Matt McCarten on politics

Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: Mayor's leadership feeling the strain

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Len Brown's lack of action over the port fiasco has raised eyebrows. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Len Brown's lack of action over the port fiasco has raised eyebrows. Photo / Sarah Ivey

I was first introduced to Len Brown by Matt Robson in the mid-1980s at a South Auckland Labour Party fundraiser for the local MP at the time, Colin Moyle. Robson and Brown ran the Labour Party machine in Otara.

What struck me during my early years as a new young community and union activist was that most people involved in community activities in the poorer areas were different shades of brown. However, with the exception of local churches, most of the leaders were white and middle class.

Many of these leaders didn't even live in the areas and acted as seemingly benign secular missionaries leading the downtrodden.

The Labour Party at that time was no different. The four MPs who represented the world's largest Polynesian city were all white men.

Even with my lack of experience at a young age, it didn't fit right that the only two Palagis at this function of more than 100 Manukau activists held the two senior roles of chairman and secretary.

It wasn't as if there wasn't the talent to do it. It was obvious both these two men were ambitious and I assumed they knew controlling the Pacific and Maori organising machines was the key to success.

It was no surprise then that their success came from the votes of the people who believed they were champions of the have-nots. Robson later became a cabinet minister and Brown became Mayor of Manukau. The electoral machines that got them elected were the trade unions, marae and Pacifica churches.

Seventeen months ago all this patient work paid off beyond even Brown's dreams, I'm sure, when he was catapulted into the warm embrace of the super-mayoral chair.

The working-class areas turned out in record numbers that even surpassed the deep blue avenues of Remuera and Milford. The surge swept left-leaning council candidates into power, too. For the first time in history, Auckland went from blue to red. The right-wing agenda - lovingly prepared by Rodney Hide, Steven Joyce and John Banks - hit the wall. Or so we thought.

Brown is likeable. He seems to genuinely like people, which is a good sign in a leader. However, I wondered sometimes if he was more interested in being liked rather than being driven by any particular personal beliefs.

I voted for Brown as mayor. Most Aucklanders did, too, but I suspect it was more because he wasn't Banks.

Although most didn't know much about Brown's politics we knew enough about Banks to know we wouldn't like his vision for Auckland.

Since Brown was elected he seems to have been doing a reasonable job, although his detractors and political enemies claim he's a lightweight and easily intimidated by his officials and business leaders.

They scoff behind his back that he hates confrontation and is too ready to be a pleaser. That's always a great weakness in a politician and may explain some of his recent behaviour.

Brown's actions, or lack of them, over the port fiasco are perplexing.

His officials set an impossible 12 per cent return for his port's directors.

When they ran into trouble I'm told the board offered the mayor their resignations. If true it was a master stroke. Because once he assured them of his support he was their puppet.

No experienced politician who knows what they stand for would have been manoeuvred like this.

With the biggest citizens' revolt for 60 years about to erupt in his city, he is pathetically reduced to whimpering that he doesn't have any real power. He looks weak.

Anyone can be a leader when the going is easy. Leaders are judged by how they respond in a crisis.

Our mayor built his career on the backs of the working class and the poor. He is now being tested whether he deserves their past loyalty or whether he was just another slick opportunist.

In the next few weeks the real character and calibre of our mayor will be revealed. All of Auckland is watching. His chances of re-election and his legacy teeters.

- Herald on Sunday

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