Let's face it, the present gaggle of Auckland councillors was never going to rush to rescind Ports of Auckland's decision to sack its 292 port workers.

Not when the port bosses are dangling the promise of larger returns to pour into new highways as a consequence. What was disastrous about yesterday's vote was the way they went about it.

Instead of putting the issue up for debate and having a good old healthy shouting match, as politicians are supposed to do, they cowered behind their legal advisers who warned of unspecified possible consequences if they opened their mouths and told the "independent" directors and managers of this ratepayer-owned company what they thought.

With or without the debate, the outcome would have been the same. The pleas for help from the sacked workers would have been ignored. But at least if there had been a debate, the councillors would have signalled they were asserting their right to a say in the work practices and human rights practices being adopted in the industry they owned.


Public opinion doesn't allow Nike and adidas and Apple to abdicate all responsibility for the appalling conditions experienced by workers in their Asian factories, and neither should it.

But yesterday, Mayor Len Brown and a majority of councillors decided that what happens inside the city's port was not for them to fuss about. It's a precedent that will live to haunt them.

The first sign of things to come was the defiant press statement issued by Gary Swift, chief executive of Auckland Council Investment (ACIL), the council-controlled organisation that owns the port company on behalf of all Aucklanders.

Issued two hours before the special council meeting, it was a highly political assault on the politicians about to debate the issue.

Mr Swift "dismissed" critics of the 12 per cent return on equity goal for the company. He said claims that it could not be achieved were "absolute nonsense".

In reality, the criticism of the 12 per cent target is not so much that it can't be achieved, but of the way the port company plans to squeeze its workers to make it happen.

Given the timing, the statement was highly provocative. It also highlighted how, in the new environment of the Super City where politicians and the CCOs are testing boundaries, where there's a vacuum the smartest operator will leap to fill it.

Mr Brown acknowledged this when he said there was no manual to follow, and that he was learning from the Government's experience with SOEs. He compared the present situation with the 2005 Air New Zealand strike, noting how the Labour Government reluctantly stood to one side.


But that strike was never about sacking the whole workforce and replacing them with outside contractors.

At yesterday's council meeting, Labour Party stalwart Richard Northey succumbed to the legal advice and withdrew his motion expressing "opposition to the redundancy and contracting out of 292 port workforce positions as proposed" and expressing "the strong desire for an immediate return to good faith bargaining ..."

He lost, six votes to 10, to get support for a weaker statement expressing a preference for "keeping a directly employed ... workforce" as long as "better efficiency can be achieved".

The in-house legal advice was that the council could set strategic direction and performance targets for the port through ACIL and hold the port company board to account through performance review procedures.

"But council and ACIL cannot intervene in matters of business judgment."

For me, Councillor Cathy Casey was a breath of common sense. She found common ground with the mayor on just one point. "This is a new rule book. Nothing has been tested."

Like Mr Swift, her view was to test the boundaries. When the amalgamated city was being forced on Auckland, she said, Aucklanders' biggest fear was the loss of voice and the loss of control.

"This is a critical decision for this council. I don't know who we are and who is actually in charge of Auckland. We've got seven council-controlled organisations and what the legal advice says is we can't do anything except through the Statement of Intent. Well, the real issue here is the lives and families of 292 workers ...

"I thought we had a say in the running of the city. I thought that's why people elected us, not to give away our responsibilities to Gary [Swift] and the CCOs."

Rhetoric to one side, you have to agree. Auckland's rulers surrendered power to the unelected yesterday with hardly a whimper.