Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Mayoralty race a rich man's sport

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With an Auckland campaign far more complex than any other, why not let councillors choose the super city's leader?

If the election spending limit were cut, Len Brown wouldn't suffer because he has the advantages that come from being the incumbent. Photo / Dean Purcell
If the election spending limit were cut, Len Brown wouldn't suffer because he has the advantages that come from being the incumbent. Photo / Dean Purcell

Nice try, Mr Mayor! Taking advantage of another burst of publicity about his rival John Banks' embarrassing brush with the law over campaign expenditure in the 2010 mayoral contest, Len Brown is calling for a reduction in the official spending cap for next year's mayoral joust.

He says the current ceiling of $580,000 is too high and "could mean the election is ... bought by a wealthy candidate". Setting aside the obvious, that despite this so-called obstacle he, the man from deprived Manukau with just $390,000 in the kitty, swept the floor with millionaire Banks just two years ago, there's also the huge advantage he doesn't mention: being the incumbent.

It's easy to suggest the campaign budget be trimmed back to $370,000 - the combined campaign spending limits of the eight mayors he replaced - when you are the sitting mayor with an annual budget cap for your own fiefdom of $5.7 million.

Last year, Mr Brown and his 23-strong mayoral retinue managed to spend only $3.2 million, but it's the sort of ratepayer-funded headstart that even a very, very rich rival would find incredibly hard to match.

It is true the spending limit for Auckland mayoral candidates is around nine times more than the next largest councils, Wellington and Christchurch, where the spending limit is $70,000. But the Super City mayor is a totally different beast from the one heading any other local authority. Not only did he have an elector base in 2010 of 959,200, he also now has executive powers, more akin to a president, than an old-style mayor.

With the huge electorate, Mayor Brown's suggested campaign cap of $370,000 would leave candidates with just 40c to spend on each potential voter. With the postage on a standard letter now 70c, the problem facing a candidate trying to communicate with voters is obvious.

Of course, the incumbent is sitting pretty, with a team of official mayoral and council publicity staff, pumping out pictures and news releases day and night, promoting his good works.

The reality is, in the one-man-band style of local government leadership that the Government has created for the third of New Zealanders who live in Auckland, even the present maximum campaign limit of $580,000 is inadequate to enable a "presidential" candidate to get their message out.

Not that I'm arguing for it to be increased.

The mayor is correct in saying that needing a campaign budget of $580,000 means chasing the Auckland mayoralty is a rich man's sport. Either you have to be rich yourself, or be the handmaiden, as it were, of rich backers. And/or, as in Mr Brown's case, have the advantage of being the incumbent.

Of course there is another way of ensuring the mayoralty doesn't become the trophy of the rich and that's to abolish the presidential system that loads the dice in favour of such an outcome. The old system of electing the mayor at large was bad enough, but compounding the problems by giving the Auckland mayor additional super powers, along with a multimillion-dollar personal budget, has made Auckland a less democratic place.

Power has gravitated to the mayoral enclave and to the mandarins at the top of the bureaucracy, with the councillors and the local boards left struggling to find a meaningful role.

My preference at the time of reform was for a parliamentary system, with the mayor elected by, and from, the pool of successful council candidates. Instead of being restricted to mayoral candidates able to raise the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed for a region-wide campaign, Aucklanders would gain a mayor who'd won not just the support of the voters in one ward, but also gained the backing of a majority of his elected colleagues.

As I wrote before the first election, instead of a system that encouraged the show ponies and the eccentrics, a parliamentary system would deliver us a mayor who was part of an elected team. When the mayor spoke, it would be as leader of the majority of councillors, not as one person who might, or might not, get his programme through. A true representative, accountable 365 days of the year, not just once every three years.

As importantly, councillors would feel more relevant than many currently do. It would also remove the problem of the campaign spending cap.

- NZ Herald

Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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