Putting up the rates is nothing to write home about but I have written this at Martyn’s request. Last Thursday, as I did the previous four years, I voted to support the council budget, or Long Term Plan as it is called. Though this time I confess I was sorely tempted not to. While the basic rate increase was a modest 2.5%, a so-called transport ‘levy’ of $100 per ratepayer was banged on by mayor Len Brown at the last minute
While I believe serious money does need to be spent on transport infrastructure in Auckland, especially on rail, at the same time that money has to be prudently spent and not treated as some sort of corporate welfare for the private sector. To this end, at the previous budget meeting in May I succeeded in amending the Long Term Plan to ensure an investigation into why Auckland’s privatised rail operations which I found costs $70m per year more than Wellington’s (for a similar numbers of passengers carried). In contrast to Auckland, where the train services are managed by the French company Transdev, Wellington’s operation is public sector. Run by state-owned KiwiRail. You can imagine the outcry from the business media and chambers of commerce etc., if the costs of the operations were the other way round.
At last Thursday’s meeting the Auditor-General, Lyn Provost, told the councillors, that voting against and therefore torpedoing the Long Term Plan at this late stage would have serious legal and financial consequences. Without doubt it also would have led to a media meltdown. (Note well the contrived media hysteria about the list of phantom abstainers). But this crisis would have been real, with he Auckland Council running out of money within weeks. The media would have almost certainly hyped ‘Auckland’s financial crisis’ for all it was worth. As I told the mayor to his face at the meeting, given his personal unpopularity and that of the council in general, a council fiscal meltdown on top of a ‘Housing Crisis’ would have posed an irresistible temptation for the National government to step in – just as it did and with much less reason, with the Canterbury Regional Council – and replace the mayor and councillors with commissioners.
Just for getting rid of Len Brown alone, would have made the Tories popular heroes (for the first few weeks anyway) with John Key’s poll ratings likely going through the roof. Given my knowledge of what went on with the Auckland Transition Agency, the body that set up the Super City in 2009-10, the likelihood is that Key, English and Joyce’s hand-picked commissioners would have been given clear riding instructions on how to deal with the council finances. Almost certainly this would have included ‘asset recycling’ – the latest jargon for privatization. Almost certainly too, by the time the commissioners had completed their work, gone would be public ownership of Ports of Auckland and Auckland International Airport. Also would be gone, given the National caucus’ particular loathing of these projects, would be the City Rail link, Light Rail and rail to the airport – off the table for my lifetime at least. Nick Smith’s Special Housing Areas (SHAs) – a free pass for developers that suspend neighbours’ and communities’ RMA rights to object – would become the norm across Auckland. I might be wrong about this but I don’t think so. This was the fate I believe was in store for Auckland if the councilors had voted at the last minute to cut off the council’s funding.
Unfortunately as the deputy mayor & another councillor were away on holiday it all came down to a single vote. I made the call to vote in support. It was not the populous option and I didn’t feel good about it (in fact I came away feeling I had just spent the day down in a sewer) – but I sincerely believed – and still do – that it was the right thing to do at this time for Auckland and for democracy.
In closing my speech in the debate I told the chief executive that he and his management team needed to ‘take a good long look in the mirror’. ‘Auckland Council needs to change – or it will be changed.’ To be frank, given that immediately after the meeting the senior managers went off to a celebration party, it seems my admonition didn’t have that much effect. Frankly the council is unlikely to change. Therefore it will have to be changed. But better that change comes from the people of Auckland in a democratic election – rather than from John Key and his government.
Mike Lee is a councillor and one of the liberal lions of Local Auckland Politics