Fran O'Sullivan on business

Business analysis and comment from Herald columnist Fran O'Sullivan

Fran O'Sullivan: Seizing control of fan zone surreal

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Public safety concerns about the big crush were played down by Murray McCully on Saturday. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Public safety concerns about the big crush were played down by Murray McCully on Saturday. Photo / Steven McNicholl

The Government's decision to invoke emergency powers so it can run a major Auckland sporting "fan zone" is an extraordinary signal to the outside world that it regards New Zealand's commercial capital as incompetent.

Murray "Muzza" McCully's talent for micro-management will again be exercised as a result of the Government's decision to seize control of the enlarged Party Central for the duration of the Rugby World Cup.

It is obvious that Muzza's panzer movement is the result of a prime ministerial kick in the proverbial to any Cabinet minister who could be construed as bearing even part responsibility for Friday's fiasco.

But McCully had been under strict orders to do "whatever it takes" to ensure the Rugby World Cup is an outstanding success.

Invoking the Rugby World Cup Empowerment legislation so that the Government of New Zealand can take control and run a fan zone is quite an extraordinary and surreal move.

Surely, the Government and Auckland Council could have agreed on a joint plan of action to provide a bigger fan zone rather than this very public undermining of the Super City's growing confidence.

This was not in the original script for either the Rugby World Cup or Auckland City.

Cynics will say that in the wake of the Christchurch earthquakes, the Government has simply got a taste for calling the shots.

Those same cynics - and the National-led Government's opponents - will also note the proximity of the Rugby World Cup to the November 26 general election.

And it is hard to reconcile this heavy-handed action with the stance the Cabinet minister took on Saturday.

Back then McCully played down concerns that public safety had been put at risk as a result of the big crowd that crushed into limited waterfront space for the opening celebrations.

On Saturday, it was all simply a major stuff-up by Auckland transport.

The disturbing scenes down the bottom end of Queen St late on Friday night were no different to that of any other Friday or Saturday night. So the police were said to say.

But maybe McCully has since listened to the views of influential foreign visitors who had come to Auckland for the Pacific Islands Forum and stayed on for the opening match.

Some of those visitors told me they decided their safety could have been compromised if they had gone down to the waterfront for after-match festivities.

The new plan to commandeer Ports of Auckland's wharves - adding the Bledisloe and Captain Cook wharves to the swept-up Queens Wharf facilities - will vastly expand the space available to partying fans.

Assuming no drunk fans drop into the drink, the new zones should alleviate public safety worries.

But why didn't the Government simply push for this in the first place?

It was Prime Minister John Key, after all, who promoted the relatively small Queens Wharf as Party Central.

The upshot was the event planners from the former Auckland City Council and Auckland Regional Council switched attention away from the original proposal to have a number of decentralised fan zones across wider Auckland operating in time for the opening game celebrations.

And why didn't McCully listen to Michael Barnett earlier in the piece?

A fortnight ago, Barnett - who was hand-picked by McCully to take charge of the Cloud project - said he expected some 120,000 to 150,000 Aucklanders to roll up to the wharf for Friday's party.

But the council's managers still seemed to have been operating on much lower numbers. Surely those on either side of the red fence talked and listened to each other?

McCully's move will inevitably be read as a huge vote of no confidence in the Auckland Council.

Two years ago, Key let senior business people know that he rated a successful RWC series as number two on his priority list, ranking behind New Zealand's economic performance and ahead of the restructuring of Auckland governance.

Ensuring that international rugby visitors and New Zealanders thoroughly enjoy the experience of this wonderful six-weeks-long spectacle would be top of the PM's list.

But the Rugby World Cup also has to work well for New Zealand as a positioning statement to entice visiting corporate VIPs to put the country in its sights as a potential trade and investment partner.

The economy is still being sorely tested.

The Christchurch earthquakes have led to a major re-risking of New Zealand by international reinsurers.

The problems in the eurozone and elsewhere have the capacity to slow global growth and impinge on our economic recovery.

So it is important that New Zealand does put on its best face.

As for McCully, it's not really a high risk move to grab this particular ball. It's not as if Key has charged him with actually winning the cup.

- NZ Herald

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