Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Mayor Maurice? It'll be a fun race

If Williamson stands for Auckland's top job, the contest will gain a bit of life - and we'll be able to understand him.

Maurice Williamson could embarrass his parliamentary colleagues in the heat of a long election campaign. Photo / Wayne Drought
Maurice Williamson could embarrass his parliamentary colleagues in the heat of a long election campaign. Photo / Wayne Drought

For democracy's sake, it's great news that National cabinet minister Maurice Williamson is contemplating standing against Len Brown for the Auckland mayoralty this year. What many were predicting would be a one-horse race for one of the biggest political prizes in the land, could at last come alive.

A no-contest would have encouraged even more lethargy among voters than is usual at a local election. It would have also left undebated the various visions on Auckland's long-term future that Mr Brown is trying to lock in place.

Prime Minister John Key is reportedly "lukewarm" to the idea, which hardly comes as a surprise.

First, Mr Williamson is something of a loose cannon when it comes to toeing the party line, and could well embarrass his parliamentary colleagues in the heat of a long election campaign. Worse for them, he could lose after a bruising six-month long Auckland versus Government stoush. A curtain-raiser to - and possible predicter of - the 2014 general election.

In the left corner will be Mr Brown, with widespread support, eye-balling the Government on issues like affordable housing, leaky housing compensation and inner city rail.

In the right corner will be the current Minister for Building and one-time Transport Minister. It's the sort of popularity contest a year before a general election that makes governments nervous.

Especially when your candidate is a known maverick.

Rather oddly, Labour's Auckland spokesman, Phil Twyford, is hoping Mr Williamson won't stand. For a party finally staggering to its feet after its 2008 defeat, you'd have thought the chance to get in behind its de facto candidate Len Brown, and give National's representative a bloody nose, would be irresistible.

Mr Williamson's parliamentary career has hardly been stellar, but the instant celebrity status he attracted after his gay marriage speech suggests he won't be a pushover.

He has that outspoken quirkiness that we voters seem to prefer in our local leaders. And he speaks in sentences of plain, easy-to-follow, English, which is a definite point of difference, even if you don't agree with what he says.

His big handicap is the ministerial baggage of someone who entered parliament in 1987. Whenever he or his National colleagues talk of the need for tolls or public private partnerships to fund more road building in Auckland, he'll be leaving himself open to questions about what did he do about the problem when he was National's minister of transport for all but one year between November 1993 and November 1999.

Over that period, only 25 per cent of national road builder Transit New Zealand's money was spent north of Pukekohe, despite that area being home to around 40 per cent of the country's population.

In 2009, the Greens' transport research unit analysed years of Cabinet and Treasury documents and calculated that between June 1990 and June 2005, Aucklanders paid $7022 million in fuel taxes, road user charges and licence fees, but got only $3321.94 million - less than half - back in transport-related spending.

Not that Mr Williamson doesn't like motorways. Before the 2005 elections he was comparing them to arteries in your body, pointing to Auckland's unfinished highways with the comment, "if your arteries don't join up you'd be dead".

He said that if we listen to people who don't want motorways, Auckland would build no more - "and we are grossly short of them".

Before the 2008 election, Mr Williamson embarrassed Mr Key by pushing for road tolls of up to $50 a week to pay for his highway building plans. He said he didn't know anyone who would not pay a $3-$5 toll each way if it would save them 40 minutes of commuting time.

On this, the two mayoral candidates seem on common ground. Mr Brown recently declared his conversion to tolls and other forms of road pricing. But they differ markedly on the need for public transport. In 2003, Mr Williamson asked in these pages "If congestion is as bad as we are told, and public transport such a great alternative, why aren't people just moving that way of their own volition?"

It promises to be a lively debate. And when they tire of transport, there's also the up-to-$20 billion leaky home bill, and who should pay. City or state? Seeing the Housing Minister squirm his way around this will be worth the ticket alone.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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