Greeks Bearing Gifts
My grandfather loved homilies about money. "Look after the pence and the pounds will look after themselves" was one. In execrable Latin he would give a version of "what you don't need is dear at any price". I was thinking of Grandpa again when Trevor Mallard, like the Greeks, came to Auckland bearing a gift: a waterfront stadium to host Rugby's World Cup.
First Aucklanders don't need it: the world trend these days is to make temporary, removable additions to existing facilities for one-off events, rather than construct mausoleums that will seldom be re-filled. Secondly, the minister himself admits his $500 million price tag is almost certainly understated, and that there will be huge flow-on costs all of which Auckland will have to carry. Since the government is talking cost-plus arrangements with favoured construction firms, cost over-runs are inevitable. Talk of $1 billion total outlay could be conservative, especially after Ports of Auckland are compensated for their land and the impact the construction will have on port operations. Most distressing of all is that the taxes being touted to fund the waterfront stadium are the same sources of revenue required for things Auckland desperately needs, like infrastructure. And the rest of New Zealand won't want to dig deep for Auckland's real needs after the stadium.
The waterfront stadium carries huge risks. Yet, Aucklanders are being invited to exercise a "free" choice by this Friday between it and Eden Park, while Trevor Mallard continues to load the debate in favour of his chosen option. Using methods reminiscent of the European corporate states of the 1930s, local politicians and private companies are being cajoled into seeing the world through his spectacles. The process has destroyed any remaining reputation of the Mayor of Auckland. He was photographed a few weeks back jumping for joy at the thought of an expanded Eden Park, but has since become the minister's poodle. The city council has collapsed like a scrum. If we were playing a game of rugby, Trevor Mallard would long ago have received a red card.
Consensus had been building in Auckland around decisions that need to be taken so the city can foot it with other major Pacific centres like Brisbane, Sydney and San Francisco. Infrastructural improvement is the central goal. New Zealand's poor economic performance between 1960 and 1990 meant we could only fix potholes, not construct roads and bridges and power systems. Auckland's electricity supply resembles one of those ancient crystal set radios that one banged to obtain sound. The nearly completed Spaghetti Junction motorway reconstruction looks as though it will be barely adequate to handle the volume of traffic that has grown during the building phase. Delays will continue. Commuters will still burn unnecessary fuel in traffic jams. Commerce is constrained. Second crossings are needed for both harbours, as are widened approach roads to the north, south, east and west. Auckland public transport has a huge appetite for subsidies too. In other words, if there's a billion dollars to spend, a majority of citizens are suggesting more urgent needs than a great white elephant with a monkey on its back.
Auckland has been seeking assistance from Wellington for years. Former regional chair Phil Warren secured an assurance from ministers before the 2001 local elections that diesel standards would be lifted to international grade so as to reduce the fine particulates that New Zealanders breathe in. Our diesel is dirty by first world standards, and it's a serious problem in congested areas. Five years later, nothing has happened. Yet our Greeks come bearing a stadium.
Sudden ministerial inspirations destabilise local planning, too. Long awaited plans for redeveloping Auckland's waterfront aren't far off. They are badly needed. Auckland's waterfront is an eyesore. But a stadium isn't part of those plans. Already costly, they would need to be rethought. The division between Aucklanders over the stadium is between those who understand the value of money, and those who don't care.
Where in all of this is the National Party? It used to talk of principled decision-making and leadership. Will they dismount the fence now local polls are trending in favour of Eden Park? National used to be business friendly. Don Brash recently made bold promises about infrastructural improvements. Can National snap out of its torpor? Right now taxpayers' and ratepayers' money could be wasted on a grand scale for something Aucklanders neither need nor want, and which, as grandpa would have said, is dear at any price.