As endorsements go, a victory with 46.6 per cent of the vote is somewhat short of wholehearted. Indeed, the contest that saw Len Brown re-elected as Auckland mayor was most notable for the strong showing of his right-wing opponent, John Palino, a political tyro. The unexpected level of support for his challenge carried a message for Mr Brown. Many Aucklanders are clearly dismayed over the council's debt and spending and want rate rises kept under tight control.
Mr Brown says he has taken this on board. He plans to address it when he presents the first cut of next year's budget to councillors on November 17. For some, a key element of this will be the salary of the chief executive who replaces Doug McKay at the end of the year.
Mr McKay's near-$800,000 pay package has become a lightning rod for those critical of the council's spending. Mr Brown said during the election campaign that the salary resulted from the need to "meet the market". He was right, if only because the start of the Super City necessitated the appointment of someone who, unequivocally, had the ability to bring together many strands in a relatively short time.
Mr McKay achieved that without undue trauma. While the Brown council did boost Mr McKay's salary in the interim and cannot place all the blame on the transition planners, it is now reasonable to suggest his successor's task will be somewhat less demanding. Therefore, the mayor is right when he suggests there is room for "downward movement" on the salary. Likewise, the mayor will find few dissenters to his view that there should be no more big pay increases like the 10 per cent rise allotted to the Watercare chief executive.
Mr Brown says he also recognises Aucklanders want a close eye kept on the council's debt levels. While the community has reconfirmed that it wants a long record of under-investment in transport infrastructure remedied, it does not want this to mean unsustainable debt. That, says the mayor, has given him cause to reflect on the further $2 billion that the council plans to borrow over the next three years. Further cause for reflection lies in the Government's very different emphasis, that of reining in debt.
More than ever, it is also clear that the mayor must secure the widespread backing of Aucklanders for a funding package for the $2.86 billion city rail link. Mr Brown, having finally secured the Government's endorsement of the project, is obviously determined to really move it forward. He wants a start by 2016. That will require another about-turn by a Government that has scheduled it for 2020, as well as quickly achieving a strong level of local consensus. The latter, in itself, will make it far harder for the Government to maintain its stance.
Mr Brown's new mandate delivers its own message to Wellington. The Government can take no comfort in the somewhat underwhelming backing for him or the loss of three of the mayor's allies, Ann Hartley and Richard Northey, both of whom were defeated, and Sandra Coney, who has retired. That situation could be leavened on Thursday when the final result of the Whau ward, where Noelene Raffills trails Labour's Ross Clow by 48 votes, is known. Either way, Mr Brown showed enough tactical acumen in his first term to suggest the losses will not trigger a damaging degree of council infighting.
The mayor's re-election, with a largely uncontroversial campaign, suggests Aucklanders viewed his management during the Super City's first three years as satisfactory enough but retain concerns his ideas may entail too high a cost for present and future generations. The mayor needs to ensure that message is not only accepted but acted on.