Electing the next president of republic of Auckland

By Ewan McDonald


It's been called 'the republic of Auckland', and it's simple to draw a few parallels with that other Land of the Free and Home of the Brave when election time comes around. Which, for those who don't have it red-pencilled or logged into their calendars yet, is less than a year away; postal voting for the second term of the merged Auckland local bodies closes on Saturday, 12 October, 2013.


Cast the mind back to the last go-round. Voters were asked to choose between a left-ish candidate from an unfashionable district out of the established centre of government - outside the motorway, rather than outside the Beltway - or a rightist multi-millionaire with extensive local and national political experience and the support of big business (yes, he's the Minister for Small Business now, but that was then).


 


 


Remember the political colours are reversed from the USA. Our red-tinged candidate ran a campaign based on flamboyant oratory and performance; his blueish opponent exuded the expectation of success. Red's staff worked the phones, the fundraising, the ground-level vote; blue had the bucks to spend but appeared distant, complacent, in denial even when the result was becoming obvious.


The first term has not been unlike someone else's just-completed first term, either. The first Mayor of Auckland had a resounding mandate and a crashing deficit inherited from the shotgun marriage of former councils.


He faced hostile opposition determined to block his most cherished initiatives - from Wellington, from the unwieldy half-bureaucracy, half-corporatised structure imposed on the region, from councillors.


Some of that would have happened to whichever candidate won, but there was clear pique and bloody-mindedness from those down South who didn't get the result they expected.


Some might even draw a Venn diagram of the unexpected President's difficulties in re-framing tax breaks for the very richest Americans against the unexpected Mayor's headaches over an equitable rating base from Te Arae Point to Herne Bay, from Ranui's back-streets to the Clevedon shires.


As Stephen Franks, the constitutional lawyer and former Act MP, pointed out in the Herald recently, writing about the V8 debate:


"The law setting up the Super City deliberately created a presidential mayoralty and gave councillors no clear rights to information. It certainly does not protect council officers who want to provide unbiased information to councillors against the wishes of their bosses, the chief executive and the mayor. The law may have been drafted out of frustration with years of indecision fuelled by endless reporting and consultation as excuses for inaction. Perhaps the law's designers chose to give elected dictatorship a go instead ...


"The Auckland mayor holds central power in a hybrid Westminster/presidential system without separation of powers. Unlike all other mayors in New Zealand he is not first among equals. He is the boss."


In 11 months Aucklanders - or, more correctly, the minority that bothers to vote - will choose the new boss. Will he or she be the same as the old boss?

Len Brown, like President Obama during his year-long electoral campaign, has the power of incumbency, the perception ingrained through media presence, name recognition, turning up and shaking hands at hundreds of events from school pet-days to old folks' 100th birthday parties.


He can also bank on Aucklanders getting more familiar with the one-council setup, even if they don't fully comprehend its machinations, except when their rates and Watercare bills land in the letterbox or inbox.


So, where will the opposition find a candidate to oppose him? It's hard to see a viable option inside the right-leaning members of the council, someone with pan-Auckland appeal, with the possible exception of the Communities & Ratepayers co-leader, Christine Fletcher.


She has local and national cred as a one-term mayor of the old Auckland, as an Epsom MP and Cabinet Minister (oops: that may not be a selling-point these days). She can point to championing Britomart and opposing the unpopular Eastern Transport Corridor. But she also has baggage, and it's hard to see her style triumphing over Brown in an electoral street-fight.


The oft-touted name is Cameron Brewer, the former Newmarket Business Association CEO. It's hard to find fault with Bernard Orsman's recent assessment in the Herald:


"Brewer is leader of the [council] opposition, and more effective than the entire C&R team combined. Some accuse Brewer of being a self-publicist, but there is no more effective councillor at getting their name in the media. Brewer has unashamedly positioned himself as the leading opponent of Brown and provided an alternative voice. The ambitious Brewer says he has no plans to challenge Brown next year. He is probably too far to the right to lure the middle ground."


Here's another similarity with the US Presidency: while the Prime Minister is the leader or chairman of the party that can cobble a majority in Parliament, Auckland's Mayor is elected in a separate contest from the council or the local boards.


Mitt Romney was Governor of Massachusetts from 2003-7 but hadn't held any elected position in national government. So the opposition could look outside for a maverick candidate with the appeal and policies to unseat the sitting Mayor. It's happened before in old Auckland - in 2004 Dick Hubbard, as an independent, came from "nowhere" to thrash John Banks and, er, Christine Fletcher.


Care to give odds on anyone risking their reputation, and nest-egg, on taking up that challenge? The iPredict "stock market" in future political and economic events is offering these punts at time of writing:


Tim Shadbolt to be re-elected Mayor of Invercargill 96.7%; Dave Cull to be re-elected Mayor of Dunedin 85.8%; Julie Hardaker to be re-elected Mayor of Hamilton 85%; and Len Brown to be re-elected Mayor of Auckland 72%. Considerably better odds than Bob Parker in Christchurch (51.8%) or Celia Wade-Brown in the capital (43%).

- THE AUCKLANDER

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