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Will the new mayor be able to keep a promise to close the port?

Jul 1, 2016 Politics

Read more: The Long read: Power Play at the Port

Auckland’s three top-polling mayoral candidates, Phil Goff, John Palino and Vic Crone, have all promised to close the container port and used-car lot in the CBD. So, too, has Bill Ralston, the independent candidate for the Waitemata and Gulf ward that the port despoils. They are backed publicly by likely prime-ministerial kingmaker and Northland MP Winston Peters and privately by John Key. Transport Minister and Tauranga MP Simon Bridges is ready to say publicly he will rejig the government’s long-term transport plans for the top half of the North Island if Auckland Council, the owners of the port and the land and foreshore on which it stands, make clear to him it has had its day. Those who believe a container port and used-car facility are really the best use of at least $3 billion of prime CBD land now have no option but to vote for fourth-ranked mayoral candidate Mark Thomas.

That every serious mayoral candidate and our poll-driven Prime Minister from Parnell have the same view is no coincidence: supporting the progressive closure of the port’s container and used-car operations, but keeping the ferry and cruise-ship terminals in the CBD, is now the only viable political position. It is an idea whose time has well and truly come.

Closure of the port’s container and used-car operations is an idea whose time has well and truly come.

Despite this, don’t bet your rental property on it actually happening. The status quo and further reclamation are backed by an unholy alliance of the conservative end of the business community and the waterside unions. They have inordinate influence over council officers and elected officials. Ralston’s Waitemata and Gulf rival Mike Lee, for example, is among the staunchest advocates for the status quo. Outgoing mayor Len Brown has argued the port is necessary to ensure there are blue-collar workers in the CBD, overlooking the people who clean up after him every night. His Port Future Study was set up to deliver a recommendation against change. It was framed at the outset as being about “the future of Auckland’s port”. The language was all about whether it should stay or be “moved” within the immediate region.

To put it mildly, this is a somewhat Soviet way of looking at the issue. Only an Auckland Council bureaucrat could think that a port is something that can be picked up and plonked elsewhere. Ports just aren’t the sorts of things that get moved. They are things that open, expand, retrench or close. Consequently, if the owners of the CBD port choose to progressively transition the area to better uses, they don’t really need to do anything else. There will be an immediate market response and the very first component is obvious: Northport and Tauranga will pick up the slack. That is exactly what happened during Auckland’s 2012 waterfront strike, with no negative impact on the export or import economies.

With certainty, there will also be market responses no mere magazine columnist will ever think of. Perhaps Fonterra will work out that, like its emerging competitors, it should be flying fresh milk out of Hamilton to China rather than destroying its value by turning it all into powder. Over time, Bridges and his successors as transport minister will progressively shift resources from getting ever more containers in and out of the Auckland CBD to developing a better road and rail network linking Auckland, Whangarei, Hamilton and Tauranga. The flow-on in terms of regional development and real-estate values is obvious.

The vested interests who support the CBD port have on their side the ownership, governance and management structure that Rodney Hide imposed on the new Super City seven years ago when he was Local Government Minister. It was designed to stop venal politicians issuing orders to directors and executives of council-owned businesses to serve short-term political goals, and prevented Brown and his cronies from interfering on behalf of the unions during the 2012 strike.

Perhaps this is fair enough: Neither Brown nor anyone else had an electoral mandate to intervene. But the same ownership structure is also a barrier to a mayor and council implementing a clearly defined policy for which they do have a public mandate.

Not a single councillor should be elected who will do the bidding of the port Establishment.

When the new mayor is elected, he — and it seems fairly safe to use that pronoun — has no obvious mechanism to deliver on a promise to progressively close the port’s used-car and container operations. Between the mayor and that decision sit the board and management of Auckland Council Investments Ltd (ACIL), which owns the port, and then the board and management of Ports of Auckland Ltd (POAL). The mayor or his chief executive could write to the ACIL board suggesting it suggests to its management that they suggest to the POAL board that it suggests to its management that they might want to look at the matter… but we know just how effectual that sort of thing is from how impotent the mayor was during the reclamation controversy. It is possible the ACIL board could regard as invalid even a formal shareholder resolution on the matter at a special general meeting, as could the POAL board. Alarmingly, ACIL’s board is now dominated by directors who don’t even live in Auckland.

After the election, Goff — and it seems fairly safe to use that proper noun — will face formidable pressure from the union and old-school business Establishments to break his port promise. Even if he dares stand up to them, the ACIL and POAL boards and management will do their utmost to thwart him. To see him through that fight, Goff needs a clear and unequivocal mandate on the issue. Not a single councillor should be elected who will do the bidding of the port Establishment. And if Goff fails to keep his promise in full, he must be under no illusion it’ll be him sailing into the sunset in 2019.

Photo: Alistair Guthrie.

Read more: The Long read: Power Play at the Port


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