Fairly or not, politicians are expected to have solid, unambiguous positions on every issue. Not for them the shades of grey that influence the decision-making of most people in everyday life. Consequently, it is unsurprising that the Auckland councillors who are thinking of abstaining to allow the council's 10-year budget to pass are being strongly criticised. Yesterday, Michael Barnett, of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce, added to the pressure by saying taking that course would be "a total nonsense".
It appears the criticism is already having an impact. Mike Lee, one of the five councillors originally expected to abstain at this week's meeting, now says he will vote based on what he hears and reads there. Perhaps he has reflected on the many politicians who, having abstained on an issue, say later they rued the decision. Sometimes, the cause for that regret is a ballot-box reflecting voters' displeasure. This, doubtless, is also weighing on the minds of the four other councillors - Cathy Casey, Ross Clow, Wayne Walker and John Watson.
They are contemplating abstaining because they see it as the lesser of two evils. There are aspects of the budget about which they have substantial reservations, notably the target rate for transport that will take the average household rates increase to 9.9 per cent. But ringing in their ears are the dire warnings of the council's chief executive and chief finance officer, who have told councillors if the budget is not adopted, the council will not be able to set or collect rates, refinance loans or meet stock exchange requirements.
Clearly, that would create problems. But are these serious enough to outweigh the councillors' concerns about the budget, and the public expectation that they will make a decision? It seems odd that Mr Clow is thinking of abstaining given the seriousness of his reservations. He has said the budget is too regressive and socks it to households and small businesses.
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Similarly, Mr Walker and Mr Watson are more than a little upset about how the targeted transport rate was "rammed through" without proper consultation. This equates to far more than the sort of mild disapproval that might not translate into active opposition. And in this instance, an abstention would be, effectively, a vote in favour of the budget, allowing its adoption even though fewer than half the councillors support it.
It would surely not be catastrophic if the budget was not adopted. Any difficulties could be worked through as the budget was modified to meet the concerns of Mr Clow and others. This could see the rates impost reduced significantly through a variety of measures, including staff minimisation, enhanced efficiencies, and the selling down of council assets, such as port and airport shares and carparking buildings.
The issue is too important for any councillor to choose not to choose. They were elected to provide a voice for the citizens of their ward. That should not be lost when they are so adamant about the budget's shortcomings.