By GEOFF CUMMING
When John Banks steps into his Town Hall office on Monday morning, it will be 100 days since the opponent of MMP consigned Christine Fletcher's "consensus" mayoralty to history.
Aucklanders who chose not to vote in the October election may still be recovering from the shock of having the former MP for Whangarei as mayor, but they have learned that they cannot ignore him.
Chosen to run the city by less than 20 per cent of voters, the moral conservative motormouth of talkback and Parliament is determined to be taken seriously.
Banksie is the politician to finally bring action on the city's crippling infrastructure problems - the gridlocked roads, neglected footpaths and polluting, overflowing sewerage network.
Remembered for outbursts against homosexuals, dole bludgers, Polynesians and Italians, he is choosing his words carefully since becoming Mayor of Auckland, avoiding personal abuse and public rows.
"I'm perceived to be absolutist, pushy, somewhat overbearing. I hope the people I've got around me interpret that as leadership."
Banks-style leadership has led to run-ins with the elderly, community groups and the centre-left minority on the council.
But with a business-minded majority behind him, the mayor is taking "a yard broom" to civic expenditure, promising to reduce the council to core business - whatever that may be - in the interests of long-suffering ratepayers.
If anyone doubted his commitment, a stormy few weeks before Christmas made Aucklanders sit up and take notice.
Where Fletcher's inclusive regime was seen as stiflingly ineffectual, perceptions of Banks vary from Action Man to a bull in a china shop.
Early promises to wipe out boy racers, clean up the central business district and auction the mayoral Volvo reassured his old Radio Pacific constituents.
Then he hired old cohort Bill Birch to identify areas where cost savings could be made.
In the Christmas rush, the council agreed to sell its pensioner flats as tenants died, sell other rental housing, cash in its Auckland Airport shareholding and pare back funding for arts, cultural and community activities.
An early casualty was the previous council's initiative to create a Pacific Island advisory body.
The ongoing hunt for $25 million in savings threatens citizens advice bureaux, community arts programmes, community halls and free events such as music in parks.
Centre and left-wing critics have seized on the ruling majority's narrow business agenda, claiming it will tear the heart out of the city and polarise communities.
They portray Banks as a willing puppet of the Auckland Citizens and Ratepayers Now Party (ACRN), led by deputy mayor David Hay.
Shut out from committee chairmanships, Alliance and City Vision councillors accuse Banks and Hay of reverting to type, stifling debate in meetings and ignoring the council's role to foster vibrancy and diversity in the city.
"He's very simplistic in his approach," says City Vision ticket leader Bruce Hucker. "Everything is black and white and run on business lines. There's a failure to understand people and relationships."
Hucker and others point out that Banks' words are not always backed up - and are sometimes countermanded - by his actions. The former Police Minister's early law-and-order thrust was undermined when he was caught speeding on a jetski in Hobson Bay, with three child passengers not wearing lifejackets.
Threats to close downtown streets to hoons and boy racers struck legal problems. "The boy racers are still in Queen St," says Hucker.
But far more chastening for Banks and the ACRN ticket was the ruckus over the sale of pensioner flats. The right's argument that central rather than local government should house the elderly was lost amid images of pensioners being thrown on to the streets.
Banks admits that the first three months in office have been a steep learning curve. "I didn't realise just how big the job was ... the sheer size of the operation."
He wishes he had handled the pensioner housing issue differently, by making it clear from the start that existing tenants "would be there for life". A second mistake was a failure to use communications to explain the Birch review, he says.
But the policy changes had to be rushed through to be included in the next annual plan and budget.
He vows to do better on what looms as a more divisive and longer confrontation: his determination to bring forward the multimillion-dollar roading projects, including the eastern motorway and Southwestern Motorway extension.
"It's important that on big projects like completing the roading network we get the communications exactly right."
Banks has made traffic congestion the litmus test of his mayoralty.
Picking up the agenda of the Auckland Business Forum, Banks wants completion of the ring motorway network and other unfinished links given priority over major rail-based public transport initiatives.
"I doubt that anyone will see light rail up Queen St and down Dominion Rd in their lifetime."
Similarly, the city cannot afford new rolling stock, he says. Buses can play a far greater role in moving Aucklanders and development of the train system should be incremental over the next 25 years.
"I have given three commitments: roads, roads and roads," says Banks.
Such comments seem to threaten the balanced mix of rail and roading improvements agreed to, after decades of argument, by the region's mayors.
But no one, yet, is publicly tackling Banks on transport. Auckland Mayoral Forum chairman George Wood, the Mayor of North Shore, says Banks has provided "a shot in the arm" to progress on transport projects.
"He's only one person in the equation. I think he's pursuing what's in the regional land transport strategy but without the frilly bits such as light rail from the bottom of town."
Waitakere counterpart Bob Harvey says the metropolitan mayors forged an accord to work together at a pre-Christmas meeting.
"I found him amenable, respectful and willing to work with us and respect the accord."
The region's mayors will meet Prime Minister Helen Clark and senior cabinet ministers in Wellington next month to press for urgency in completing the projects. Banks, who wants projects scheduled over the next 15 years to be completed in five, believes the Government will prove receptive in an election year.
Such accidents of timing may help Banks to cement his hold on the mayoralty. Auckland commentator Bill Ralston says Banks has tapped into a mood shift in the city which says: "I don't care about folk music in Mt Eden - give me more motorways and fix the sewage.
"He's a mayor who's prepared to be used by a substantial commercial block within the council to address their interests," says Ralston. "But he's enough of a populist to sniff the breeze."
That breeze may be a zephyr right now but Banks' critics, stirred before Christmas, are mustering strength.
Key planks of the Birch review - the sale of airport shares, pensioner houses and general flats and cutbacks in community activities - will be challenged in the coming annual plan consultation process.
Interest groups ranging from pensioners to those opposing chemical spraying will meet at the Freemans Bay Community Centre on Tuesday night to rally support.
Parnell and eastern suburbs residents remain implacably opposed to the eastern motorway, says spokesman Terry Gould.
"We are girding our loins for a real ding-dong battle. To drive a motorway through inner-city suburbs and across ecologically important areas in Hobson Bay and the Purewa stream so that you can bring more cars into the inner city and send more trucks from the port is baffling and ludicrous.
"It comes down to the question of, 'Do you want Auckland City for business or as an amenity for people to live in?"'
Residents of Owairaka, Mt Albert and Waterview will raise similar arguments against extension of the Southwestern Motorway.
Banks believes opposition to the motorways is not as widespread as claimed. Despite a desire to fast-track the resource consent process, he promises to explain the issues, "to take the people with us".
Though the budget cuts now being worked through are a toned-down version of ACRN's original proposals, Banks is unrepentant.
"I was elected on the basis of taking a yard broom to the costs associated with running Auckland City.
"But I'm very aware of the need to maintain the heart and soul of the city."
Social prosperity, he says, depends on business confidence and job creation.
He is setting his sights only as far as the next election, when he will be "judged on my achievements".
"I've made mistakes in the first few months but I hope most of the time I've got it right."