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

John Roughan: City's visionary now a bad joke

Auckland Council voted to censure Mayor Len Brown rather than carry out a vote of no confidence. Photo / Dean Purcell
Auckland Council voted to censure Mayor Len Brown rather than carry out a vote of no confidence. Photo / Dean Purcell

People who have had dealings with Len Brown of late say it is awkward. The light has gone from his eyes. He can see what they are thinking. If they are meeting in the mayoral office and he invites them to take a seat, he probably notices their hesitation. We have all had too much information.

Two months ago when the scandal broke, many of us paid to comment on these things seemed to think that if the mayor kept his head down and nothing worse emerged, it would all blow over in time. How wrong that is turning out to be.

The subject returned with a vengeance for the festive season. We're hearing it everywhere, so are members of the Auckland Council who realised they finally had to take a position on him this week.

It is as though people are only now getting together to discover what almost all of them think. At some point in every barbecue somebody will say, "What do you think of Len Brown?" Eyebrows rise, heads shake in disbelief.

When it is quickly clear that nobody has anything to say in his favour, the question becomes, "do you think he can survive?"

The council's answer: Yes, he can if he will not go of his own accord. They voted 15-5 to continue working with him. But most of the 15, including loyal Mike Lee, made it clear during the debate that the only reason they were doing so was they had to work with him, they could not force him out.

What kind of man would stay when he has clearly lost the respect of even his closest allies? Lee said Auckland would be "officially dysfunctional" if they voted no confidence in the mayor. Lee had no illusions that Brown might do the decent thing.

So they settled for a "censure", accepting the extraordinary advice that the council's standing orders give them no right to vote no confidence in the mayor. The National Party should put that one through Parliament. It might save itself a search for partners next year.

When the council members go to the barbecues they can say they have censured him. I don't think they will find anybody impressed.

The council looks weak but the mayor's image has gone from bad to worse if that was possible. Despite everything that emerged after the election, he seemed a good and decent man at heart. A decent man would not soldier on when his colleagues tell him people are not getting over this.

He doesn't need to be told, he can see in the eyes of everyone he meets that he can no longer effectively do his job. A mayor is not a public official with a mundane job that he can simply hunker down and do. A mayor is a city's face, voice and, ideally, its inspiration.

A "Super City" mayor, in particular, and this mayor, the Super City's first, adopted the role with alacrity. For three years he was the cheerful drum major of practically every Auckland event.

His bonhomie was boundless, Though not a natural entertainer, he saw it as his job to lead singalongs at sedate functions and give rousing speeches of almost religious uplift.

It always sounded forced and cheesy but not false. He was being the mayor he thought he should be.

It's hard to imagine what sort of mayor he can be now. Someone who heard him the other day came away disappointed at the way he was speaking about the Government. Apparently there was a sour arrogance that wasn't there before.

Maybe that will be his response, a "no more Mr Niceguy" attitude, since nobody seems to think he is very nice anymore. That would be a pity, and give him no leverage with the Government.

But it would be natural in his predicament to adopt a hard partisan shell, looking for the only applause he might still find - from Labour activists who desperately want to preserve the legitimacy of his election.

Even they know in their hearts he has lost the legitimacy. He is not the man voters knew. That's all there is to it. Everything else - the hotel rooms, the incidental expenses, are just pretexts for disapproval.

The EY inquiry had expensive business consultants trawling through hotel bookings at our expense to unearth nothing worse that nine free nights over three years and countless room upgrades.

A mayor of Auckland probably cannot avoid upgrades when he books into a city hotel. It would want him in rooms it can call the mayoral suite - or at least would have called it so until two months ago. That is the problem. The mayor is no longer respectable, he has become a joke and not a particularly funny one.

- NZ Herald

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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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