Nobody comes out of this well. The independent review into Auckland Council’s response to the Anniversary Weekend floods spreads the blame on an inadequate response among the mayor, council officials and this country’s emergency management setup.
The review team’s report says Auckland Emergency Management (AEM), which is a council outfit that springs into action when needed, “lacked situational awareness”. The jargon doesn’t disguise the meaning: they didn’t know what was going on.
The first explanation for this is that the rains were so severe and they came so quickly, no one knew what to think. It just crashed down around us all.
But there’s a deeper reason: with few exceptions, emergency management at council level is not a fulltime occupation. Most of the people who do it, in head office and out in the community, are council officials and staff drawn from other roles.
The report makes it clear that AEM lacks personnel with the experience and skills to manage a fast-moving disaster. Review head Mike Bush confirmed this in his press conference.
The people they have do get training and experience - the city has not been immune to floods - but not enough.
This will not be easy to fix. In this country, the relevant experience largely resides in Wellington, at the National Emergency Management Agency (Nema). They handle all the big disasters and build their skillsets by doing so.
Should Auckland have its own experienced on-call disaster managers? Or should such people be employed by the Government and quickly deployed wherever they’re needed? This is one of two questions at the heart of the Bush report.
The other is the relationship between Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown and council officials. Chief executive Jim Stabback resigned, giving six months’ notice, barely three weeks after the Anniversary Weekend floods, for unexplained reasons. Bush has revealed there was a big range of “communication failures” within council.
It seems reasonable to conclude the relationship between Stabback and Brown is dysfunctional.
It’s also obvious there are problems at council that are not of Brown’s making. The report says some date back at least to 2016. But the job of creating a functional culture in an organisation belongs with the boss. That’s the mayor.
Stabback, I should add, is a man I have heard praised by many councillors, including the current deputy mayor, Desley Simpson.
Unfortunately, Brown seems to prefer to disparage his officials. He was at it again this week, using a speech to business and civic leaders at the Herald’s Project Auckland lunch to ridicule the city’s transport bosses.
It hardly matters if you share his view that council is clogged up with overpaid wastrels. If you’re the boss and you want your key staff to do better, abusing them for the sake of populist laughs is an unhelpful way to go about it.
People died in the Anniversary Weekend disaster. Mike Bush said only a coroner could say if the dysfunction at council contributed to that, but it cannot have helped.
Auckland learned something this summer. The climate crisis is here and emergency management has become core council business. That has to start at the top.
One more thing. Where was Wayne, again?
The Bush report explicitly criticises the mayor for failing to grasp the importance of public-facing leadership in a crisis. His response? He failed to turn up to the press conference announcing it. That is, he failed to face the public. Come on.