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Colin & Bob & Len & friends

Feb 20, 2014 Politics

What makes a politician unfit for office?

Here’s one for Colin Craig. The celebrated English playwright of manners and morality Noël Coward once declared that he would like to sing the song “There Are Fairies in the Bottom of My Garden”, but he didn’t dare, because it might come out as “There are Fairies in the Garden of My Bottom”. You see that, Colin? A sense of humour.

Craig is right to believe his political opponents should not tell lies about him. He is also smart enough to know that complaints will be ignored but threats to sue will lead the news. But was Greens leader Russel Norman wrong when he said Craig believes gays should “stay in the closet”? Who could doubt that Craig, had he been in Parliament, would have voted against every piece of liberalising homosexual law reform in our history, including the 1986 Act that allowed gays, for the first time, to come legally out of the closet? Maybe his views have changed, but how would we know? Since declaring his run for Parliament, he has been busy reconstructing his own world view.

As Steve Braunias discovered this issue, Craig is a Christian conservative who sort of wants us to believe he might be something else. That reluctance to be tied to a position is a strangely common trait among politicians who claim a strongly moral dimension (think John Banks). Why don’t they just stand up for what they believe? Pragmatists, we understand. Judgy moralists pretending to be pragmatists, not so much.

The big worry about Colin Craig is not his sometime moralist views nor his wacky grasp of history. It’s his attitude to climate change.

Does any of this make him unfit for public office? I would say no, although I think it does make him less fit. The big worry about Colin Craig is not his sometime moralist views nor his wacky grasp of history. It’s his attitude to climate change.

He can knock himself out with conspiracy theories about Moon landings, for all I care, because it’s hard to see the harm in it. But the prospect of his being in government, when he wants to prevent any efforts to deal with climate-caused threats to the planet, is genuinely worrying.

What else makes people unfit for public office? Bob Harvey, former mayor of Waitakere and now chair of the council’s very powerful body, Waterfront Auckland, makes some extremely startling personal revelations this issue. Turns out there’s an element of his personal belief system which, while shared with hundreds of millions of other people, is not widely regarded in this country as suggesting an especially sound mind. Does it matter? I can’t see why. Does it undermine his ability to do his job? Why would it? In fact, we’d all be better off if there were more, not fewer, genuinely idiosyncratic figures in public office, wouldn’t we?

Fitness for public office. We better talk about Len Brown. It is suggested he has lost the confidence of Aucklanders (recent evidence: he was booed at the opening of the Nines at Eden Park). On the other hand, a senior council official told me he had been surprised, when out with Brown, how many people come up and say they stand by him.

Brown’s people say he has won back his traditional supporters, including the religiously minded Pasifika and Maori communites of the south and west. But, they add, in the eastern suburbs and to the north, where few people ever voted for him, the opposition continues to rage. His political opponents, I’ve noticed, now use their best scoffing tone when talking about the mayor. “Shambles” is a favourite word.

Does that disdain flow through to central government? Both the Prime Minister, John Key, and the minister in charge of many Auckland things, Steven Joyce, have been publicly sceptical of Brown’s credibility. Yet things are clearly ticking over. A major new tower block will be built on that dreadful vacant lot on Elliott and Victoria streets and, as will soon be announced, it will contain a top-of-the-line Ritz-Carlton hotel. In Wynyard Quarter, a billion-dollar development, including another top hotel, is about to be announced — and Brown and Key have both been instrumental in closing that deal.

Such projects suggest relations between Auckland and Wellington continue much as they have since 2010. The government disparages Brown in public, he sucks it up, and the two sides do the business behind the scenes. A classic example: Brown called the government out on the underground rail link, offering to put some council money into making an early start. Joyce, not able to help himself, said, “Yeah, nah.” But watch that space. Developers in Queen Elizabeth Square and at the Elliott St site want work beneath their sites to progress, and it’s not likely the government will stand in the way.

I’m astonished he has brazened it out. Getting booed by a sports crowd must really hurt.

There are three or four councillors who will barely give Brown the time of day, which undermines his consensus approach a little. But it’s only three or four. Brown probably finds it a bit harder to get majority support for proposals now, but it’s too early to tell how significant that is.

Is he fit for public office? I wrote last year that he would be gone by Christmas. I’m astonished he has brazened it out — getting booed by a big sports crowd must really hurt. His supporters say he remains the only person able to lead the transformation of the city. That seems absurd. And yet, short of a new scandal, he will probably last the full term. Could he win another? That’s hard to believe, whatever anyone likes to think about voter loyalty in the south and west. In my view, it behoves his supporters to start sorting out a successor.

The onus is still on Len Brown to prove he really is fit for office — not in the moral sense, but in the pragmatic sense that he can get the work done. Surprisingly — I’ll admit it — with the big moves on property development, he has started the year well. Mind you, we’ve also got his obituary this issue, courtesy of David Slack.

Photo by Alistair Guthrie.


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