authority warrant scrutiny, too.

Instead, the bullshit keeps flying. I can't recall whether my fellow councillor all those years ago was referring to politicians or journalists when he used the phrase. Either way, it looks like more of the same, whoever wins. Maybe Banks - by a whisker?