Since the early days of European settlement, Auckland politicians have been dreaming up ways of dumping spoil in the harbour to create more land. By 1973, the CBD had spread 160ha out into the harbour. About then Minister of Lands Duncan MacIntyre warned if Aucklanders weren't careful, nothing would be left of the Waitemata Harbour in 100 years but a system of canals leading ships up to the docks.
It's a prophecy Mayor Len Brown is doing nothing to prove wrong. Despite the public outcry against the port company's plans to start building two finger wharves nearly 100m out from the end of Bledisloe Wharf, then, in time, start infilling the space between, Mr Brown shrugs and says there is nothing he can do. Worse, he claims he's bound by planning rules put in place by the old Auckland Regional Council (ARC). Mr Brown says that as it is a "controlled activity" within the port precinct, the council could neither decline the resource consent for the new wharves nor insist it be publicly notified.
The former ARC chairman, councillor Mike Lee, rejects this, saying the mayor's spin doctors have failed to notice that in 2011, under Mr Brown's leadership, the planning rules were updated, at the old ARC's insistence, to give the council the ability to demand a publicly notified hearing in "special circumstances" such as the scale of the proposed work.
This certainly didn't happen in the present case. Instead, the port company went to the bureaucrats at Auckland Council last year in private and sought and received a non-notified resource consent for the new wharves. The mayor now claims he knew about it, but his fellow councillors were kept in the dark. The first they knew of it was from the Herald last month, long after the consent had been granted.
This, of course, is rather beside the point. Since 2005, thanks to the ARC, Auckland Council has been the sole owner of Ports of Auckland. As the "owner", the mayor could have summoned the port chairman to his office at any time and told him the proposed finger wharves and the proposed reclamations were unacceptable to the owners and to desist, or resign.
In 2005, when the ARC "nationalised" the ports, chairman Lee said there were two reasons for assuming full ownership. The port was a blue-chip investment for the region and also, with full public ownership, it would be easier to achieve a comprehensive redevelopment of the waterfront.
Mr Lee says the mayor's attempt to pass the blame on to the ARC "doesn't reflect well on his leadership or his integrity".
He says, "This would never have happened under the ARC. The port company was told again and again when I was chairman not to do any plans for reclamation, and they didn't."
Mr Brown "shouldn't be trying to pass the buck for poor leadership. He wants to man-up. If Rupert Murdoch owned a company and things weren't going well, what would Rupert Murdoch actually do? This guy's supposed to be a super mayor, for God's sake".
Former Labour Party leader and likely 2016 mayoral candidate Phil Goff is of like mind. "As owner the council is custodian of the port and harbour on behalf of all Aucklanders. It has the right and the power to protect the harbour from damage by further commercial encroachment." He said the directors of the port company were appointed by the council. "If they were to thumb their noses" at a clear council directive, "they can and should be replaced".
This from two old allies of Mr Brown. It's hard to see the mayor recovering with any dignity from this latest pratfall. Unless he does finally assert his authority as first citizen and tell the port company to stop, his remaining 18 months as mayor will be very long, measured, month by month, by the steady growth of two view-blocking, flow-interfering wharves out into the Waitemata Harbour.
Last month, key members of Mr Brown's campaign team told him he had no chance of winning the next election. If he's wondering why, he need look no further than his willingness to sacrifice another stretch of the waterfront to his voracious port employees.