Fran O'Sullivan: Brown's victory a mix of style and substance

Len Brown took a note out of John Key's book by using Antoine's as a campaign venue. Photo / Dean Purcell
Len Brown took a note out of John Key's book by using Antoine's as a campaign venue. Photo / Dean Purcell

One of the great untold stories of Len Brown's mayoralty campaign is the series of private lunches he held at Tony Astle's superb Antoine's restaurant to woo some of Auckland's most influential business people.

Antoines is also John Key's favourite Parnell haunt. With wife Bronagh, he is a frequent Sunday night diner.

Aucklanders won't know for a couple of months yet just how successful Brown was in converting those hardcore business people into financial supporters. But good taste counts.

And anecdotal evidence suggests he defused worries in some of the nation's most powerful boardrooms that Auckland was on the verge of electing an emotional cot-case.

Brown, at least, had a plan. John Banks had platitudes.

Brown comprehensively out-campaigned Banks. His first-class team outgunned Banks' tired old campaigners.

They bearded the enemy in his own den. Banks stuck to the CBD. They got the vote out.

When it came time for the Herald's Great Mayoral Debate, Brown's team sent me a well-articulated economic development strategy.

Banks' paper was clearly "on the fly".

So, we can feel some confidence that our new mayor has thought deeply about Auckland's future.

But if Brown wants to retain that hard-won confidence (who can forget his embarrassing meltdown on national television?) he should not insult us by continuing to give fatuous responses to two vital questions: Where did the money come from for his campaign, and just who will ultimately fund the three big rail projects he has vowed to make his priority.

Brown's default position is to obfuscate when challenged on these issues. But there is a 55-day gap between the date the Auckland Council election results were confirmed (yesterday) and the date when the first Mayor of Auckland will have to disclose where he got his funding from and where he spent it.

It is obvious that Brown's election campaign was very expensive. His television advertisements successfully proclaimed the simple message: he would be the "mayor for all Auckland".

But even if he got the creative at a knock-down rate, the prime-time television spots would have come with a very juicy price tag.

Unfortunately, our new mayor was less than candid when asked where his election funds came from on last Sunday's The Nation programme.

He told TV3's Duncan Garner that people loved him and gave him "gold coins". It is no doubt true that Brown did receive many "gold coins" from South Aucklanders.

But it would take an awful lot of coins to make up the $579,560 total that Brown would have had at his disposal, if he had received enough donations to spend up to his legal limit.

The Auckland Council election rules say each mayoral candidate can spend $100,000, plus 50c for each elector in the three months immediately preceding the election.

With 959,120 Auckland voters registered, that equates to a potential spending top-up of $479,560 over and above the $100,000 baseline.

Intriguingly, there are no limits on what can be spent before the three-month period kicks in.

The rules say the mayoral candidates have to disclose the name and address of each donor and the size of the donation.

Donations can be made anonymously. And it would appear from Brown's reference to "gold coins" that he may well have received a lot of donations that way.

But there is a strong public interest in knowing which business people and corporates backed the new mayor and how many of them were the very developers who stand to benefit from big-ticket infrastructure spending.

The media gave Brown an easy trot on this score during the election campaign. His standard response was to say the mega-billions needed to fund his big three projects - the inner-city rail loop, CBD-airport link and rail link to the North Shore - could come from four possible sources; Auckland Council or central Government funding, infrastructure bonds and private-public partnerships.

What Brown neglected to say was that all four "cash" sources basically boil down to debt-financing. This has to be serviced by rail passenger fares, or directly by Auckland ratepayers.

The Government has made it clear it will not bankroll all three projects. It is not going to help fund an airport link any time soon (combined bus and taxi lanes through Mt Eden and/or Dominion Rds would be a short-term solution); but the inner-city rail loop is quite likely to win Government backing.

Frankly, if Brown showed he was prepared to tackle hard political issues like congestion charging - which could result in more motorists switching to public transport - he would be better placed to negotiate an accommodation with the Government.

Back to Antoine's. It's worth noting that Astle's fulsome donations to the National Party created a great deal of excitement when it was disclosed he had chipped in $105,000 to party coffers in June because he "loved" John Key.

I doubt Astle presided over Brown's fund-raising lunches with the degree of alacrity he employs to help National. But all sides recognise the power shift. How long will it be before Len and John switch to Antoine's for their own dinner dates?

- NZ Herald

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Head of Business for NZME

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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