Toby Manhire 's Opinion

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: Cars versus trains... bring it on

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You don't need Ellen to tell you. Maurice Williamson is a credible candidate. Photo / Mark Mitchell
You don't need Ellen to tell you. Maurice Williamson is a credible candidate. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Made world famous by four minutes of wit and good argument in defence of same-sex marriage, Maurice Williamson's mojo is in overdrive.

The Pakuranga Highway man, the Space Cowboy, the Gangster of Gay Love, Maurice has gone viral. And for his next trick, he's going mayoral.

If Williamson does take the plunge, and I really hope he does, the Auckland race will deliver an uncanny echo of another mayoral contest, half a world away.

In 2008, Britain's biggest city witnessed an entertaining, hot-tempered campaign, with the left-wing boy-next-door incumbent, Ken Livingstone, pitched against the bombastic liberal Tory MP pretender, Boris Johnson.

So the saying goes, history doesn't repeat but it does rhyme.

And should Maurice Williamson challenge Len Brown this October for the Auckland mayoralty, that will be almost literally true. For Boris versus Ken, read Maurice versus Len.

The analogy only stretches so far. We couldn't, sadly, expect the same fruity language that characterised the Ken-Boris scuffles in 2008 and 2012.

Len hasn't quite the love-hate history with the Labour Party of his nearly-namesake in London.

And for all his waving of hands and bouts of logorrhoea, Maurice is not Boris's rhetorical match. Nor, as far as I know, does he ride his bicycle around town.

Certainly, however, Maurice has a Boris-esque renegade streak. He's routinely described as "maverick", "erratic" and "excitable" - that last one being John Key's choice of word.

And who could forget the time that then National leader Bill English suspended the member for Pakuranga from caucus following criticisms both of the party direction ("sabotage" cried one MP) and English himself, whom Maurice once assessed as lacking "the charisma, the humour, the personality, the talent" to lead.

But for all that, Maurice is dyed in National wool, with 26 years wearing blue ties in Parliament.

He has proved staunchly loyal to Key. And though he might not be a bosom buddy of Gerry Brownlee, he's inescapably bound by the bear hug of the new Transport Minister's statements.

Few things matter more in a city than transport.

In the Boris and Ken Show, transport was the conspicuous debating ground. Ken is most famous for his introduction of the central-city congestion charge.

Among Boris's best known accomplishments are the romantic if economically bonkers decision to eliminate bendy buses in favour of modern Routemaster double-deckers ("Boris buses") and the new public bicycle-sharing scheme (yes, of course, "Boris bikes").

Transport will be front and centre in a Maurice versus Len contest, too.

Williamson was transport minister for most of the 1990s, a decade in which Auckland's reliance on road, on its joyless network of concrete rivers, became entrenched.

He stands among the political architects that created the petrol soup of Auckland, a city that appears to visitors, such as Norwegian student Tore Tysbo, writing in these pages this week, to have automobile traffic as its "commander in chief".

Len Brown's 2010 campaign was full of train-love.

Maurice and outriders Brownlee and Steven Joyce have spent the last two-and-a-half years sighing condescendingly at the ambition to give Auckland a meaningful rail system.

Asked the other night by John Campbell whether National just liked roads, Brownlee smirked, "New Zealanders like roads. Aucklanders like roads."

Maurice might try to wriggle into a more nuanced position if he's running for mayor, but it's difficult to see how he could avoid being seen as the Government placeman.

Inescapably he'll be seen to embody the National position - for cars, for greater suburban sprawl, for the status quo.

That nice but boring Len will be seen to stand for residential intensification and a mixed transport approach, with rail at its heart.

Fans of the sitting mayor, the Lenists, might wonder whether their man will come to regret this week's pronouncements in support of motorway tolls and congestion charging.

But if Maurice parrots the Brownlee position and rolls his eyes at such ideas, it won't be long until someone fishes from the archives his ill-fated, late-90s "Better Transport, Better Roads" package. Then, Maurice was pushing for a wave of privatisation, along with, in his own words, "tolling for roads and congestion pricing".

You don't need Ellen to tell you. Maurice Williamson is a credible candidate.

It's easy to understand why Lenists might prefer not to have to contend with a Maurista onslaught. But Len Brown will be in a much stronger position if he squares up to a credible candidate and wins, his mandate much, much stronger than if he were allowed to walk in, in effect unopposed.

On transport, on housing, on Auckland's identity, a victory for Len over Maurice would send an unmistakable, unignorable message to Wellington.

Certainly, it would make it all more interesting. And maybe - whisper it - it would be fun.

- NZ Herald

Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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