I hate writing about Wayne Brown. He lives, as the lovely folk on Twitter never tire of reminding me, rent free in my head.
But council politics is at the heart of my beat and there he is, a new mayor knocking heads together, making demands, being ridiculous and also being effective.
Hell, if you squint a bit, you could even call it the greatest show in town. Consternation on the stock exchange, resignations, rows and the Government might even be taking him seriously. Apologies if it’s all too much, but how can I not write about him?
Brown’s staff have refused repeated requests for interviews from many journalists. I can see why. In my view, he doesn’t think quickly on his feet, he has temper issues and he’s not really a details guy either.
So he does brief media “stand-ups” and they don’t go well anyway.
During council meetings he has two ways of speaking. The first is to read a speech. Not from notes: every word is written out.
This is common among councillors, for the big formal debates. But Brown has taken to reading from a script even when he’s making quite minor remarks.
To me, it means he’s being managed by his staff, as comprehensively as they can.
But they can’t stop his other mode of speaking: the constant off-the-cuff patter. He’s often funny: Brown likes making jokes and he seems especially to like making them at others’ expense.
At the budget meeting last week he joked repeatedly about the speeches of Mike Lee, suggesting they were long and boring and more than a bit obstructive. The tenor of Brown’s comments was: “I’m sure Councillor Lee will want to take up a good deal more of our time explaining what’s wrong with that.”
Poor old Mike Lee. He was one of Brown’s staunchest supporters during the election campaign but now he’s locked in dispute with the mayor over asset sales and some transport issues.
The councillors, like his staff, are also trying to manage him. Their main weapon is flattery. Debating the budget last week, most expressed reservations but made a point of dressing them up in praise for Brown’s “remarkable” and “unprecedented” achievement in getting the budget together.
Deputy mayor Desley Simpson sat with a fixed expression as one councillor after another declared that no one had done as much to rein in excess spending or manage debt so rigorously.
Simpson was the finance committee chair who led the $900 million “emergency budget” cuts in 2020. She supervised the “value for money” programme, which has to date cut more than a billion dollars from general spending. She reduced debt as a percentage of revenue to pre-Covid levels.
Those things dwarf the $295 million Brown has had to find, but even she joined in the praise for her new boss.
Brown took all the flattery at face value, then exploded with rage when the media didn’t join in. Journalists chose instead to ask him how he felt, after talking about the value of council’s airport shares, that he had goofed so badly the company had to suspend trading on the stock exchange.
When he’d calmed down someone asked him if he thought councillors supported his budget. He said: “The ones who don’t get emotional do.”
This month we have also learned the successful candidate for the vacant job of Auckland Transport chief executive had asked to meet with the mayor. He wanted to see if they would be able to get along. Brown refused, so the candidate withdrew.
So clumsy. Brown not only lost a potentially high-calibre exec, he managed to signal to everyone else that senior jobs at council come with a hand grenade that’s had the pin removed.
But wait! He’s doing good things too! So here, in the spirit of the season, I offer ...
6 reasons to love Wayne Brown
1. He’s going to clean up the road cones
Although he has promised to “get rid of all the road cones”, he’s not going to do that because it’s silly. We need construction and maintenance and those things need cones.
But he has told Auckland Transport the protocols for cone use are excessive, which is true, and he wants that changed. He’s also talked about a project to get rid of all the abandoned cones.
None of this will make the city more functional, but it will be tidier. That’s something: mess is depressing.
2. He’s entertaining
Politicians who are entertaining make us care more about politics.
3. He’s pitched a broad tent
Brown has been relatively non-partisan in his appointments. Only one of his three most senior roles went to a Goff opponent (transport committee chair John Watson). The others went to Goff allies (Simpson and planning committee chair Richard Hills).
Brown rates people who engage constructively and can get the job done, and he’s probably been a bit surprised to discover which councillors have those attributes – and which don’t.
4. He’s trying to fix transport
Brown is right that Auckland Transport is dysfunctional. The trouble is, there’s enormous disagreement about what that means and Brown’s own thinking seems to be shifting.
Example: With council support, he is going to instruct AT that “reduced journey times” is a priority. That usually means faster car trips. But when Councillor Josephine Bartley challenged him about this, he insisted he meant bus trips. He has a list of proposals to achieve that.
Anyone who thinks Brown is going to rip out speed humps and cycleways may be disappointed.
5. He likes $10 beer
He said it often during the campaign: He likes a beer and will pay $10 for it, but not $100.
His point: It’s not important if you’re for or against something, whether it’s libraries, youth programmes, clean water or a new Waitematā crossing. What’s important is to make sure they cost an appropriate amount of money.
It would be nice if he actually was for some things – if he knew how to champion the city, say – but he’s quite right to insist on spending restraint.
6. He’s going to move the port
This is why Wayne Brown wanted to be mayor and this is the hill he’s prepared to die on. He wants to free up the port land for public and commercial use and he wants to kickstart a rail-based freight strategy.
Also, it doesn’t hurt that Northland, where he has deep roots, will probably benefit.
The Government agrees the port must move, one day, but Brown is the only politician anywhere who’s determined to get the ball rolling. He wants the cars gone from Bledisloe Wharf, for starters.
In October he told the port to draw up a plan with Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, but he’s gone silent on that. Now he’s telling them to work with the council’s property development agency Eke Panuku.
Brown is trying to force the Government to accept that Auckland has better things to do with its waterfront. Which council owns. The board at the port shows every sign of digging in for a war.
Councillors have faced a barrage of anti-move lobbying. In response, Brown intends to instruct the board not to help other groups lobby against council policy.
“I got this letter from the Auckland Business Chamber,” he told council last week, “and it didn’t seem to be written by the chamber.”
We’re heading for a full-scale On the Waterfront showdown, with Brown vs board chair Jan Dawson and CEO Roger Gray. Transport minister Michael Wood and finance minister Grant Robertson are also in the picture, along with the business chamber’s Simon Bridges, National’s Simeon Brown, the employers’ and manufacturers’ Brett O’Riley and let’s not overlook the indefatigable but long-winded Mike Lee.
In the movie, Marlon Brando is the good guy and Lee J. Cobb is the gangster. Readers will have their own ideas about who’s who in our own waterfront saga. Merry Christmas!
- Simon Wilson’s Tuesday column will return in late January.