Michael Bassett: Diversion tactics follow raids on the piggybank

Last Thursday's gathering of Auckland mayors and Prime Minister Helen Clark was no more than a gathering of political robbers in search of a diversion.

Having been caught with their hands too deep in the ratepayers' pockets, and about to face bills for the Rugby World Cup, the mayors wanted to divert attention by raiding Auckland Regional Council assets.

The Labour Party has been caught red-handed tickling the taxpayers' till for election purposes and wants headlines that don't say "Field" or "$446,000".

Government, too, faces extra bills because of the World Cup. In a fit of pre-election hype, Helen Clark flew around the world to help secure the event, but now seems reluctant to pay to redevelop Eden Park.

Facing a hiatus in the growth of central Government's revenue, mainly because of bad economic decisions, Labour wants someone else to pay for the World Cup.

As a former Minister of Local Government with a lifetime interest in it - and married to a regional councillor - I can't help laughing about the meeting which turned Auckland's Town Hall into a thieves' kitchen.

Several mayors who are past their sell-by dates ganging up against other mayors, then pointedly excluding the Auckland Regional Council, wanted to fight old battles against the ARC.

The mayors opposed the 2004 restructuring of Auckland's assets where the Labour Government, then still in visionary mode, returned Infrastructure Auckland's assets to the Regional Council for stormwater and public transport projects.

Suddenly the mayors had lost the piggybank they had been emptying for years. The revenue from Ports of Auckland and Infrastructure's liquid assets was instead directed towards helping solve Auckland's regional needs.

Instead of deciding to trim past extravagance and re-examine priorities, the mayors first decided to up their rates, and then to see if they could persuade Government to return their piggybank. Helen Clark, of course, is happy to talk anything but election spending.

The humorous thing about the robbers' convention was that none of the participants had anything more than a short-term diversionary goal. Reorganising Auckland into one big city would require much careful thought about how to ensure the "local" stays in "local government".

There are serious issues, such as the likelihood that in planning matters one big city could become judge and jury in its own cause.

There would be costs in amalgamation too, just as there were when I oversaw the 1989 restructuring that converted more than 700 local bodies in New Zealand into 93.

If there are to be savings from reorganisation, there will be the short-term costs of expensive redundancies.

Moreover, just forming one city won't fix councils' extravagance. The new body would need people capable of exercising discipline with public money, and new rules.

The assets of the ARC that the mayors want to pilfer aren't a new source of money that would lift the yoke off ratepayers. The port and the ARCs investments that are handled by Auckland Regional Holdings produced about $90 million last year, much of it going towards Auckland's costly public transport.

Shifting the piggybank back to the tired old mayors would simply mean the money for transport and stormwater would eventually have to be found by ratepayers or taxpayers.

The Government could, of course, allow the port to be sold, and the ARC's liquid assets could be run down. But the ARC's asset can be spent only once.

The danger is that the mayors are each looking at what will probably be a last term in office. Labour is desperate because it faces the same challenge. So pinching the assets has an immediate attraction.

The long-term future of Auckland could be sacrificed for the short-term needs of people who have already given us every scrap of leadership they once possessed. Reorganisation doesn't solve the costs associated with getting Eden Park up to standard.

Representatives of the ultimate beneficiaries of the tournament, the Rugby Union, seem to want everyone else but themselves to shoulder the huge costs, while the Government - which two years ago basked in the reflected glory of winning the chance to stage the event - has turned mean.

If Aucklanders can resist being distracted by this game-playing it will be better for us all in the long run. We could restructure local government in a more considered manner with cost-benefit analyses, instead of doodlings on the backs of mayoral and prime ministerial envelopes.

* Michael Bassett was Minister of Local Government from 1984 to 1990.

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