Aucklanders wanted change and they got change. On October 9 last year, Wayne Kelvin Forrest Brown, 76, was elected the third Mayor of Auckland Council.
“I am the mayor for three years. You can’t do anything about that. No one else in New Zealand is going to change that,” Brown told Herald journalist David Fisher in a call after the January 27 floods.
After about 30 minutes, Brown told the journalist: “Don’t f**k me over”.
The frank discussion was over a leaked message by Brown to his tennis group. He couldn’t show up to play the next day because he had “to deal with media drongos over the flooding”.
Welcome to the world of Wayne Brown, whose first six months at the helm of the Super City has polarised the city into those who think he’s a cantankerous old fool and must go and those who think he’s a doer, not a rock star, and will Fix Auckland.
Take your pick, but there’s one undeniable fact. Brown is not your normal politician; he’s a disruptor and populist who plays by his own rules. He’s also achieved something his predecessor Phil Goff never did. He’s got Aucklanders engaged with City Hall.
At the Herald, there’s now a “Wayne Brown” tag on stories bearing his name. That puts him in the top trending tags across online and social media platforms.
To recap. Wayne Brown is an engineer and successful businessman fond of rattling off the big public-sector infrastructure jobs handed to him by Labour and National Governments, including TVNZ, Māori TV, Transpower, Vector and chairing the Auckland District Health Board to complete the city’s new hospital at Grafton when the build went off track. “I know this stuff,” he boasted at the launch of his mayoral campaign.
Despite a dislike for the norms of local government, Brown is no stranger to it. In 2007, he became mayor of the Far North District in a landslide victory over Yvonne Sharp.
He was elected again in 2010, but faced criticism in an inquiry by the Auditor General for blurring roles and was advised “to separate his personal and official roles more carefully in future”.
People who know Brown say he’s a nuts and bolts kind of guy. Problems to him are there to be fixed and that is how he pitched his 2022 campaign slogan: “Fix Auckland”.
His message to voters was to fix the infrastructure, stop wasting money, take back control of CCOs, get Auckland moving, and open access to the harbour.
Politics is more nuanced than that and it wasn’t long before Brown’s engineering eye for detail and deaf ear to people, particularly the media, landed him in trouble.
Nowhere was that more illustrated than Brown’s response to the unprecedented storms this year. The mayors of other towns and cities stood up when the weather events wrecked their communities. Not Brown. He took a back seat and left deputy mayor Desley Simpson to become the shining face of leadership in the aftermath.
Simpson has strongly defended the mayor’s actions, saying she was asked to do a job and she did it.
“People say ‘where was he in the floods?’ You didn’t see him because he blended in with everyone else in a high-vis vest and work boots,” that is, he was out looking at drains and talking with experts.
Taking a back seat has kept Brown away from the media — the gateway to the public and whose job it is to hold politicians to account. Since settling into the 27th floor of Auckland House, the mayor has turned down more than 100 requests for media interviews and granted just a handful of one-on-one interviews. Recently, he has done more media.
“I am never going to be a smooth-talking politician,” he told the Herald in a rare interview.
Brown can be engaging, funny and good company, but he can also be abrasive and unpredictable and makes people feel ill at ease in the workplace. Having political strategist Matthew Hooton at his side for the first few months certainly led to tension between the mandarins and the mayoral office.
Brown and Hooton were not the least bit impressed at a financial briefing presented by chief executive Jim Stabback and finance staff on the first day at Auckland House, which set the tone that carries on to this day.
Hooton has moved on. In late February Stabback gave six months’ notice halfway into a five-year term that he was leaving the job for “personal reasons”.
The mayoral office now includes Max Hardy, a former law partner at Meredith Connell with strong links to the Labour Party in the key job as chief of staff. The council’s former head of risk and acting general counsel, Jazz Singh, has signed on as head of finance and budget, former National Party campaign manager Stu Mullin is head of governance and operations, and Kate Gourdie, a former TV journalist who worked on Leo Molloy’s mayoral campaign, is head of communications and government relations.
Despite their differences, Simpson says the more she has got to know Brown, the more she’s got to like him. As someone who worked closely with Goff last term as chair of the finance and value for money committees, Simpson welcomes a fresh set of eyes. She is, after all, a member of the National Party who shares Brown’s desire to get far better value for ratepayers’ money.
“He’s smart. He’s very smart. He’s astute and he’s committed. He’s here because he passionately has a few things he wants to deliver and wants to fix,” Simpson told the Herald.
One issue Brown plans to deliver, almost to the point of obsession, is freeing up port land for public use. It was Brown who chaired an Upper North Island Supply Strategy four years ago that proposed gradually relocating port operations to Northport and the Port of Tauranga and building a new inland port in Auckland’s northwest.
Shortly after assuming office, Brown wrote to Ports of Auckland board chairwoman Jan Dawson instructing the board to work with Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei to create a plan for public use of the port land from Queens Wharf to Bledisloe Wharf.
This, and comments by Brown that he is working on replacing the port board, have sparked a standoff between the shareholder and the new board and management, taking positive steps to turn round a company tarnished by several deaths and a failed automation project.
What’s unclear is what would happen if the port company lost one of its profitable businesses in freeing up land for public use, such as the vehicle-import operation. Where would the business go, what would be the cost, and who would pay?
On the hustings, Brown said the port occupied $6 billion of the best land in New Zealand and promised to deliver $200 million of rates and $200m of dividends if he became mayor. Now that he’s mayor, he has walked back and settled for a dividend of $30m this year. The port has committed to deliver a net profit after tax of $54m next year.
For some councillors, Brown’s infatuation with the port is proving a distraction from the biggest and most immediate challenge — dealing with the immense financial pressures inherited from previous councils not equipped to deal with decades of under-investment in infrastructure and rampant growth, papering over the cracks and kicking the can down the road.
It’s reached the point where the council and CCOs are trying to do too much. Add in the impact of Covid-19 and the Ukraine war fuelling a sharp rise in costs and plummeting income and, hey presto, there’s a $300m hole in the budget.
But wait, there’s more. A 50:50 partnership with the Government means the council is up for $500m from a $1b blowout in the City Rail Link and a $1b bill from the weather catastrophes.
Despite the headline figures, the council remains in a strong financial position — it maintains a strong AA credit rating with S&P — but that doesn’t resolve the immediate challenge to balance the budget by June.
Those challenges start all over again this year when work starts on next year’s refresh of the 10-year budget. Tough choices will be required to resolve a bleak medium-term outlook with more projects being torched or deferred, further assets sales and service cuts, increased borrowing and higher rates.
But first things first. Brown must get his first budget over the line, and the politics are intriguing. The mayor has proposed a mix of selling the council’s airport shares, cutting community and art grants, raising fees and holding household rates below inflation to plug the $300m hole.
The proposed budget document easily passed to go out for public consultation, but it has been met with horror by community groups, climate activists, Greens’ Auckland Central MP Chloe Swarbrick, and some elected representatives calling for higher rates and debt.
The most sensitive issue is cuts to community services and the arts which, according to Brown, are part of the wider programme to reduce costs.
When approached at an Art Gallery event by a Spinoff writer over proposed cuts to the arts, Brown said “Don’t f***ing come and talk to me … write a submission and make it clear you value it [arts funding]”.
A gallery adviser claimed Brown was provoked by the writer, but even so it showed what a short fuse the mayor has when it comes to dealing with people. Simpson, who was at the event, said Brown’s choice of language was inappropriate.
With an evenly balanced council along political lines and members of the Māori Statutory Board at the decision-making table, Brown will need all his wits and skills to crunch the numbers and pass the toughest budget since the outset of the Super City.
If he weathers the financial storm, Brown will be well on the path to Fixing Auckland.