Careless decisions on Auckland's Waterfront
When governments run out of luck they get careless. Gerald Hensley's recent memoir conveys the atmosphere during the last years of Robert Muldoon's ministry as an increasingly sick man with no new ideas struggled to steer his leaky ship. I readily recall the quixotic decision-making during David Lange's final days. Now it's Helen Clark's turn. She lives from day to day as her ministers stumblebum about, seldom thinking more than five minutes ahead. In moments like this, leaders take on some of the dictatorial tendencies of the crazy Roman Emperor Caligula as they try to assert authority over their rebellious subjects. One such example of autocratic impulse is the decision that the Prime Minister is reported to have made to erect a stadium in the centre of New Zealand's busiest port. Rejecting advice about the difficulties involved, and operating by the seat of their pants, ministers seem set to spoil Auckland's waterfront, seriously disadvantage the port that is directly or indirectly responsible for 20% of the jobs in the region, and embark on a project that can't be finished in time for the World Cup unless every skilled worker in the Auckland region is diverted to its construction. It will be like building the pyramids.
This saga began 18 months ago when the Prime Minister flew around the world in election year to help get the World Cup for New Zealand. No further thought was given to the 60,000 seat stadium that is a condition of the deal until Rugby World Cup minister Trevor Mallard looked at his watch and noticed the time was ticking. The easiest and cheapest solution would be to make additions to Eden Park into which huge treasure has already been poured over the years. The Trust Board has plans and timetables, and could just manage that job in time. However, the Prime Minister who lives two streets away, suddenly realised with a jolt the cost of her electioneering. But instead of imitating other cities where new stadiums are usually built away from the central city, options like the scarcely used Avondale Race Course have been swept aside. Instead, Mallard descended on Auckland's waterfront. The difficulties of his chosen site were carefully explained to him. Experts say that piling alone on the unstable land-fill will take 18 months, and cost a minimum of $100 million. Designs, consents and construction will take another 36 months at least. And the stadium needs to be completed 12 months before the Cup to iron out teething problems. It just can't be done in time.
Meanwhile, Mallard seems to have got it into his head that since the waterfront is in public ownership as part of the port, the Bledisloe Wharf site can be snatched without cost as a kind of Christmas present from the Auckland Regional Council. Reducing its assets, and mucking up the port from which the ARC's subsidiary Auckland Regional Holdings extracts revenue for public transport, appear to be mere bagatelles. That's tomorrow's problem. Why should he worry?
With Wellington dithering, even upgrading Eden Park is starting to become a challenge. Experts estimate that a waterfront stadium on Bledisloe Wharf will cost at least $500 million. It would be necessary for workers to build $1 million's worth of construction for each available working day between the go-ahead and the completion date. But a Cabinet decision keeps being pushed back. And meanwhile the Eden Park Trust Board twiddles its fingers, wondering whether they are on or off. The impact of a rushed waterfront stadium on every other piece of building in Auckland will be so vast that some of the country's most experienced construction companies are reliably said to have decided not to tender.
When Caligula spoke, minions jumped to attention. In what must rate as one of the silliest TV appearances of recent times, Auckland's deputy mayor goofily announced his council's backing for the new stadium, then added that his Labour-dominated council had no idea of the ultimate cost, the extent that ratepayers would be expected to contribute, the parking problems, or the immediate or long-term effects on the port or the region. Coming on top of Auckland City Council's own 24,000 seat, ratepayer-funded, and as yet unfinished arena across the road from the proposed new site, one is left with the feeling that those in charge of our national and local government purse strings desperately need the attention of men in white coats.