Auckland: The incorrigible Robbie

By John Roughan

As Auckland merges to create a supercity, the Herald looks back at how Auckland has changed over the years. Click here to view the full series.

Sir Dove-Myer Robinson leads a parade of about 3000 schoolboy league players up Queen St, 1980. Photo / NZ Herald
Sir Dove-Myer Robinson leads a parade of about 3000 schoolboy league players up Queen St, 1980. Photo / NZ Herald

No mayor of Auckland has imprinted his personality on the city quite like Sir Dove-Myer Robinson. If Sir John Logan Campbell was its leading figure of the 19th century, "Robbie" could claim that mantle in the 20th century, or certainly the second half of it.

He was elected mayor six times from 1959 to 1980, serving longer than any mayor before or since.

Small and inclined to splutter, he was not a dominant figure in the conventional sense. He was not a team leader, a ticket politician. The council was run by members such as Dr Lindo Fergusson and John Strevens.

They didn't interfere with the mayor's projects he didn't interfere in theirs. He had his own ideas of Auckland's best interests and pursued them with the dogged force of his personality.

Robbie was passionate, excitable, mischievous, likeable and exasperating. Auckland loved his oddball ways, such as his willingness to be televised shirtless in the mayoral limousine.

He was a shameless attention-seeker, but usually in a civic cause.
He was also clear-eyed and would not be content with half-measures, as seen earlier in this story (page 25) on the subject of rapid rail.

An Auckland urban railway was one of Robbie's signature causes. As a founding member of the Regional Authority (another cause) he worked harder than anyone for a decent commuter rail service.

With the election of the Kirk Government he thought he had the breakthrough. But when Works Minister Hugh Watt brought a scheme to Auckland it lacked the wider gauge track that would allow trains to travel fast.

Chairman Tom Pearce and others on the ARA were inclined to settle for that. Robbie was not. He knew that only truly fast rail might lure Auckland commuters out of their cars and would hold out for that for the rest of his days.

Pearce was a gruff, hard-nosed rugby man who had managed the 1960 All Blacks in South Africa. "Now listen, Sir Dove," he would growl across an ARA committee room at the new knight who had combined his first and second names for the title.

Robbie didn't care, nothing personal deflected him.

The cause that brought him to public life was his most successful. Shortly after World War II the Auckland Metropolitan Drainage Board revived a scheme that had been proposed since 1932, to replace the putrid sewer outfall off Orakei with a pipe that would carry the isthmus sewage for treatment in ponds on Browns Island with an outfall in the Motukorea channel.

Sewage was going into the harbour untreated from the holding tanks that now contain Kelly Tarlton's sharks.

The foul release that fanned out from Orakei to Rangitoto on each ebbing tide and stained the water off Okahu Bay with no regard for the Maori village there, would be removed. But at what cost to little Motukorea, the island Campbell and Brown had gazed on from Remuera and found loveliest of all?

By 1946 many thousands were gazing down on it from homes in the new waterfront suburbs developed since the completion of Tamaki Drive in 1932.

Soon an "Auckland and Suburban Drainage League" had been formed to fight the outfall proposal. Its leading voice in the Herald was a Mr D. M. Robinson.

He campaigned with all the persistence the public would come to know. He forced a royal commission to be set up in 1948 to review the scheme. But, with some improvements, the commission was in favour of it.

Later that year Robinson sued the mayor, Sir John Allum, and the Herald for defamation but the court ruled against him.
The league did more than oppose the Browns Island scheme, it proposed a scheme of its own - to treat Auckland's sewage with oxidation ponds in the Manukau Harbour.

But the Drainage Board, supported by the City Council (Allum was chairman of both), pressed ahead and took out a £1,600,000 loan to build the scheme.

By 1952 Robbie was practically the only person with energy left for the fight, according to author of the council's history, Graham Bush. That was the year Robbie won a by-election for a seat on the council and was given one of its seats on the Drainage Board.

In the following year's elections, Allum lost the mayoralty and the Citizens and Ratepayers lost a majority. The new council not only put Robbie on the Drainage Board again but the new board made him chairman.

Work had already started on the Browns Island scheme. Careful not to breach contract commitments, the board reviewed the scheme's capacity to reach required purity levels. The panel of overseas experts condemned the scheme and the board abandoned it in May 1954.

In July it adopted the Manukau alternative. That same month Sir Ernest Davis offered to buy Motukorea from the Drainage Board and give it to Auckland for a reserve. After a cost over-run and a Government rescue the treatment plant on the Manukau was completed in 1960 for 150 per cent of the original estimate. By that time Robbie had won his first mayoral election.

If his solution seems unfair to the Manukau it should be noted that councils around that harbour had been discharging raw sewage into it.
The treatment ponds caused some problems for Manukau residents through the 1960s, mainly swarms of midges that proliferated at night.
But Robbie was always proud of the level of treatment the plant attained and often claimed the discharged water was pure enough to drink. He sometimes said he would drink it - but nobody ever saw him do so.

On one personally memorable day for a reporter covering the City Council I took a call from Robbie who said he had a visiting American expert in his office. This man would vouch that Manukau discharge was fit to drink. He insisted I come to meet him.

It was a quiet afternoon, so I wandered up to the City Administration Building and was introduced to the expert. He told me how good the Manukau discharge was while Robbie beamed from behind his desk and eventually I asked if it really was drinkable.

"Oh you couldn't drink it," the expert said, clearly surprised at the suggestion. Robbie avoided my eye. He was incorrigible.

- NZ Herald

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