By BERNARD ORSMAN
Ask John Banks what his strongest card is for a second term as Mayor of Auckland City and the answer comes firing back: "Leadership, BOLD leadership."
The former National MP, who "absolutely" agrees with another interviewer's description of him as overbearing, pedantic, arrogant, rude and pushy, nominated leadership as his trump card the day before cereal king Dick Hubbard entered the race against his "Muldoonism" or abrasive leadership.
Banks' response to Hubbard on his campaign website was, "Welcome, and see you on the hustings".
Not the kind of language the city father has sprayed around in his first term. It was Banks labelling North Shore Mayor George Wood "pathetic" that tipped Hubbard into standing. He has also bad-mouthed Auckland Regional Council chairwoman Gwen Bull, called Papakura Mayor David Buist a "bludger" and claimed that Herald columnist Brian Rudman writes "crap".
This after promises to change from the motormouth of talkback and avoid personal abuse and public rows. It just goes to show that Banks, who modelled himself on Muldoon, has not mellowed his populist and polarising style.
What you see is what you get and the political salesman believes he has a fantastic product to sell to Aucklanders.
"Three years ago there was little investment, growth, jobs and confidence. Today, there is more confidence in the future of Auckland city than ever before.
"I don't seek to take all the credit for that. However, everyone in this city knows they have a cheerleader for the biggest city in the country."
As luck would have it, a booming local economy gives Banks a golden platform to seek a fresh mandate.
Banks loves to align himself with success, but unpick the political posturings and there aren't too many runs on the board.
Sitting with arms folded and eyes fixed in a steely gaze, Banks reels off projects - the resanding of Kohimarama beach, a $40 million kitty to fix the city's appalling footpaths and bestowing Distinguished Citizen awards on Sir Edmund Hillary and Jenny Gibbs.
But when it comes to his own action on the city's crippling infrastructure problems, Banks is stuck in first gear, just like the motorists on the city's congested roads.
His undertaking, carved in stone, to build the eastern highway by 2007 has a huge price tag and no start date. Next week, he will unveil plans to scale back the highway, which has soared in value from $460 million to a frightening $4 billion.
Another project that lies bogged down, and uncertain, is the V8 supercar race round inner-city Victoria Park.
Banks swept to office promising to take a "yard broom" to the city's finances. The sale of pensioner housing still casts a dark shadow over the early stormy days of his mayoralty. With a Citizens & Ratepayers Now-controlled council in tow, he has sold half the council's shares in Auckland Airport, eliminated debt and introduced a degree of user-pays to the rating system so the poorest homeowners pay 37 per cent more than three years ago. Banks, who pays barely any more on his Remuera property, says rates have never been fair.
What effect Dick Hubbard will have on Banks' divided opposition is too early to know. A poll taken this month before Hubbard put his hat in the ring put Banks in front with 32.2 per cent support, against the combined vote of 40.2 per cent for Fletcher (25.6 per cent) and Hucker (14.6 per cent). This is an 11-point slump from his 43.6 per cent support at the 2001 local body elections.
And support in two of Banks' strongest bases in 2001 is in question - Hobson, where a strong anti-eastern highway sentiment has built up, and the city's largest ward of Avondale-Roskill.
Mt Roskill is where many of the 1542 pensioner units sold in 2002 are located and residents have not forgotten how they were dismissed as a "non-core" council activity.
Nevertheless, Banks is a master of sniffing the political wind and attuned to issues across the city. But ask him what it would be like to lose and the motormouth is momentarily lost for an answer, then chuckles: "I wouldn't enjoy it. It would be much worse than a cold shower."
Herald Feature: Local Vote 2004
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By BERNARD ORSMAN