When Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown took the reins of Auckland Council in October, many expected the new mayor’s main battle would be with the heads of the council-controlled organisations that help run the country’s biggest city.
And while he has taken aim at several CCO boards, it appears Brown’s biggest challenge will be trying to control an increasingly growing fiscal hole in the council’s books.
On this week’s Local Edition of On the Tiles, the New Zealand Herald’s political podcast, host Georgina Campbell is joined by NZ Herald Auckland Council reporter Bernard Orsman to discuss the first few weeks of Brown’s tenure as Mayor, which have generated dozens of headlines thanks to his habit of sending out press releases late in the day.
Orsman is one of the few journalists to have had a sit-down interview with Brown since he took on the mayoralty. Brown’s reluctance to face the media has come in a stark contrast to one of the country’s other new mayors, Wellington’s Tory Whanau, who Campbell has been able to interview on multiple occasions in recent weeks.
“His political minders have adopted this policy of keeping Brown at arm’s length from the media early on,” Orsman said.
“He was actually very uncomfortable in the candidate debate setting and also in front of the camera and media scrums. He doesn’t perform very well in those settings. But he’s far more relaxed in one-on-one setting.”
Orsman said he is fortunate to have a rapport with Brown but he hopes the Mayor will open up as council kicks into full gear, as it is difficult to scrutinise Brown’s decisions and hold him to account in the same way as his predecessors Phil Goff and Len Brown.
That scrutiny will be more important as Auckland Council tries to fill a budget blowout. A few weeks into his new job, Brown was dealt the news of a $270 million hole in the council budget - which has since grown to $295 million.
Orsman said fixing this will be the first real test of Brown’s campaign promises, as there are not many easy, big savings to be made.
“He came into office on a promise to fix Auckland, and he boasted about as much vaunted management skills of fixing big, troubled billion dollar organisations. Well, he’s certainly got a big job on his hands now.”
Brown has refused to rule out selling the council’s stake in Auckland Airport to help plug the hole, but Orsman said it’s “the wrong strategy to pursue” as most left or centrist councillors are against asset sales.
He is unlikely to find any short-term wins in his big target, Ports of Auckland, due to the complexity of the situation. That’s despite Brown publicly calling for the board to go in a Q&A with Herald Premium readers this week.
Orsman said Brown needs to step back and go and visit the organisations he is unhappiest with, Ports of Auckland and Eke Panuku, and see what they are doing before making further moves.
“I understand that he had a meeting with a senior Auckland businessman on another very sensitive issue. My understanding is, after he had that meeting, he changed his mind on a policy,” Orsman said.
“It’s not as if he’s not open-minded... on a lot of issues. I just think he needs to get out there a bit more and just talk to people instead of firing off these statements willy-nilly and, and causing a bit of a storm.”
- Listen to the full podcast above for more on what has gone on in Wayne Brown’s first weeks in office