John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: McCully uses authority to keep Nats in power

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Murray McCully. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Murray McCully. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Few politicians routinely get such a bad press as tends to be the case with Murray McCully. The starting point seems to be if McCully is involved, then that means trouble, much of it unnecessary.

The assumption is that if McCully is involved, then the only winner will be short-term politics. He is most definitely a pure-bred political animal; the politician's politician, if you like. He makes no apologies for that.

What the public does not see is the backroom adviser and fix-it man. Someone who can bang heads together to get things done. His razor-sharp political instincts and ability to think through the consequences of a particular course of action have saved National from embarrassment many a time.

McCully, however, conformed to the public's image of him this week with his offhand treatment of a popular mayor who is not even a year into his new job.

McCully will not care one jot about that. Len Brown may have kudos, authority and, most importantly, a mandate for change in the Auckland region from having won a political beauty pageant otherwise known as the Auckland mayoralty.

As Minister for the Rugby World Cup, McCully is more interested in scrutinising the findings of National's private tracking polls - and determining whether the major glitches on the opening evening of the 2011 Rugby World Cup are likely to impact on National's ratings.

National's worry is not so much what happened last weekend, but that there might be an embarrassing repetition this weekend, even though the All Blacks were scheduled to play their next group match in Hamilton last night.

A repeat is not going to be allowed to happen - whatever that takes. A successful World Cup is of bedrock importance to National's election campaign. Whether the All Blacks win or lose is almost irrelevant. That is one thing for which McCully (perhaps thankfully for him) has no ministerial responsibility.

As Otago University political scientist Bryce Edwards has noted, the political component lurking in all the fuss over the cup is plain, old-fashioned, all-round competence - National's.

The cup serves as a litmus test of National's competence in wider aspects of government which voters find more difficult to judge. Likewise National's handling of the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes.

Get those two things right and National is halfway back to the Treasury benches in Parliament before November's election campaign has even begun.

What is notable is that in both cases the Government has relied on its own agencies and given itself sweeping powers to basically do what it likes.

In doing so - and without saying so - National has shown what it thinks of the capability of local government to respond to a crisis or the pressures involved in running a special event.

Not very much. And that was even before Brown's Auckland Council not only failed its first major test on the cup's opening day, it failed it in miserable fashion on two fronts, with the overcrowding on the waterfront and passenger-packed trains stranded on the line to Eden Park.

In its report on the Friday chaos on the waterfront, the council-controlled Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (Ateed) revealed that contingency plans had been drawn up which would have doubled the waterfront fan zone in area, while regional fan zones were mooted for the city's north, south and west.

However, the plans were dropped because it was thought they would not divert people from otherwise heading for Party Central.

Access by ticket to Queen's Wharf was also considered, but deemed infeasible. It may yet be revived.

It is also understood that one or two weeks before the cup began Ateed considered "activating" Captain Cook Wharf as a contingency site for an expanded fan zone. There is puzzlement within the Government as to why Ateed was thinking of doing that only then to not follow through on it.

That step has now been taken by McCully's invoking of emergency powers under the Rugby World Cup 2011 Empowering Act.

Given the high political stakes, McCully would have had not the slightest compunction in using those powers. He may have cut Brown's feet from under him. But McCully was not going to be hostage to local government.

What would have disturbed him is the almost self-congratulatory tone of the Ateed report accompanied by a manana-like sense of urgency. That report is in sharp contrast to Auckland Transport's separate and more revealing report on the shortcomings of its rail contractor, Veolia, which failed to implement measures recommended after August's Bledisloe Cup match despite giving assurances it would.

Such assurances go to the heart of the blame-game and the crucial question of ministerial responsibility. Who should take the wrap for what went wrong - McCully, Brown, Transport Minister Steven Joyce, Ateed, Auckland Transport or Veolia?

Labour, not surprisingly, went for McCully and Joyce. However, the lack of any direct chain of accountability - for example, between Joyce and the incidents which created the rail snafu - saw Parliament's Speaker Lockwood Smith decline Phil Goff's request for a snap debate on Tuesday.

The next day Goff narrowed the focus by accusing the two ministers of "an absolute failure of ministerial oversight".

According to briefing papers, the Minister for the Rugby World Cup is responsible "for leading co-ordination across all the government agencies involved in supporting a successful tournament".

There have been no obvious failures of co-ordination between government agencies.

There have been failures of oversight with regard to non-governmental agencies. But McCully - and for that matter, Joyce - were given assurances, for example, that the trains would run as promised, that Auckland Transport had the arrangements for the cup peer-reviewed by an independent body and that there were contingency plans.

Without the power to intervene in the day-to-day operations of Auckland Transport, McCully and Joyce had no means of checking the validity of such assurances.

The vexed question of ministerial responsibility has been answered by McCully's invoking of emergency powers.

He knows if something else goes badly wrong at Party Central, his neck is the one on the block.

As for Brown, McCully this week slayed one myth which circulated during the creation of the Auckland super city.

We now know its mayor is most definitely NOT the second most powerful politician in the country.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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