This week an Auckland City councillor accused his colleagues and council officials of behaving like Pol Pot, the 1970s genocidal leader of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

Cr John Watson of Albany was talking about a proposal to sell some council property. He said the council was determined to bring everyone into the centre of the city, which was comparable to the Khmer Rouge forcing people to leave the cities and work in the fields. Between one and three million people died under that tyranny.

It was deeply insulting, most of all to Cambodians, to have the horror of their history so trivialised. It was also insulting to his colleagues, who are not genocidal. As for the idea that council is centralising all its services, that's laughably untrue.

Watson was talking about a council plan to establish three large hubs and 25 service-centre "spokes". The hubs will be in the central city and probably Albany or Westgate, and Manukau. The spokes will be all over, so that 96 per cent of citizens will live near one. Currently, fewer than half do.


The plan involves the council selling 40 per cent of its property, much of inherited from the pre-amalgamation councils and unfit for future purpose. It's in poor repair, or in the wrong place, or just surplus to requirements.

The sale, over several years, will improve services and staff working conditions, and save $117 million (nearly 1 per cent in rates) in unbudgeted costs. The entire exercise will be self-funding, with the money from property sales returned to communities to enhance the provision of services to them.

You might think that was all hard not to like. But at the same meeting, former MP and now Papakura Local Board member George Hawkins said, "Any confiscation will be seen by local residents as the same as what happened there after the 1860 wars."

What? Nothing is being "confiscated". There will be no raping and pillaging, no wanton destruction of homes and livelihoods. In Papakura they're going to preserve historic buildings and a popular park. And there is no suggestion Maori land is at stake.

What were Hawkins and Watson thinking? Why would anyone sully council debate with such hyperbolic nonsense? It's tempting to go with the simplest answer – they are being foolish because they are foolish. Sadly, though, there's more to it than that.

A little background. At council, most of the time, Mayor Phil Goff commands a majority with support from the centre-left and centre-right. His coalition is loose. It includes members of both the Labour and National parties and has to be constructed anew for every vote. Goff and his associates do a lot of backroom talking.

He's commonly opposed by a few councillors on the right, who believe the mayor is a bleeding-heart liberal who cannot control council spending and should not be encouraged, whatever the issue. He is also commonly opposed by a few on the left who believe he is a neoliberal puppet who wants to destroy publicly-owned assets for the benefit of private enterprise sharks.

It's good the mayor has critics. He's not infallible, far from it, and it's important his proposals are held up to public scrutiny. Sometimes, on one side or the other, those critics are right.

But the critics are surprisingly ineffective. They make impassioned speeches, to be sure, and they love their hyperbole, but they almost never win anything.

Why not? Because rather than trying to win debates, they're more intent on playing to the gallery.

Three times in the debate on the property sale strategy this week, councillors put amendments to defer the decision until "proper community consultation has taken place".

That sounds reasonable. It's the critics' way of recording that they're battling away for their local communities again the big, bad, undemocratic council.

But in the case of the property strategy, councillors had already sent the proposal back for more work to be done. Hundreds of hours of consultation led to substantial changes. Officials told the meeting they had invited each councillor, twice, to go through their concerns with them. Some councillors did not bother to accept.

Crs Watson and Wayne Walker objected very angrily in the meeting to the sale of buildings in Orewa.

But they didn't save the buildings and nor did they help their constituents understand the value of the new plan. It's hard to see how they helped their constituents at all. All they did was get it recorded they were for "more consultation".

In Papakura, the main council building on the Village Green is being sold, but, crucially, not the park with its playground or the handsome brick centennial building.

This didn't stop Hawkins and colleagues pleading with council not to sell the playground or the centennial building. It didn't stop Cr Daniel Newman from proposing a delay to allow "more consultation", even though he knew perfectly well they were keeping those assets because he helped engineer it.

Cr Mike Lee from Waitemata proposed the same delay in relation to a council car park on Mayoral Drive and the big service centre in Graham St. More consultation! he fulminated, although consultation had already happened and he could not point to any reason to keep either property.

Contrast their efforts with what happened in Henderson, where the splendid round building of the old Waitakere City Council will remain in council hands, as a kind of local town hall, due to negotiations by councillors Penny Hulse and Linda Cooper and the local board. They made the effort to convince officials the building is a valuable public asset. It's called effective politics.

Cr Cathy Casey told me recently, when I asked if she thought she had the numbers to pass a motion she was putting, that she didn't do numbers. "I don't lobby," she told me proudly. "I want to win it in the debate with the quality of my argument."

The thing is Casey almost never wins anything. But if she lobbied her colleagues, that could change.

This stuff is important. The original property sales proposal was sweeping, strategically unfocused and insensitive to local values. In many parts of the city, effective political consultation changed that. It also led to an agreement to "ring fence" the sale proceeds, so they are returned to local communities.

That was good politics, measured in the achievements that flow from skilful negotiation.

The choice of some councillors to ignore this has consequences. Their local constituents miss out. More generally, when councillors pander to people's fear of change they undermine progress and subvert the potential of council to make this city better.

Pretty much everyone agrees Auckland needs bold thinking, new ways of planning and more constructive community engagement. Some of our councillors need more courage and more wit if they are to rise to that challenge.