new auckland

The Albert St Nine rise up

It would be tempting to think the letter by nine Auckland councillors expressing strong dissatisfaction with Mayor Phil Goff might lead to more openness and collegiality by the leaders of the Super City.

The Albert St Nine, based at Auckland House on that central city road, have got to the half way mark in Goff's first term as mayor and cried enough. Enough of the sidelining, political manipulating, off-hand chairing of the big meetings and secrecy. Enough of the blindsiding of councillors with policies made public via favoured journalists. Enough of the favouritism of flunkies on the council who will never vote against Phil's wishes.

But all the rebels have done is cried. Their letter is not a missive of no confidence because to do that you need viable means around the council table of turning that into a vote. They didn't have the numbers: there are 10 other councillors. Another likely dissident, Dick Quax died last month.

So it is a letter of dissatisfaction only, raising for the public some of the inner workings of Goff's leadership.

It has been prompted by the Mayor declaring councillors cannot have a full, unredacted copy of a costly report by consultants PwC into options for a waterfront stadium likely to cost more than $1 billion. The councillors can read an edited version, with blacked out bits, or can go visit Goff's office and read it with someone in the room - like a separated parent on a supervised visit with children.

Which is nonsense. Not just for the councillors who argue they were elected and have a right to see material provided to the council and paid for by ratepayers. Good point. A better point, though, is that the public ought to know the detail, not just their representatives. 

Politicians hide behind imagined needs for confidentiality whenever anything might be inconvenient. The Auckland Council is notorious for its secrecy. Many of the council's deliberations, the nitty gritty ones, are conducted away from the public and media view by being diverted to 'workshops' in which they privately hear and say things the voters never get to know.

Worse, the council has been shown publicly to have deliberately subverted the Official Information Act in at least two instances highlighted by the now-departed Radio New Zealand Auckland correspondent Todd Niall. Goff was implicated in those delays but had a typically belligerent response when Morning Report interviewed him on the deliberate delays and gaming of the Act.

The supposed reason for denying the councillors normal access to a full, unredacted waterfront stadium report is that the various sites nominated should remain confidential so that the council (and presumably central government) retain an advantage commercially if some day down the track they come to seek to buy said plots of land.

To think those who own chunks of land in the waterfront area that might hold a 30,000-40,000 seat stadium don't realise already that their land could be in contention is fanciful. As the Albert St Nine point out in their letter, Goff has publicly identified one site near the Spark Arena on Ngati Whatua land repeatedly in the media and during his election campaign.

So if the site confidentiality is not the issue with the report, what is? To build a waterfront stadium means to abandon Eden Park. To abandon Eden Park as a venue has all kinds of implications for compensation to sports, for future use, for neighbourhoods and businesses, not to talk of who would want to take it over. 

The councillors surely can be trusted to view the full report. And that is what this comes down to. Some people on the council believe they can be trusted but their peers cannot. They have the temerity to suggest there could be leaks from the report, but selected, advance media stories are commonplace from all parts of the elected body, including from the Mayor.

The complainants, who include Labour Party councillor Efeso Collins and councillors of the left (Mike Lee and Cathy Casey), leftish (Wayne Walker), indeterminate (Christine Fletcher and John Watson) and right (Sharron Stewart, Daniel Newman and Greg Sayers), are calling out the secrecy but they are also calling out the high-handed reign of Goff. While he has cultivated support from his Labour allies (including Richard Hills) and loyalists Alf Filipaina, deputy mayor Bill Cashmore and finance chairman Ross Clow, and the ever-grand planning chair Chris Darby, he keeps Phil at the centre of most things

Does the rebellious correspondence mean things will change? Unlikely. As Goff airily said during the council's debate on the regional fuel tax last month as some of the councillors above raised objections to an 11.5 cent a litre tax for transport projects: "It is easy to speak against something when you know it is going to pass."  It was a back-handed put down, implying as it does that councillors had courage to speak out only when it wouldn't affect the outcome.

Goff is always political. Always 'on'. He will likely continue in the style he has formed over many years. He got his 10 year budget through with a united vote and the niceties of councillors' feelings will come second to action. Until they don't.

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