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Wayne Brown — The Gunslinger

Former mayor of Waitākere BOB HARVEY talks to some of the contenders for the Auckland mayoralty. This instalment: former Far North mayor and Russian newspaper owner WAYNE BROWN.

Wayne Brown — The Gunslinger

Oct 8, 2022 Politics

Wayne Brown sees himself as the next mayor of Auckland, the only man ready and able to fix the city’s woes. Former two-term mayor of the Far North, he thinks he’s got the nous and ability to restore the largest city in Australasia to its “former glory”, whatever that means.

With the abrupt departure of Leo Molloy, Brown sees himself as the front-runner. Humility is not part of his make-up. He looks like a gunslinger right out of the Wild West, tall but scrawny. No one would call him charismatic — he simply doesn’t do charm. Geeky and technocratic, he’s an engineer with little sense of humour or obvious kindness, but he surfs and plays a mean banjo in a pub band called Hangi Stones. He’s not shy in telling anyone that he’s made an enormous amount of money. He has been married to his wife, Toni, for more than 40 years but he’s not giving away how old he is. He feels ageism is the newest form of discrimination.

Brown’s remaining ambition in life is “to make Auckland less of a shithole”. He’s uneasy with crowds and he doesn’t have a clue how to coordinate what he’s saying with a PowerPoint. He keeps his notes scrawled on his hands in ballpoint pen and he looks upon his fellow mayoral candidates with contempt. Many who have to listen to them may agree that this is the one thing he’s right about. Though he does confess that he respects Efeso Collins, all the others are “idiots”, “plonkers” and “fools”.

Brown is a stick of dynamite in search of a match. He trembles with rage when he has to deal with an opinion that conflicts with his own. If he wins, how he’s going to get on with a disparate bunch of councillors — people not of his choosing or persuasion — is anyone’s guess. He saves his worst scorn for departing mayor Phil Goff and government minister Phil Twyford. “Two clowns,” he says, who don’t understand infrastructure or how to run a business. How he will deal with central government is a mystery. He’s full of radical ideas and strong convictions, but simply has no idea about how to sell them.

At candidate debates, Brown can sound like an angry talk-back caller whose family avoid sitting next to him at Christmas, but when he’s on his game, he can seem like the only candidate in the room who could get the job done. He might be just what Auckland needs.


BOB — Wayne, is there anyone you like?

WAYNE — Few people. I’m not here to be loved or liked. I don’t see myself as warm or friendly. I see myself as a fixer. I’m an engineer and I build things and that’s why I’m standing for the mayoralty of Auckland because I and I alone have got the knowledge to get things done. I’ve done it before in Auckland and I can do it again.


BOB — How you are going to pull together an often dysfunctional council that you haven’t personally had a hand in delivering? And coming into the job full of talk about cleaning out the dross and the council staff, whom you consider overpaid and useless and incompetent? That’s a hell of a threat!

WAYNE — I think Aucklanders will agree with me. Council staff are out of control. There are too many, and they are overpaid, and in these difficult times they are not accountable. There are floors of them and this has happened under Goff ’s leadership. I’d take him to the airport tomorrow and put him on a plane to his next high-paid desk job in London. My first job will be to start cleaning out the plonkers that are currently ruining Auckland, then I will get to the serious business of redesigning the city as it should be. Sorting out the chaos that has developed over the last six years — the cones, and the transport nightmare — and finishing the important public transport projects that are under way. Congestion charging could be a revenue grab, and I need to negotiate a clear way forward with this policy. I’m certainly not going to let it be left to Auckland Transport, who I have no time for and who I intend to bring under the Auckland Council.


BOB — What do you think is Auckland Council’s biggest crime?

WAYNE — There is no pressure from council to finish anything. For instance, the road between Warkworth and Wellsford is a state highway but it’s actually a major city linking road and it’s been under construction for 10 years! I’ve never heard the mayor say anything about it — where is the anger over this?


BOB —  Do you think the Super City been a success?

WAYNE — I think the idea of it was good but the institution of it has been a failure, mainly because for the last six years it has been really poorly run. Not even run. Poor leadership at the mayoral level. If the Auckland Council was a company and you saw the results, you wouldn’t re-elect the board. Simple as that. You’d call for their resignation.


BOB — It goes without saying you are not fond of the council-controlled organisations (CCOs). On day one, you’d call for their departure.

WAYNE — You are spot on. They are a waste of time and space, and they are on the chopping block as far as I’m concerned. I believe that they need to be quickly and seriously revalued and I intend to get rid of them as quickly as possible. They were a bad idea that’s just gone wrong.


BOB — Wayne, you are putting a lot of effort into telling people how you fixed Auckland, but that was 20 years ago. It’s a long bow to say you are going to fix everything again.

WAYNE — When the power went off in Auckland and stayed off for six weeks [under power supplier Mercury Energy in 1998], it made headlines around the world. Helen [Clark] needed someone to fix it and she thought of me — ‘Brownie’, as she calls me with affection. I consider her a lifelong friend. I came down from the Far North and got to work. In 14 days I’d sorted it, the power came on and Auckland breathed a sigh of relief. [The year after the crisis, Brown became chairman of the new lines company, Vector, which installed new cables and later developed a tunnel from Penrose into the CBD to safeguard its electricity supply.] When Helen felt that the Auckland District Health Board needed the Brownie treatment, she turned it over to me again. I remember gatecrashing a council meeting to tell them that disabled people couldn’t even reach the ticket dispenser in the parking lot and Graft on Bridge was so jammed that ambulances couldn’t get to the hospital. How bad is that? It was that dysfunctional. I said to Mayor [Dick] Hubbard, “You wouldn’t know how to run a dunny.” They got the message. I don’t do things to be liked. I achieve what I need to and set out to do. I’m a man on a mission and Auckland hasn’t seen anything yet. Every large-scale business that I have gone into to solve their problems, I can tell you honestly, I have succeeded. Every single one. That’s not a bad track record.


BOB  — In 2019, you put together a great document, the Upper North Island Supply Chain Strategy, reviewing the Ports of Auckland. It’s a superb document — it could be one of the best things you have ever done — a true legacy showing the way to organise the ports of New Zealand to work in unity and not divisiveness. Yet you say both the Auckland Council and the government have not read it. Your critics would say that this is your own fault, due to your attitude of handing it over to both the mayor and the government in a threatening way. Surely there must have been a better way to get this report over the line?

WAYNE — The Ports of Auckland are a disaster and a disgrace. They don’t pay rates and Auckland gets nothing out of it. Why is that? I can fix it in a day. Everyone pays rates and that’s how it should be. The most valuable land in Auckland is at the bottom of Queen St and currently it’s a free carpark for importers of cars and that needs to stop. I intend to do just that. It is an excellent report. It was commissioned by Shane Jones and I brought together some of the best thinkers on port design, management and a future for the Ports of Auckland to be reconfigured, reduced in size to get the trucks off the roads and a rail system running and linking the Ports of Auckland with both Tauranga and Whangārei, which just makes bloody sense. Yet, tragically, it has sat on desks unread.


BOB — You haven’t had a great run with the media. Many of your promises have been shot down as being unrealistic. Your comments on infrastructure have been widely criticised as simply out of touch. Where do you stand on understanding the infrastructure of these massive projects? You have been highly critical of others, calling them bartenders and idiots, while you claim to be an expert. Have I got something wrong here?

WAYNE — I believe I am totally able to understand the massive projects like the Auckland rail project — over budget and late in delivery, as is every other project that Waka Kotahi puts its hands on. It’s an absolute disaster. I understand tunnelling and I understand transport and construction.

BOB — It sounds like there’s nothing you don’t know.

WAYNE — You’re right. My company has built multiplex cinemas in Wellington, and the South Pacific Pictures studios in Auckland where they have shot Shortland Street for decades. I own major buildings all over the North Island and I owned an airline in the Far North. I own a pub in Onehunga and a newspaper in Russia and, while I’m on the subject, I need to tell you I was born in Auckland. I went to Auckland Grammar and I have an apartment off K’ Rd, so I’m not some once-over-lightly carpetbagger from the Far North.


BOB — Wayne, you seem to want to do everything yourself. I don’t know if “kicking against the pricks”, as you’d say, is the way to run a city or manage councillors — who don’t work for you. As you know, there have been some classic failures of local government — divisive mayors like Tenby Powell in Tauranga, which resulted in commissioners coming in to run the city. You’re coming in with threats and sweeping generalisations, so how do you expect to run a team of councillors? By now half of the staff are crapping their pants as you ride in for a showdown.

WAYNE — It’s a big bloody mess and I’m good at fixing big messes. Auckland Council turns over $6 billion, it has 12,000 staff, it’s losing $3 million every day, it owes $16 billion and that’s rising, and there are half-finished projects everywhere. It just has to stop. I don’t need the money and I have the time — in fact, I’m the perfect candidate.

BOB — If I hear you right, Wayne, on winning the mayoralty you are going to go through the CCOs, the 12,000 staff and committee chairs, and just clean them out?

WAYNE  — I intend to ask for the resignation of all the chairs of the CCOs on my first day of office, and then I will start with sorting out the council staff and that will signal what I think is a long-overdue and much-needed process. I’m a man on a mission and I’m not stopping until I’ve finished the job.

BOB — But do you need the stress?

WAYNE — Right now there are more road cones than voters. That’s the state of Auckland. It’s a sorry place and it needs someone to show strength, determination and guts. If I don’t get the job, they will remember Wayne Brown for at least trying. I’d be more stressed if I stood back and didn’t put my name forward and saw Auckland get worse than it is already. That would really annoy me — all of those council workers will still be on their fat salaries and Auckland will be heading downhill fast. But remember me at least for trying.

This feature was published in Metro 436.
Available here in pdf format.


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