Plans for an Auckland stadium descended into farce yesterday after nearly half the city council went behind the Mayor's back to petition the Prime Minister to reconsider Carlaw Park as a possible site.
Mayor Dick Hubbard said his "jaw hit the floor" when he learned that nine of the city's 20 councillors had signed a letter this week urging Helen Clark to consider the derelict former rugby league ground - instead of a national waterfront stadium or a revamped Eden Park.
The Herald on Sunday broke the news to a stunned Hubbard yesterday afternoon. He said the council had already voted to back the waterfront stadium in principle last month.
"I must admit my first reaction is that I'm a little surprised," he said.
However, he rejected the suggestion that the rebel action jeopardised Auckland's chance of hosting the Rugby World Cup.
Sports Minister Trevor Mallard has insisted Auckland local authorities must reach a unanimous decision on the waterfront versus Eden Park by November 24 - or lose its status as the main cup venue to Christchurch.
"No, Auckland will get its act together in two weeks," Hubbard said.
Yesterday Mallard reiterated his threat. "I think they [Auckland politicians] are going to have to work on it pretty hard."
The eleventh-hour Carlaw bid by the renegade councillors was sent to Helen Clark on Thursday - the night before Mallard unveiled plans for a preferred national stadium development on Auckland's wharf.
The councillors' letter said there were "compelling" reasons for exploring Carlaw Park as the venue for the new stadium - including proximity to public transport and the central city, and the fact it is not in a residential area. However, Mallard said the derelict former league ground had been considered and rejected.
He said the land had already been committed for private development, and a stadium development would require "a number of hectares" to be sliced out of the Auckland Domain. "Starting again afresh with all these legal things overhanging it for a stadium that doesn't have any more benefits than being at Eden Park - it's just not a runner."
Hubbard has been a vocal cheerleader for the waterfront option, but councillor Penny Sefuiva said the Mayor had no right to give the project the council's unqualified support.
She said the council did not even have Rugby World Cup venue sites on its agenda until she pushed for it last month.
"I said 'Why are we sitting here like patsies, waiting for Government to do it to us? Why have we not got a view?"'
Mike Lee, chairman of the Auckland Regional Council, dismissed Carlaw Park as a viable option and said the regional authorities must concentrate on the choice given to them by the Government.
"Believe me, I've seen all sorts of weird and wonderful proposals that nothing would surprise me.
"We can't just go voting on a rush of blood or in a panic."
Lee also down-played the Auckland City Council in-fighting as "irrelevant", saying that the ARC had the final say on whether the waterfront proposal would go ahead. The government has proposed building a $500 million stadium on Ports of Auckland land, which is owned by the ARC.
Lee said no stadium would go ahead on the waterfront unless the ARC was satisfied the ports would be recompensed for the loss of berthage space and disruption to business - which turns over more than $5 billion a year.
"In a sense we have been given the right to veto it," Lee said.
"If the Government come back to us, and we don't like the answer, we'll simply say 'no'. Then that would be the end of it."
However, Mallard said green-lighting a waterfront stadium would involve a range of planning issues that concern the ACC, so both local bodies have a veto over it.
Hubbard and Lee are meeting tomorrow morning. Hubbard said while ARC was concerned with port issues, the city council was more worried about the waterfront project's impact on urban design.
"It would be terrible if we supported one option, and they supported another. I'm eating, breathing, drinking, dreaming stadium over the next fortnight."
Ports of Auckland chief executive Geoff Vazey was not available for comment yesterday. But he has said the port company would need to reclaim land from the harbour for replacement port facilities before any development could begin.
Lee feared the prospect of the Government passing legislation to take ownership of the land if the ARC vetoed the project but Mallard yesterday rejected that. "This is a real choice that Auckland is making," he said.
If the ARC and the ACC were at odds on a stadium location, Hubbard said a majority could be drawn from the combined total of 33 politicians from both authorities.
Meanwhile the pro-Carlaw Park councillors were due to hold a press conference this afternoon in support of their plans.
Neil Abel, one of the petition signatories, said the prospect of a waterfront stadium was an "absolute nonsense".
He also criticised Mallard for threatening to take the World Cup to Christchurch. "He's saying, 'If you don't agree to this, we'll send it off to Jade Stadium'. That's ransom - an ultimatum almost."
Councillor Christine Caughey said Carlaw Park as a potential site had not been adequately investigated. She said a stadium there would be "a totally logical outcome. It won't be a blot on our waterfront, it will be nestled into the Domain".
Eden Park Redevelopment Committee chairman Rob Fisher said the councillors needed to understand Carlaw Park was in private ownership and was too small for the project.
"On Thursday, Michael Cullen had us [Eden Park] dead and buried, on Friday we're the only other option to a waterfront.
"Forget Carlaw Park, forget North Harbour; they've been looked at so many times and discarded, no matter what all the amateur enthusiasts think."
How they stand
Auckland City Councillors who support the waterfront stadium:
Dick Hubbard, Doug Armstrong, Bill Christian, Linda Leighton, Richard Northey, Noelene Raffills, Vern Walsh
Councillors who support Carlaw Park:
Neil Abel, Leila Boyle, Cathy Casey, Christine Caughey, Glenda Fryer, John Hinchcliff, Penny Sefuiva, Richard Simpson, Faye Storer
Bruce Hucker, Graeme Mulholland
Could not be reached yesterday:
Toni Millar, Scott Milne