Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a Herald columnist looking at Auckland and national issues

Brian Rudman: Democracy kicked out the window

If it wasn't my money they were after, the sight of John Waller, the chairman of Bank of New Zealand, Hugh Burrett, the former chief executive of ASB Bank, and Greg Muir, former chairman of Hanover Finance, cap in hand together at the Auckland Town Hall, trying to touch up Mayor John Banks for a $40 million loan would be hugely amusing.

They're members of the Eden Park Trust Board, and need the money urgently, because, in the words of banker Waller, "the banks won't lend because the park can't service it ..." With not even their closest banker mates willing to float them a loan for old times' sake, who are they now trying to shake down?

The trusting saps who have to pay their rates to Auckland City. Egging them on is Rugby World Cup Minister Murray McCully.

To his credit, Mayor Banks has said he will not commit ratepayers to anything until the board provides a business plan and budget to show it can repay and/or finance the loan. Though how reassuring such a document will be must be a worry. Only three years ago, the board undertook to raise $65 million by way of a $17.5 million loan and $47.5 million from sponsorship sales. At the time, Eden Park development committee chairman Rob Fisher said "Eden Park has a sustainable business plan and will not require ongoing operating support or subsidisation from central or local government ..."

That these representative Auckland businessmen appear to think it right and proper to regard ratepayers as funders of last resort when their stadium finances go awry, is a scary lesson to Aucklanders on the eve of the region's rebirth as a "business friendly" Super City. It will be similarly upright commercial pillars of society, people who think and act like the Government appointees on the Eden Park Trust Board, who are likely to be running the hugely powerful and badly misnamed "Council Controlled Organisations" that will be spending most of our rates in the new city set-up.

Yet these men - and one woman, former National Party president Michelle Boag - seem to think this sort of money can be plucked from the city vaults without resort to the normal democratic budgetary and consultative processes that local government expenditure normally has to undergo.

If this is an example of the sort of efficiencies the business community had in mind when they led the battle for Auckland governance reform, Auckland democracy could be in for a rough ride. Auckland City ratepayers are also under extreme pressure from Mr McCully to stump up $100 million to fund the government's and the port company's desire for a luxury cruise ship terminal cum World Cup "party central" on Queens Wharf. Again, pressure from without to short-circuit the consultative and budgetary processes required by law.

Given the backseat role politicians will occupy in the Super City model the Government is now pushing through, Eden Park and Queens Wharf are worrying straws in the wind. Regional council chairman Mike Lee recalled recently how former ARC member Professor Dick Bellamy had told him "he couldn't believe that the Wellington bureaucracy would in the end allow the creation of an empowered regional government for Auckland. How right he was."

Like many Aucklanders, Mr Lee and the ARC welcomed reform of Auckland local government. However, "behind-the-scenes lobbying by political and vested interests" have "subverted and compromised the original Super City objectives". He says that "instead of one unified and democratically accountable body in Auckland there will now be three - the Auckland Council, the so-called Super City, a giant new water company, Watercare and a mega transport bureaucracy, Transport Auckland." He says "only one of them, the Auckland Council, will have democratic representation and accountability". Most of the important regional insfrastructural responsibilities will be devolved to these, and other CCOs.

The Transport Agency, which will spend more than half the annual rate take, will meet in secret with no publicly available agenda.

Mr Lee is blunt. "Aucklanders have been bilked. Most of the powers of the present local government in Auckland will be devolved to unelected, unaccountable CCOs - no doubt to be stacked with the usual businessmen."

The sort of businessmen who, freed from the shackles of democratic oversight, might find it easy to dip into the rates pot for a $40 million top-up for a stalled stadium project and $100 million for a fancy wharf shed.

- NZ Herald

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