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Vic Crone: fighter, tunnel digger, but where are her friends?

Vic Crone: fighter, tunnel digger, but where are her friends?

Sep 1, 2016 Politics

Vic Crone came out swinging. She’d heard the criticisms: she didn’t have any big ideas, she didn’t have any concrete plans, she didn’t seem to have a coordinated National Party behind her, even though she was their designated surrogate candidate.

So at her official campaign launch last night she made a feisty speech and announced a big new policy. And she allowed the National Party to run the show. This is how it went.

The policy was to bring forward by 10 years – to 2020 – the start of the new tunnels under the harbour, and to ensure they include a “rapid transit public rail corridor”, although she quickly clarified she was open to bus or rail, depending on the economic analysis still to be done. She had identified $150 million of council money to kick it off. She expected council would contribute a further $600 million over time.

But it would be a “government-led project”. This was a high-stakes game: Vic Crone is attempting nothing less than to rewrite the government’s transport agenda. It can be done, of course: Len Brown did it with the City Rail Link. But currently the government does not plan to start the next harbour crossing until late next decade and has no commitment at all to a rapid transit component.

This is why it’s such high stakes. Ministers don’t like being backed into corners, especially by their own protégés.

Just 8 days earlier Crone herself had repeated that line, at a public meeting in Milford, when she explicitly rejected a call to support a rail tunnel crossing and said roads would be the focus (see the September issue of Metro, in shops now). She seemed surprised to discover how much support for a rail crossing there was in that meeting.

What a difference a week makes. The polls have Crone trailing badly behind Goff, and she knew she had to produce something big, bold and attention grabbing. The harbour crossing plan does that in two ways.

First, it will suck North Shore votes away from John Palino, the Nimby champion who did well north of the bridge last election. The Shore skews conservative and winning it well is critical to the success of any centre-right candidate.

Second, and perhaps more significantly, the plan provides a measure of her political skill in handling the government. This is why it’s such high stakes. Ministers don’t like being backed into corners, especially by their own protégés.

So did Crone sit down with the Prime Minister and get approval for her proposal? She says no. She has talked to the Minister of Finance, Bill English, and the Minister of Transport, Simon Bridges, but she won’t say if they support it.

In the wake of the announcement, RNZ has reported that they will “look at it”.

So what happens now? If the ministers find a way to signal they are working constructively with Crone to make the idea work, they will help her credibility enormously. On the other hand, if they do that and she loses, they may be saddled with a commitment to fast track a project that isn’t on their fast-track list (and it’s already quite long).

But if they fudge the whole thing and avoid a commitment, or the appearance of one, they will risk making Crone look politically impotent.

It’s brave of her. Is it smart? If they’ve got a plan, it might be. But if this is her just trying to push their buttons, not so much. Either way it’s not obviously a plan to king-hit Phil Goff with, which is what she needs. Can Bill English help her turn it into that? Does Vic Crone really have friends in high places?

 

ENGLISH WAS NOT at the campaign launch, which was no surprise: he’s not an Aucklander. But none of the Auckland cabinet heavyweights were either: Steven Joyce, Paula Bennett, Judith Collins, Murray McCully, Jonathan Coleman and John Key himself were all missing.

Instead, she was blessed by the presence of ministers Maggie Barry, Paul Goldsmith and Nikki Kaye. The National Party was all over this meeting. MC duties were shared by MPs Mark Mitchell and Alfred Ngaro (Mitchell, you may remember, is the Rodney MP whose way into Parliament was cleared by Cameron Slater and friends in a brutal internecine campaign, as detailed by Nicky Hager in his book Dirty Politics. Slater, in case you’re wondering, can’t stand Crone).

This was the old National Party. I don’t think I’ve seen a crowd like it since the Citizens and Ratepayers days of John Banks.

As for the crowd, it was overwhelmingly made up of middle-aged blokes – the ones with that tough closed look of men who didn’t get to where they are today by taking any shit from anybody. The women were a bit younger, largely members of Crone’s networks of women in business. Nearly all of them, women and men, were Pakeha. Local MPs like Melissa Lee and Jian Yang turned up, but they did not have supporters in tow. While the National Party in Auckland has made itself strongly and proudly multicultural in recent years, there was precious little evidence of that last night.

This was the old National Party. I don’t think I’ve seen a crowd like it since the Citizens and Ratepayers days of John Banks.

And make no mistake, those blokes were running the show. The first four speakers were middle-aged men, including Mitchell, who managed effortlessly to patronise Crone (“I like to set her little tasks”). Crone’s former Xero boss Rod Drury appeared on video to reveal that when she had told him she was resigning to run for office, “We were all quite shocked.” I’ll bet. Then the video froze, preventing us from discovering how he felt now. (They got it to play eventually. He admired her and wished her all the best.)

The fifth person and first woman to speak was councillor Denise Krum, who said, “The future of Auckland is going to look very different than what it does now.” She meant they were going to “get things done”, which is what all politicians say. Jenny Shipley, also on video, reprised her slightly creepy sliding vocal style as the last speaker.

Very oddly, there wasn’t a single woman from Crone’s own world, friend or colleague, who got up to sing her praises.

Between Shipley and Krum, though, we were treated to Waitemata ward hopeful and sometime raconteur Bill Ralston, who introduced himself as an “independent candidate aligned with Auckland Future”, adding, “I like Vic Crone.”

He got stuck into Phil Goff (who is also an “independent” candidate but actually a long-time Labour MP). “Phil Goff has never had a job in his life,” Ralston said, which got him a bit of mild cheering. It was an odd jibe, given that Goff’s job description (politician) is one Ralston himself now aspires to.

“He’s never had to fill out a GST form. He’s never filled in a tax form,” he added. I suppose if “work” is defined as an activity done exclusively by accountants, small-business owners and the self-employed, then he might have a point. But sneering at politicians never really goes down well in a room full of people who actually are politicians, or married to them, or spend half their time working for them and wanting to be them.

Very oddly, there wasn’t a single woman from Crone’s own world, friend or colleague, who got up to sing her praises.

Ralston’s a likeable bloke, though, and he plays it well, and while his big punchline was hardly original (“Goff’s a retread looking for a retirement job”) he got a big laugh. Crone’s mentor Michelle Boag felt emboldened enough to shout out, “And tell him to give our bloody colour back!” She was referring to Goff’s use of blue in his campaign, instead of the traditional Labour red.

Boag, as it happened, was wearing a strikingly eye-catching orange pair of platform loafers. Along with Nikki Kaye’s cerise jacket they struck pretty much the only bright note in the room. Ralston wore a very smart brown check jacket, although his habitually shambolic jeans rather undermined the effect.

 

CRONE WAS IN WHITE. After five men and two women had spoken, it was her turn. “OK, fabulous,” she began. “Thank you so much for coming out tonight…” She’s got a way of saying “so much” that feels like she’s spooning warm custard all over your face.

She thanked her daughter, who was there, at length. And her parents, also there. She’s talked about her family at some other meetings and it usually goes down well. People connect. She doesn’t do it enough.

Then she trotted out a marginally refined version of the speech she’s been giving for weeks. “Liveable doesn’t inspire me.” She wants the city to be “smart, inclusive and competitive”. Rates have risen too much, council costs too much, there are too many staff, public confidence it terribly low.

She doesn’t mention, of course, that all the candidates want low or non-existent rates rises, a more efficient council and strong measures to restore public confidence. She’s not running against an incumbent and she hasn’t worked out how to stop treating Goff as if he’s Len Brown.

She said, “I want to inject a bomb under them [the council] and get action for Auckland”. She didn’t explain what the bomb would be.

The Albany ward candidate, voice of the future and distinguished political visionary Graham Lowe, was in the room, wandering around looking quietly stunned, like someone had slapped him with a large wet fish.

She said, “I will not outsource the regeneration of Auckland to central government.” She didn’t explain that either. What can she mean? No one is proposing to hand the running of the city to the government. And yet Auckland needs government help to fund infrastructure – she recognised it herself with her harbour crossing announcement. So whoever is mayor will need to work closely with Wellington. She’s not saying anything different from Goff on this.

She called Goff a “career politician who cannot understand the challenges”. She said he was “holding onto the past” and had spent “30 years with the same answers”. Then she shouted, “Show us the money, Phil!”

It was all most peculiar. This is the late bloom of Goff’s career, to be sure, but it’s hardly credible to say of any politician who’s stayed in the Labour Party for the last 30 years that they’ve stuck to “the same answers”. Labour, and Goff with it, are plainly no longer disciples of Rogernomics.

And what money should Phil be showing us? He says he’ll fund his plans from council efficiencies, PPPs and a small rates rise – just like her. He’s also open to road-user charges in certain circumstances, which is a greater commitment to a new income stream that she has made.

Goff’s strength is his experience: he’s a safe pair of hands. He’s not ineffectual, he’s a seasoned administrator. His weakness is his record: what’s he done? Which Goff-driven initiatives have made our world a better place? She could slap him around for that, but she doesn’t.

Crone said she had been working with “a group of potential councillors” and that this level of collaboration was “unheard of”. That’s just not true. Len Brown, and before him Bob Harvey, Barry Curtis, George Wood and other local mayors have all been skilled at working with councillors to maintain support for their programme. John Banks ran a caucus too.

What is unheard of, for the last six years, is centre-right collaboration. Ominously for Crone, though, the centre-right councillors she’ll need to win over (Christine Fletcher, Dick Quax, Sharon Stewart, Linda Cooper, Bill Cashmore, Calum Penrose) were not there.

Voice of the future and distinguished political visionary Graham Lowe wandered around looking quietly stunned, like someone had slapped him with a large wet fish.

But never fear. The Nats, through their front organisation Auckland Future, have got this. The Albany ward candidate, voice of the future and distinguished political visionary Graham Lowe, was in the room, wandering around looking quietly stunned, like someone had slapped him with a large wet fish. Apart from Krum, who is already on council, Lowe is the best chance Auckland Future has of putting “fresh new faces” onto the governing body. He’ll be 70 in October.

Sue Wood, the leader of Auckland Future and herself close to 70, was also not at the launch.

 

CRONE RAISED HER VOICE to tell the crowd, “Make no mistake, there’s only one vote that counts!” Which must have been slightly hurtful to Lowe, Krum, Ralston and everyone else in the room hoping we will be bothered to vote down the ticket and elect them, whether to the governing body of council, or to a local board or a health board.

She didn’t mention housing or the Unitary Plan. She supports the City Rail Link “100 per cent”, but doesn’t talk about it “because it’s already happening”.

She pitched herself as someone with “creative solutions that solve multiple problems at once”, although she gave no examples.

She believes the council-controlled organisations (CCOs), especially ATEED (Auckland Tourism, Entertainment and Economic Development) are wasteful and should be brought under the more direct control of council officers. She wants to “downsize ATEED and strip out the bureaucracy”.

But she also believes the council officers are wasteful, so she wants to clean them out too. “The CEO should be finding savings,” she told media after the launch, “but I don’t believe we’ve found enough.” She’ll want to bring in a smaller, leaner cadre of highly skilled change managers.

Why hasn’t she got an exciting team of people around her? What does that tell us? That talented creative people don’t trust her or that she doesn’t know how to harness their talents? Or both?

That will sound appealing to many. But remember: it’s exactly what was done when the super city was set up. The first CEO, Doug McKay, had been head of Independent Liquor and before that Lion Nathan, Carter Holt Harvey, Goodman Fielder and Sealord.

And that’s the thing about Vic Crone. She’s dead right the council wastes money, and for that to change the officials need to be answerable to more able and determined political masters. She’s dead right that Auckland needs a more substantial vision than the empty-sounding “liveable city”, especially given the potentially disastrous failures of policy in housing and transport. And she’s dead right the council does not think very creatively about the future.

She’s right about many things, but does that make her right for the job? She’s allowed herself to be surrounded by time-servers, hacks and half-arses. The embittered (in the local body world), entitled rump of old National. Almost none of them share the next generation future-focused energy she likes to portray herself as having.

Why hasn’t she got an exciting team of people around her? What does that tell us? That talented creative people don’t trust her or that she doesn’t know how to harness their talents? Or both?

She sprays complaints into the wind and often they’re so misdirected and contradictory you wonder if she has any idea what she’s talking about. Is it inexperience, which she will learn from? Is she a cunning strategist or a self-aggrandising high flyer with minimal people skills who is, very publicly, being found out?

Are those new tunnels under the harbour going to save her or bury her?

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