New Auckland City Council
Years ago, many Australian federal politicians worked out that their party's interests were best served when state governments were run by their opponents. I well recall a couple of friends in the Hawke Government whispering to me that they hoped Labor wouldn't win in whichever the state was that was going to the polls. Difference meant each could blame the other for problems. Some are arguing that Labor's current domination in all the Australian states, hurt Mark Latham in the recent federal election.
Which is why I have difficulty understanding why Helen Clark's government put so much effort into ejecting John Banks from Auckland's Town Hall. Sure, Banks sometimes went out of his way to insult people, and he conspicuously failed to court the media - both of them unfortunate lapses in a job that an old councillor friend of mine once described as being "all covered in bullshit". But Banks could run a council, and he wasn't as crazy as he sometimes sounded. With one or two exceptions like the V8 car race, his priorities sat squarely with those of most Aucklanders. For instance, he favoured the eastern motorway, like more than 60% of them. And he had a fair record on preserving Auckland's waterfront and beaches. More importantly from central government's point of view, he worked along with them over the recent local government changes and new funding arrangements. In other words, he could be managed.
The new Auckland Council looks much more difficult for the Beehive. For a start, new mayor Dick Hubbard comes across as completely out of his depth. Each day he seems worse than anyone imagined. Inexperienced, bereft of political skills, and unable to convey to councillors much sense of personal authority, he has been out-manoeuvred on all the important early decisions that a new council needs to take. When asked on National Radio straight-forward questions by his erstwhile business colleagues about where he stands on issues, Hubbard rabbits on as though his first vote and his casting vote in a tight situation aren't matters of public interest. Such is his naivety that his deputy mayor, Bruce Hucker, Mr 3 per cent in the pre-election polls, armed with a bagful of 1960s hard left wish lists, has managed to knee-cap his mayor so severely that it's hard to see him ever running again. It isn't a good look for Helen Clark, and by general election time next year Auckland's dysfunctional council will probably be a real headache in Wellington.
Why did the Prime Minister and her acolytes throw their weight behind the unknown Dick Hubbard, and such an extraordinarily flaky City Vision council list? Of course there were pushy people wanting to ride locally on Labour's coat tails. That's life. But Helen Clark had the ability to restrain them if she'd wanted. It is my belief that the Beehive suspended its normal shrewd judgement because too many ministers came to believe the New Zealand Herald's rubbish about Auckland City, its rates and its priorities, printed during the last term of council. A handful of journalists led by Bernard Orsman were allowed to indulge constantly in beat-ups about Auckland City's spending cuts. Scare stories proved baseless. The hacks became obsessed with John Banks and editorialised against him in virtually every so-called news report they wrote. The purported "rates revolt" was pure media fabrication. By mid year 2004 a higher proportion of Auckland's ratepayers had paid up than the previous year. At the regional level, the Herald journalists' guru, David Thornton, whom they designated leader of their so-called "rates revolt", missed out badly at the polls. North Shore electors couldn't be so easily fooled.
As Auckland City Council unravels, and two Hobson ward hard left supporters who hoodwinked their voters into believing they weren't, are exposed, there is bound to be fall-out for central government. Bruce Hucker's outmoded priorities, not to mention the bees which others have in their bonnets, are bound to cause substantial rate rises next year. New rate demands will arrive just in time for next year's general election campaign. Dick Hubbard and his City Vision victory could very likely dent Labour's Auckland support. The Herald that caused so much unpredictability is now trying to run a mile from their irresponsible campaigning, but has only succeeded in making itself a laughing stock. The Labour Government has more at stake. The message should be clear: it's always wise to think ahead, not just respond to impulses. Especially from the flakier end of town.