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Wanted: one mayor

Aug 19, 2015 Politics

If Phil Goff is the answer, we have to ask a better question.

The mayoral election will be on us next year, which means the serious candidates should be walking among us now. So far, we’ve got precisely one: Phil Goff, the only man in Auckland who can keep a smile pasted to his face for longer than Len Brown. His intentions are not official, but they’re clear.

Brown himself continues to suggest he’s standing again. “Got it in the bag,” he declares to anyone who asks. Is he deluding himself? Or perhaps he knows he can’t announce his retirement yet because that would undermine his ability to keep doing the job for the year to come.

We’ve said it before: Len Brown will be thought of quite well by history. He’s the leader who gave voice to the reinvention of Auckland. He has wrangled a working majority on council across party lines and through two terms, in an environment where a lot of people want him to fail.

He has also presided over a steady rise in the quality of our top city officials. He inherited a lot of the CCO leaders and other key people from the old councils and central government appointments, but since the early days of the supercity Auckland’s civic leadership has grown stronger and more effective. Brown’s CEO Stephen Town is the most influential person in all that, but Town couldn’t be as effective if Brown stood in his way.

Still, Len Brown will not remain our mayor. Whatever his achievements, he’s unelectable. He lacks popular credibility, he lacks party and organisational support (Labour supports Phil Goff for the job) and he lacks financial support. All those people Brown thinks are telling him he’s their guy? They’re just being polite.

Besides, Len Brown has run out of puff. He’s not out front on the reinvention of the city anymore, but scurrying around in the background. Whether it’s the future of our port (see page 42), the intensification of housing or proposals for a new east/west freight connection, he has been, at best, muddled. He will do his own cause — the creation of a great “liveable” city — no good by clinging to the illusion that he can win again.

So, Goff? Couldn’t we just have a law that says mayoralties cannot be used as retirement sinecures for ageing politicians?

Jokes. There are some ageing politicians I’d be happy to see remain in one kind of office or another. (Don’t we all hope there will always be a role for Winston Peters, although not in actually deciding who gets to be the government?)
But what does Phil Goff stand for?

The problem of finding good mayoral candidates for Auckland is mirrored at council level, where there is a similar dearth of talent emerging to shake things up. It runs deep, and it’s a surprise. The super-city was supposed to make Auckland such an economically and socially vibrant powerhouse, it would attract a high quality of candidates for public office. Why hasn’t that happened?

Partly, it’s because when the old fogeys hog the limelight — not just Goff but, even more incredibly, Maurice Williamson and John Banks — it’s hard to blame ambitious younger people for deciding they’d be better off going to the beach.

Partly, it’s because the major political parties have difficulty taking Auckland seriously. National siphons its political hopefuls out of council and into Parliament: government ministers Paul Goldsmith and Sam Lotu-Iiga, and MP Jami-Lee Ross, were all councillors here. No doubt, like Goff and Banks, one or two of them will eventually expect to retire to the mayoralty.

Like National, neither Labour nor the Greens have made it a strategic goal to promote high-quality younger candidates for Auckland. In the past we’ve proposed Jacinda Ardern for mayor, and we’re serious about it still. Why would she want to waste her life in perpetual opposition, in Wellington, when she could lead an exciting city like this one?

It’s not just about Ardern. Auckland Council looks like a provincial political backwater because too many of the councillors treat it that way. It could be so much more, and it should be.

The deepest problem is that the super-city is sabotaged in Wellington. Regardless of whether you support the council’s long-term plan or the government’s different set of priorities, it’s clear the capital has the power to stop this city in its tracks. And it uses that power.

This is the fundamental reason we need better local politicians in Auckland: we need civic leaders with the ability to seduce the government. As it happens, this is also the main reason Len Brown cannot remain as mayor: strange as it may seem, his skills of seduction do not work at cabinet level.
There’s something else at stake. The council administration is strong, which is good for the city provided the elected council is also strong. Our accountable representatives, not their officials, should be in charge.

So, fellow Aucklanders. We need a great council, and we need a great mayor. If you want to be a great politician, do it here where we need you most. Otherwise, we’ll get Goff.

This editorial appears in the September issue of Metro, on sale Thursday.


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