Russell Blackstock

Russell Blackstock is a senior reporter at the Herald on Sunday.

A tale of two strong cities

A new book has opened old wounds about the traditional rivalry between Auckland and Wellington. Auckland has a new powerbase and it's time Wellington took it seriously, says the author

Mai Chen believes politicians in the capital do not fully understand the needs of the country's largest, most prosperous city. Photo / NZ Herald
Mai Chen believes politicians in the capital do not fully understand the needs of the country's largest, most prosperous city. Photo / NZ Herald

Sitting in the plush boardroom of her 14th floor office in the heart of Auckland's CBD, Mai Chen is talking up Auckland.

Although the high-profile legal eagle has spent most of her long career wheeling and dealing in and around the cut-throat political scene in Wellington, that changed last year.

Originally from Taiwan, Chen is a founding partner of Wellington-based public law specialists Chen Palmer, which opened its first branch in Auckland early last year.

She speaks at 100km/h on the subject of her new book, Transforming Auckland: The Creation of Auckland Council.

It tells how Australasia's biggest council organisation, which has a $3 billion annual budget and around 8,000 staff, was formed from the perspective of the key people who created and ran it during its first term, in 2010.

Chen makes no apologies that her book is likely to re-ignite age-old rivalries between Auckland and Wellington.

She believes politicians in the capital do not fully understand the needs of the country's largest, most prosperous city. She thinks a small tail is wagging a big dog.

Early in the book, Auckland mayor Len Brown declaims: "This is not Auckland against Wellington any more." But the reality, as accounted by Chen, is that Auckland Council is now a powerbase much like the Beehive.

An audience with Len Brown is like going to meet the Prime Minister — the mayor will have a policy adviser on one side, a political adviser on the other.

Chen is quick to point out the at-times strained relationships Auckland has with central government, including clashing over the implementation of the Auckland Unitary Plan. The council wanted the plan to become effective on implementation when it was unveiled last year, but the Government refused, insisting the public must have their say. Chen says it is time to readjust Auckland's and Wellington's relationship.


Aucklanders don't like it when
Government undermines the Auckland mayor.

Mai Chen, Lawyer/author

"A big part of my work used to be explaining Wellington to Auckland, but now it is the other way around," Chen says.

"The bureaucrats and officials in the capital have to start understanding Auckland's problems and the importance of its rich human and social capital, as well as its economic impact.

"Auckland is now the leader and its fast-growing and multicultural population has to be addressed differently from other parts of the country."

The amalgamated Auckland Council oversees a population of more than 1.5 million and accounts for just over 37 per cent of New Zealand's GDP. It is predicted the city will have 2.5 million people by 2040, with more than half hailing from a steadily growing melting pot of diverse ethnic backgrounds.

Wellington has a current population of just under 500,000 and, when housing costs are considered, its residents have the country's highest incomes, with an average household income of $88,900.

In recent years, however, the capital has seen a number of major banks and businesses, such as BNZ and ANZ, relocate their main offices to Auckland.

In December, oil giant BP announced it would join the corporate drift north and close its Wellington base of six decades.

The situation prompted Prime Minister John Key last year to claim the capital was "dying" and the Government had no idea how to resuscitate it. Not surprisingly, many Wellington-based business movers and shakers strongly disagree.

They point out the city not only has around 30,000 people working in Government-related jobs but has a thriving digital film industry spearheaded by mogul Sir Richard Taylor's Weta Workshop.

And it was Wellington that movie mogul Sir Peter Jackson chose to premiere Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. The city also boasts burgeoning gaming and software firms, world-class restaurants, cafes and bars.


We have to stop comparing ourselves with other
New Zealand cities and start competing with overseas
centres for business, investment and skilled workers.

Gerard Quinn, chief executive of Grow Wellington

Gerard Quinn, chief executive of Grow Wellington, reckons Auckland and Wellington should start working together rather than butting heads.

"A successful Auckland is good for New Zealand," Quinn says. "But, at the end of the day, Auckland is just a great gateway to Wellington.

"We have to stop comparing ourselves with other New Zealand cities and start competing with overseas centres for business, investment and skilled workers.

"We recently attracted the game development company Camshaft from Melbourne and they really like the cool nature of our capital."

David Perks, chief executive of Positively Wellington Tourism, believes tentative plans to turn the capital into a super-city like Auckland would be a winner.

He also backs a new move to gather Wellington's tourism, economic development and events departments under the same umbrella, like Auckland's successful Ateed (Auckland Tourism Events and Economic Development).

"Unlike Auckland, Wellington is big enough to do stuff but small enough to get on with it," he says.


Everyone knows Wellington suffers from truly miserable weather. In recent times, Auckland has monopolised not just the sunshine, but leisure activities too.

The City of Sails' dining-out scene easily competes with top cities thanks to restaurants fronted by celebrity chefs such as Simon Gault, Al Brown, Josh Emett and Peter Gordon. British TV star Jamie Oliver is expected to appear in Auckland this year.

However, Tracey Lines, of the Restaurant Association in Wellington, insists the capital's cuisine is just as good, if not as glamorous.

"Having respected restaurateurs like Steve Logan in town is a huge boost and his new place, Grill Meats Beer, is a good example of the kind of quality, boutique establishments that make our city stand apart."

Although Wellingtonians may have a good choice of restaurants, they often get no say on whether pop and rock acts will perform in the capital. Auckland enjoyed a bumper summer of music with massive outdoor gigs by Bruce Springsteen and Eminem. Big international names such as Beyonce and Rihanna also staged extended runs at the 12,000-capacity Vector Arena.


Wellington rock fans have to shell out about $1,000 each for
tickets, flights and accommodation to see their favourite artistes
play in Auckland, which is not a great look for a capital city.

Phil Sprey, boss of Capital C Concerts

"The problem is, Wellington does not have a decent-sized indoor venue to make it financially viable to attract most major acts," says veteran Wellington promoter Phil Sprey, boss of Capital C Concerts.

"Wellington rock fans have to shell out about $1,000 each for tickets, flights and accommodation to see their favourite artists play in Auckland, which is not a great look for a capital city."

A crumb of comfort for Wellington rugby fans is that the rejuvenated Hurricanes side is lording it over struggling Auckland rivals the Blues.

"Poor old Auckland used to cream every other team," crows Hurricanes fan David Willis.

"It's always a good feeling to get one over on them."


Mai Chen says Beehive bureaucrats must start considering the unique needs of Auckland. Photo / NZ Herald
Mai Chen says Beehive bureaucrats must start considering the unique needs of Auckland. Photo / NZ Herald

Back in her high-rise Auckland boardroom, Mai Chen presses her case for Beehive bureaucrats to start considering Auckland's unique needs. But she stops short of sparking calls to shift the capital to the nation's economic powerhouse.

Auckland was the capital until the 1860s, when parliament was moved to Wellington to be closer to the then most powerful economic and population bases, Dunedin and Christchurch.

"Aucklanders don't like it when Government undermines the Auckland mayor, even if the mayor was Tweedledee or Tweedledum," Chen explains. "But Auckland cannot fund its infrastructure, despite its wealth, without Central Government," she says. "We need them. ... Aucklanders just want to get on with it and could well do without dealing with another 30,000 officials in town."


Transforming Auckland: The Creation of Auckland Council is available from LexisNexis publishers.

- Herald on Sunday

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