The $500 million Auckland waterfront stadium plan received a boost yesterday when Rugby World Cup Minister Trevor Mallard said unanimity was no longer needed for it to proceed.
Mr Mallard shifted the goalposts when he briefed the Auckland City and regional councils on the Government's "strong preference" for a national stadium on the waterfront over the "poor second option" of Eden Park.
Last Friday, Mr Mallard was unequivocal: "If you can't get unanimity, Auckland, you get Jade [Stadium in Christchurch]."
But yesterday, he said he had asked both councils to give an order of preference and did not want them vetoing each other.
"If, for example, the Auckland City Council says its preference is for Eden Park but the waterfront would be acceptable, and the Auckland Regional Council say Eden Park is definitely a no, then you would go to the waterfront," Mr Mallard said.
The councils have seven days left to choose between the waterfront and a $385 million Eden Park upgrade.
Auckland City councillors will decide on Thursday, followed by the ARC on Friday.
A political source in Wellington said Mr Mallard was determined to keep his dream of a waterfront "national stadium" alive after effectively handing the decision to Auckland.
The minister, who leaves on a trip to Canada today and will be away for much of next week, has stood firm against the barrage of criticism levelled at the waterfront site.
"They are big issues, but I think they can be broken down," he said yesterday.
"In bars all round Auckland tonight people will be discussing this ... "People will be discussing this across fences and on buses, and I think people are coming to views."
Waterfront backers have been shocked by the intensity of the Eden Park Trust Board's campaign to ensure the traditional home of rugby is upgraded as the main venue for the 2011 World Rugby Cup.
The board says the waterfront stadium would cost $902 million, rather than the Government's $500 million estimate.
It based its pricetag on a "line by line" review by its quantity surveyors, WT Partnership, of the Government's costings.
But Mr Mallard said the figures were "absolutely outrageous" and included errors.
He said advice given to the Government was that a final cost could not be put on the Eden Park upgrade until June, when designs were nearly complete, and the waterfront plan's final cost would be known in August.
Eden Park chief executive John Alexander spent nearly two hours briefing Auckland City councillors, and said afterwards it had been a good opportunity to put the facts and answer questions.
The Eden Park team was confident of the $385 million budget for its upgrade.
"There has been some misinformation about our costs and our plans and we were able to demonstrate that our costs were robust, that we do have detailed designs," Mr Alexander said.
After a second briefing to the ARC by Mr Mallard and officials, council chairman Mike Lee said a lot of focus had been on making ports land available for a waterfront stadium.
Ports of Auckland, which owns the land on which a waterfront stadium would be built, is owned by the ARC through its investment arm, Auckland Regional Holdings.
Mr Lee said the Government had not made a formal proposal to reach an agreement with the port company.
"What we will be doing is making a decision in principle based on some pretty good information, but I understand a formal proposal to acquire land will come after our green light or red light," Mr Lee said.
Commenting on the city council's briefing, councillor Doug Armstrong said there were two big questions - the waterfront and whether Aucklanders wanted to receive a "nice big dollop of money from the Government in the form of a national stadium that could really be a catalyst for greater things".
"It is a hugely important decision for Auckland. Do we want an extrapolation of Eden Park or do we want something brand-spanking new down on the waterfront that could conceivably be iconic and a catalyst for other things to happen," Mr Armstrong said.
But another city councillor, Neil Abel, said there were a huge number of unanswered questions about the waterfront plan and he would not vote for it.
Auckland Regional councillor Bill Burrill said: "I can see why the minister is so enthused but I am unwilling to commit the ratepayers to the level of risk that ratepayers would be exposed to as a result of taking the waterfront option."