Len Brown: Dead Man Walking
Is Len Brown really going to keep on shuffling his way towards political oblivion?
Originally published in the January/February 2015 Metro, on sale December 18.
Paul Henry’s TV show veers from the idiosyncratic to the idiotic, but it was a new low even for him when he blamed Len Brown for the chaos on Auckland roads caused by the recent crash on the harbour bridge.
As Henry correctly stated, once the ambulances had gone the chaos could have been largely averted if the police had photographed the crash site and cleared the road. But he went on to blame Brown for the hours of delays, suggesting in the midst of his habitual giggling and sniggering (sniggling? giggering?) that if the mayor wasn’t so obsessed with “his train set”, the roads would work properly.
How you can blame the mayor for the actions of the police, whom he does not in any way control, is beyond me. But why let a little fact like that get in the way of a good sniggle?
The real problem with this nonsense, though, was that yet again it propagated the idea that Len Brown is foisting a stupid project on us with scant regard for financial or democratic proprieties.
Once more with feeling: the underground City Rail Link (CRL) is not “Len’s project”. It is supported by all the councillors — and they just voted 17-3 not to acquiesce to the government by delaying the start date until 2020. The CRL is also supported by the Auckland Chamber of Commerce, the Committee for Auckland, Heart of the City and many other civic groups. And the government itself, for that matter.
Yes, it’s going to cost money, and no, they have not yet decided where the money will come from. That’s not a reason to reject the whole thing, but it does indicate why we need to debate it properly. Preferably with less giggering.
Next up, the Herald on Sunday, not to be outdone by a self-important upstart on late-night TV, produced what was surely the most preposterous story of the year: Len Brown is getting a private bathroom off his new office, and the entry is hidden behind a bookshelf. Somehow, this is wrong because Brown had an affair two years ago so who knows what he might do in there now. They even had infographics that made the place look like a crime scene — and a photo of Brown and his former mistress, Bevan Chuang, doctored to show them together.
The only good thing to say about this ridiculous smear is that it’s a good thing Paul Henry didn’t think of it first. He would have wet himself.
And let’s not forget Mike Hosking, who had earlier chimed in — not with sniggly innuendo, to his credit — with an old-fashioned and very desperate “Who’s going to pay for it all?” plea in his Herald column. In Hosking’s view we should forget transforming the city and just go back to the way it was.
The drums are beating. And whether or not you’re as dismayed as me about some of the attacks Brown has to put up with, that’s a problem. He has lost popular respect. We hear stories at Metro of business groups, schools and community groups, all reluctant to invite the mayor along to launch their new project, hand out their prizes, be their guest speaker. These things matter: they’re the way the mayor connects citizens with the larger life of the city and bestows civic value on their activities.
Len Brown has also lost his nerve. In his year-long desire to hide from controversy, the big projects he’s been associated with — the CRL, progress on the Unitary Plan and, of course, the management of rates — have dropped from sight or now appear to be in difficulty.
It’s often said we need Brown because he embodies an exciting vision for the city, and it would be a disaster if he were to go. That’s simply not true.
True, he did articulate a vision, but making Auckland a modern, efficient, exciting and extremely liveable city is now the mainstream idea we have about this place. But Len Brown is no longer in the forefront of promoting it.
On the contrary, whether you are talking about transport reform, urban regeneration, education initiatives, housing options or the future of the container port, Brown is muddling along in the middle. He’s been laggardly on transport issues; he’s actually voted against housing density initiatives; he’s been silent on the port.
He’s a dead man walking. People with good ideas tell stories of meeting Brown, being impressed by his enthusiasm, and then waiting, and waiting, while nothing happens.
There are nearly two more years before the next council election. If Brown continues like this and stands again, he will lose. But it’s not conscionable for him to drift along and then resign at the end of it either. So what’s he going to do? Here are three suggestions:
1/ Spread your wings, Len. Take a few risks. What have you got to lose? There are lots of issues to choose from: housing, education, the port… what about a major project to restore the glory of the West?
2/ Restructure your office. Dump half those political advisers and bring in a kind of kitchen cabinet of bright minds, empower them to get things done, and be brave about backing them.
3/ Fight back. When they start in with that sniggling, go on TV and rip their heads off.
Photo by Jane Ussher.