John Roughan 's Opinion

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Grass an ideal election issue

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The great berm debate has put council members on the spot. Photo / Sarah Ivey
The great berm debate has put council members on the spot. Photo / Sarah Ivey

It is a bit of a chore to mow the berm. I live down a right of way and have to push the machine up there for a wedge of grass between my drive and the next. Too often I forget. It had never occurred to me that the council should do it.

The council most definitely should not. This is fast becoming the defining issue in Auckland's election and it is a good one. It might seem trivial beside long-term population plans, housing densities and commuter rail schemes but unlike them, an uncut verge is visible, pressing and very close to home.

The great berm debate has put council members on the spot. Do they have the courage of their decision last year? Or in the heat of the election, will they cut and run, so to speak?

An issue such as this is like gold when we get around to voting and need something better than bland candidate statements to help sort the sheep from the goats.

On one level it sets the old city where the previous council mowed the lawns, against the post-war suburbs of North Shore, Waitakere and Manukau where we have never presumed it should. But I doubt any of us gave it a thought until the "Super City" decided it was a needless expense.

That was the sort of decision that is sorely needed when local government expands. Old Auckland was not the only place to bring an excessive service into the amalgamated city. Manukau had free swimming pools. Now this whole sea-blessed region provides free indoor swimming for children under 16 and Len Brown would extend it to everybody.

So far he is standing firm on the berms but the election has another week to run. Watch what happens.

This week the Herald helpfully re-published last year's council vote. Disgracefully, those who voted for the public expense were Cameron Brewer and Christine Fletcher from the well-heeled wards, David Taipari of the Maori Statutory Board and, surprisingly, Mike Lee.

Surprisingly, because I'd have thought Lee, like his old friend the late David Lange, held to the idea that New Zealand is a community of can-do neighbours who give each other a hand. You know what I mean, if you can't mow the verge for some reason, sing out.

Yet when Rodney's Penny Webster suggested this week there was no need for the city to spend $12 million to $15 million on mowing, Lee accused her of "exactly the outer suburban small-mindedness and parochialism" he used to hear on the regional council.

Mowing a street lawn might be "small-minded" to inner-city socialists but you'd think that encouraging a little neighbourly co-operation would be up their alley. A disconnect between social ideals and personal dealings is often stark on the left.

As it happens, I was the beneficiary of some outer suburban small-mindedness and parochialism this week. I'd forgotten the verge again last weekend and noticed the other night that one of the neighbours has run a mower over it. I'd have done the same.

On Wednesday, after the great berm debate had been in the paper for a couple of days, two of those who had voted to stop the mowing, Cathy Casey and Richard Northey, were backtracking.

They called for the council to cut the grass this month and reconsider the cost after the election. Sheep and goats.

While the mayor passes the test so far, his nearest rival, John Palino, would pass the buck to local boards.

I don't know whether he would fund them all for work none really need and give them the option to spend the money on something more useful. Or, as Casey suggests, let the boards commit their locality to paying a special rate to cover the cost.

Why, I wonder, are Casey, Northey and Palino running scared on this? I wouldn't assume old Auckland is of one mind.

Letters to the editor are divided. Some in the older suburbs are cutting the grass, others letting it grow. Some of the negligent might be bloody-minded, daring the council to do nothing about it. Most are probably just not getting around yet to a task they have only just realised is theirs.

It is always hard to take away a service people have come to expect. Politicians hear the outcry from a few whose view makes news and can easily assume it represents the majority.

This is one issue Aucklanders can decide without uttering a word. Every householder can cast a vote without putting a pen to paper.

They can mow the berm or leave it.

Better still, those who want to bring the outer suburban spirit to old Auckland can have an additional vote by running the mower a bit further.

A neighbourly gesture can be catching.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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