Sunshine Superman

UPDATE: 9/10/10 Len Brown has won the Auckland Super City Mayoralty by a substantial majority 221k votes to 161k votes over former Auckland City Mayor John Banks. Colin Craig came third with 40k votes. See full results. More >>

An interview with Supercity mayoral contender Len Brown

by Gordon Campbell

It may seem like decades since Len Brown, John Banks and sundry others began running for the Supercity mayoralty, but – believe me – the never ending contest will finally grind to a halt next month, on October 9th. Like many of the dreams of Rodney Hide, this one is not what it once was. As initially defined, the office of Supercity mayor had possessed virtually limitless, quasi-feudal powers – yet by last Christmas, even the New Zealand Herald (usually a reliable cheerleader for the Hide reforms) was lamenting that the mayor and Council could become virtual passengers in a corporatisation process that would deliver much of Auckland’s economic power and decision making to the non-elected heads of the so-called CCOs, or council-controlled organizations.

Cue another screeching change of gear. Last minute legislative changes led to a few – arguably cosmetic – changes, and the power to fire the CCO heads after their first term was placed back in the hands of the next mayor. Against Treasury and other departmental advice however, the huge Transport CCO was left outside direct Council control. On the upside, Hide’s plans to impose extremist Colorado style rates reducing referenda on the people of Auckland were consigned to the dustbin, and replaced by a vague accountability process nailed onto long term Council planning. If I can use an ancient television analogy, the whole Supercity saga has felt very Deadwood. It still is a work in progress – if progress is the right word for something that involves trying to shove the democratic stuffing back into a governance package whose very essence has involved throwing it to the four winds.

Like Auckland itself, the two main contenders for mayoral office have seemed to be on their own personal quest for a viable identity. At last count, the polls were deadlocked. For months now, John Banks has been trying to project a gentle, collaborative side of his personality that has been totally invisible during his previous 63 years on the planet. Evidently, Banks is now to be regarded as everyone’s favourite dotty uncle. It has been like suddenly being presented with the other side of the moon after looking at the arid, crater pocked lunar landscape for eons – who knew that Banks’ other side was a verdant rain forest, where predators lie down chuckling beside their prey?

Len Brown of Manukau has been making the reverse journey. Over the same period, he has been trying to project a toughness and composure not visible during his famous credit card spending meltdown a few months ago. In person, there is an inexorable, almost Pentecostal intensity to Brown, a one-man onslaught of decency who seems hell bent on convincing every last person in Auckland – one by one if he has to – that he will listen, he will consult, he will govern in their name, even if it kills him. Which it might do, at this rate.

Perhaps it is fitting that both of Auckland’s potential leaders are asking to be taken largely on faith, and on their good intentions. Which is the more (in)credible option? John Banks promising sweetness and light, or Len Brown promising to be a steady hand at the tiller? Still, it was always going to be a leap in the dark. The Supercity is unknown territory, an experimental model in truncated democracy for which no one has much in the way of relevant experience. But that’s Auckland for you though, isn’t it? It’s a spinner. Always in the process of becoming something else, yet never quite getting there.

Werewolf editor Gordon Campbell spoke to Len Brown in mid-August about how he plans to keep the CCOs in line, the mayoral campaign, his feelings about public-private partnerships, and who should pay for the CBD loop.

Campbell : What’s unique about the Supercity structure and the powers of its mayor – compared to the way other councils in New Zealand are run?

Brown : The powers of the mayor in particular are different. The mayor gets to appoint the deputy mayor, set up the Council political structure and appoint the chairs within that. Secondly, it is quite a distinctively and strongly corporate structure with a high number of CCOs – who are managing 75% of the assets of the Council – transport, water and waste water in particular. That’s quite unique also.

And what’s also unique about the Supercity is that in other councils around the country those CCO organizations are more directly under Council control, correct?

Oh yes. In Manukau we have seven CCOs. We’re well used to this type of corporate structure. But we developed that over ten years. And we developed it in liaison with our communities, and also with the business community, in terms of the appointment of directors. It was an incremental, organic growth. Yes, its different to that extent. And its different to the degree [of corporate control.]

All very well. Yet when CCOs control 75% of council assets, how can you re-assure Aucklanders that if they elect you, you’ll have the assets and resources at your command, to get done what they want done?

Because the CCOs will deliver out on our vision. That’s exactly the way it is going to go, and if they do not –

So you will be micro-managing them?

Oh no, I will not be micro-managing them.

How can you ensure they won’t run away with the ball?

Because in terms of the accountability of CCOs, we will set up a CCO review panel that will, on a quarterly basis, be managing the performance of the CCOs and their KPIs [Key Performance Indicators.] Secondly, I will be sitting with CCO chairs and CEOs on a monthly basis to get an assessment of how they are proceeding against those KPIs. Thirdly, I will ensure that CCOs are sitting with the community boards so that they are getting feedback from the local community as to how their management of the assets is working. So there are a number of accountability networks, checks and balances to ensure that the CCOs are absolutely delivering out on the policy and strategy of the Council.

So the CCOs will be a creature of the Council – is that what you’re saying?

Absolutely they are. Again, I’ll just reflect back on our experience in Manukau because its well beyond anyone else’s experience with this –

But CCOs of this size are in a whole different league

No, its not a whole different league. The CCO structures are the same as what we’ve got at the moment. Its just been imposed in a very short timeframe. And they are bigger. But the same principles apply.

Really? But the Transport CCO alone will control 54 % of rates money, some $680 million. If elected, will you be asking central government to remove its statutory basis, and put that particular CCO back under direct Council control?

I’m not going to be rash in my actions or my judgements. I’ll be very clear with the community that I will review that CCO after two years of its action. But I don’t want to arrive at the office on the 1st of November, and start clear felling the structure.

Do you think it desirable that the Transport CCO should be back under Council control?

Manukau’s view, and I represented that view to government as its leader, is that we should not have a Transport CCO. That it was inappropriate – that as a Council that has been strongly able to deliver out our own transport requirements at a local level with real pace and momentum and a minimum of fuss – we saw this as being a job that the new Auckland Council should do, particularly. It is in Transport that the biggest changes are required.

So let’s be clear – you do, or you don’t support the Transport CCO having a statutory basis ?

No, I do NOT support that. But I think ..well, I have to caveat that by saying that Parliament has made its decision around the structure. We have inherited it. I’m going to respect the Transport CCO for two years, and then make some judgements as to whether or not it is working. If its not working, I’ll be going to Parliament. If it is working, we’ll leave it.

Making A Dodgy Model Work

You call yourself a fiscal conservative. Do you intend to cap rates?

I’m going to have rates increases in and around the rate of inflation. I’ve been into a situation where I’ve tried to cap rates. And at times quite frankly it is [unintelligible] to do that. So for me, as a guide for me it’s the appropriate way for us to go forward…In Manukau for example, we’ve had no water rates increases over the last two years. Zilch. Before that, 2%. For residential rates, we’ve been sort of between two and four and a half per cent.

You see, my problem here is that there’s talk in the Hide legislation of a fiscal envelope, and a process whereby accountability will be measured against the Council’s long term plan. How can that possibly work, given that elsewhere around the country, Councils regularly re-jig their long term plans depending on community need, and depending on the rates revenue they wind up getting in the hand?

I’ll be quite pragmatic about that. I’ve been pretty much at the coalface of leading Manukau’s financial arrangements for the last 12-15 years, and I know and understand how our long term plan documents work, and I’ll keep in close to the communities on those. We will review them every year – and every half year – within that envelope.

So you don’t see the fiscal envelope as a legislative straitjacket?

No, I do not see it as a legislative straitjacket. I see the present framework as having as much scope for us to amend and re-direct as we think appropriate, and as mandated by the people. So I’m not constrained by that.

Are the powers and the boundary lines of responsibility between local boards and Council entirely clear to you?

No, they’re not. They haven’t been clarified as yet. I’m supportive of the general thrust of the ATA’s proposed rules, which I think the government will pretty much take on board. The areas where I think we could give a little bit more power to the boards is around having a significant role in the granting of building permits and resource consents in particular – through the capacity to join in hearings. I would have preferred to have seen the boards’ powers legislated into statute – so that the delineation was clearer. They have not done that.

Reason I ask, is that on my reading of the Auckland Council Act, it says that Council should delegate to local boards, but retain the discretion to over-ride them, if Council feels that matters should be better dealt with regionally. That’s not exactly crystalline clarity, is it?

Not only that. It’s a recipe for a significant punch-up, constantly. Because having been the mayor of a city for three years, a councillor for 12, and a community board member for 12 years, some of the areas of greatest challenge have been around determining who’s got what delegated authority, and whether or not its properly exercised by the board, or by the council. So I understand the politics of that, and its not easy. I would much rather prefer a clearly defined regime, put down in statute.

Going back to what was said earlier. The Supercity CCO’s are much bigger than those in Manukau. Why should we take it on faith that you can manage CCOs of the scale that the Supercity will entail ?

You can ask that of any candidate. Because every candidate has the same challenge. It just so happens that I am the leader of the second largest city in New Zealand instead of the first, at this point in time. And I am the leader of a council that probably has the best balance sheet in the region. Significantly the best. Lowest rates on average, lowest water rates on average, lowest debt to equity average. That background and experience in my view, fits me out very, very well for the role that we’re looking at.

Reportedly, Auckland will contain two million people in the not too distant future. You can only expand north, or south. If elected, would you be in favour of expanding the metropolitan limits – or would you be wanting to promote policies supportive of greater urban density?

Both, actually. There’s a strong case for taking on board the international experience with ‘smart growth.’ That’s been prepared to intensify – and build up and build down. That’s essential for us to do because we need economies of scale for public transport development – and also a recognition that significant and unbridled urban sprawl tends to give rise to massive financial cost and impact on the environment.

But we also have scope to take up the significant population growth we’re expecting – another million people in the next 20, 25 years – in and around some of our broader areas of notable development such as Pukekohe in the south, or Orewa into the north.

Can that be done without the usual bugbears of ribbon development and the lack of amenities associated with de-centralisation?

I absolutely believe so. In amongst that, I just want to say that there is a need for us to critically recognize the sustainability of our rural sector. We want to maintain our dairy farms , our viticulture and our crop growers within close proximity to the Auckland market.

Okay, so …does it seem ironic to you that many of the same people who promote the modern Supercity also promote the same old tired rezoning policies that will foster more ribbon development and more roading – where the main benefits get captured by the property speculators busily turning land into sections. How do you aim to you stop that?

Well I just want to reflect on your view of those who are promoting the Supercity…Mostly its promoted on the basis that they can get economic efficiencies from the large model. That’s entirely debatable, and its going to be a challenge. The amalgamations we’ve had thus far – and certainly Manukau is an example, in 1989 – don’t necessarily give economic efficiency. They do most certainly give economies of scale, and allow you to develop large scale infrastructure where previously you could not.

Fine. Yet what I’m getting at is the modern drive for economic efficiency seem to be going hand in hand with outdated notions that you can just expand outwards like Topsy – and not worry your pretty head about the lack of amenities and the provision of adequate public transport

You’re right. I think that people with that philosophy about amalgamation often do have a similar reflection on the need for us to not constrain growth, and to let the market prevail.

Not you though ?

I’m not included in that crew.

OK, lets look at your capacity to deliver. Last year, the Supercity mayor was being depicted as an all powerful feudal overlord – but given the extent to which Auckland’s assets has been corporatised by Rodney Hide, it is just as often depicted as a virtual captive of council controlled business organizations. In your view, which is the truer picture?

Neither. Its somewhere in-between. In terms of the lesser view, I think the mayor has a strong leadership role to play in clearly defining a vision, delivering it through the Spatial Plan and through Council, and delivering it through the CCOs, through the statement of corporate intent. So the mayor and the Council clearly set the direction for the CCOs in their management – and it is essential for them to follow that vision through. Secondly, the view that the mayoral office is all powerful – no, its not. The mayor is one vote in Council. The mayor is going to need to work collaboratively with other councillors, and with the community boards to ensure a high level of buy-in, one to the vision and policy and two for the community to get a sense of ownership.

The Campaign

What’s the normal level of turnout in Auckland local body elections, and what level would you expect this time around?

Average is 38, 39, 40 %. across the region. Dips up and down a bit through terms. I’m expecting we should realistically aim for 55%.

Are John Banks’ supporters more likely to turn out to vote than your supporters?

Well, my supporters will be from all across this region. When I became mayor of Manukau I drew support from all across the region, from Howick through Otara, Manurewa, Papatoetoe, Mangere to Clevedon. All of those areas turned out strongly for me. I’m campaigning in every part of this town, so I’m expecting that people who support me.

Without putting a value judgement on this, it seems like a no-brainer – doesn’t it – that the people who support Banks are more likely to get out and post in their vote than the people in Manukau ?

[In reply Brown and his aide Conor Roberts historical numbers for turnout in Auckland City local elections between 2001 and 2007, Banks’ vote stayed much the same – about 47,000 in 2001, 46,000 in 2004, 45,000 votes in 2007, He got fewer votes when he won again in 2007 than when he lost in 2004. Voter turnout overall went from 40% to 45% when he lost, to 40% when he won again. Point being, to Brown and Roberts, Banks is such a divisive figure that his turnout doesn’t vary much. Whether the overall turnout goes up or down, Banks’ vote stays the same.]

Even so, his main strength is in Auckland City, which holds 1/3 of the entire voting catchment. Therefore, he doesn’t have to add very much elsewhere to do too much to prevail. But your argument is that if turnout goes up by 5, 10 or 15%, that will favour you, right?

If its only 40 % I think we will have a good chance of winning. And anything beyond that, we will have a very good chance of winning.

Does geography matter very much in this election? Are there regional issues that matter ?

Yes, absolutely. The big issue for communities is that they will lose their identities, and that the new Auckland Council will not look after them, in their little villages. Auckland is a place of 100 villages. So the communities in Helensville and Waiauku, Otara and Grey Lynn and Avondale are looking at this election and saying hey, I’m just going to get buried in this, because all the money is going to go into the CBD and what’s going to happen to me ? So the thing people are most looking for is a mayor who will look after their local communities.

But you can’t be the fairy godmother to everyone, right?

No, but I can be the person who is the honest broker who will seriously be interested in them and will give a damn about their community.

But if the alleged advantages of the Supercity model are unity of vision and economies of scale, doesn’t that inevitably put paid to the regional niceties?

As the mayor, I’m not just there as mayor with my voice and with the councillors. The key role to play is that we have 21 local boards. How well they function and connect in with the local community, and be able to deliver for the needs of that community and deliver out at the local level a vision, strategy and policies of the mayor and Council will have a major impact on how Auckland comes together and unites.

Given that the job entails liaising with 21 boards people and assuring people that they are being listened to and that their regional concerns are being addressed….this isn’t a recipe for a divisive personality, is it?

No, it certainly is not. This is a recipe for someone who is seriously into alliance building, and collaboration. The Royal Commission had it right. Two key things for the leadership of Auckland : a vision and plan that we all agree to, and go with. Secondly, an inclusive nature. This is a hugely diverse region in terms of geo-political size….we have to address the huge diversity of this place, the 195 different ethnicities and cultures that go to make up Auckland. And that requires a leader who understands that, who is tolerant and understanding of those changes and who can actually bring people together.

The Meltdown

There was a point a few months ago when the anti-Banks vote seemed to be yours for the taking. Haven’t you squandered that with those personal episodes a couple of months ago. Jjust as people were getting to know Len Brown , you blew it. Hasn’t that done irrepairable damage?

Well, I’m out in the community all the time. Most people see that and recognize it for what it is. In terms of my actions..I’ve fronted up to it as I always do. Secondly, I made an apology as I thought was appropriate. Thirdly, learned a lot from it. Fourthly, won’t do it again. Most people also realise that in the scheme of things it was pretty blinking minor and they just want to get on with Len, what are you going to do for us? Mostly with me as mayor the questions are – how are you going to sort out crime? How are you going to sort out the transportation problems? What are you going to do for my kids, and their education?

The rest of that stuff they see as peripheral. They want to know where you stand and whether or not they can trust you. And whether you’re believable.

Do you think that John Banks by comparison, gets a free ride from the media?

No. In a campaign like this where it is intense – and where everything you do and say is under the spotlight – everyone has their good days and their bad days.

But Banks is one of those politicians where people say – when he hits a sour note or says something bizarre – that’s its just Banksy. Same way they say that’s Hone, or that’s just Rodney. You’re not one of those politicians.

That’s because people are still getting used to me. They’re still measuring me, and testing me. I accept that. I will win this election by persuading the community that I’m someone they can trust, and secondly that they approve my vision. If I can sit with a person in my community for more than ten seconds, I will get on a wavelength with them, and get something we can agree with.

But maybe your good intentions are not the issue. Maybe the incident a couple of months ago suggested that when push comes to shove, you can’t handle the pressure ?

I guess you’re talking about the way I was portrayed on television in our Council chamber. I’m a very, very passionate guy and if I feel strongly about something I express it. And I’m saying to the people of Auckland if you want a leader at this point of historical change, you’re going to need a leader who believes in what they believe and has got a passion for the place.

They also want a guy who can mind the store without melting down or getting quite so….passionate in the process.

Quite so. And that’s why we spent the first ten minutes of this interview talking about my fiscal prudence.

The CBD Loop and PPPs

Do you think local government should raise all the money for the CBD rail loop – and use fares from paying customers to pay it back? Or should central government make a significant contribution towards the transport infrastructure of the Supercity, given that this is this country’s economic hub?

The second, absolutely. But we have a role to play, definitely in terms of the funding.

What percentage do you think would be appropriate?

Well, we’ll work that through. I’m certainly not going to carry through my negotiations with the government with you, Gordon here today. We need a significant –

Are we talking 50/50?

No, I’m not going to talk about any sort of percentages. Because that’s a matter between me hopefully, as mayor of Auckland, the government, and potential private investors. These are significant issues of partnership in the building of critical transport infrastructure. I’ve said there are four options for us in terms of funding for it – one, rates. Two, central government taxation. Three, infrastructure bonds. I see the potential for us to issue out…. between $1-2 billion in infrastructure bonds over a 5-10 year period to balance or supplement the work we need to do to get paid. And fourthly, an area of funding where we have not been overly pro-active, and which this government is supportive of, and what I believe we need to be supportive of – is PPPs. We need to have the discussion in Auckland for public private partnerships and the delivery of one or two of these projects to enable us to do these projects in a 15 to 20 year period.

So there is a mix of those four options in front of us and how they come together, Gordon. I’ve got it reasonably clear in my mind, but we are talking about incorporating the government as one of the partners, and the private sector as the other in intense negotiations. And I don’t think I should conduct that in a situation where I could compromise a negotiating position for myself.

But on principle, you think central government should make a significant contribution?

Absolutely. I have a very good working relationship with this government, and with the Prime Minister. Professional – and political. And to some extent a shared philosophy in terms of the key issues facing Auckland.

And a shared passion for PPPs, it seems.

Yes, I – absolutely…

Since you don’t have problems on principle with PPPs, do you regard that 35 year Watercare contract as a good model ?

No.

Why not?

Well, I have a very strong commitment to strategic assets in the public domain. Auckland will own 23 % of airport shares. We will hold that. Auckland will own 100% of Ports of Auckland shares. We will hold that. Auckland will own all of its waterways and water assets – we will hold those and …I want to have flexibility around the management of those assets and I don’t to have any sense that someone is playing a long game for the privatization of those assets.

Yes, but PPPs can be privatization by other means. A 35 year term is effectively privatisation. In the PPPs that you would support, would you expect them to have a shorter contract term?

A lot of that will depend on the funding. And the period of time over which we would want – in effect, the loan, the debt repaid and the asset returned to us…but a 15-20 year time frame for most of these PPPs has been seen as an appropriate timeframe.

Right. And that sort of term for PPPs is a commitment?

But if we were to look at a PPP project for example, to do the biggest project – which would be a tunnel through to the Shore and rail. That could be something in the vicinity of $4-5 billion dollars. Then the arrangement might be longer, purely on the basis of economics. We need to be able to sustain our ability to pay it back and the shorter timeframe might prove to be too difficult, in terms of costing.

Hubbard, and Saying “ No”

Didn’t Auckland vote for the kind of consultative, inclusive type of leadership you’re offering once before – with Dick Hubbard? Aren’t you in a sense, Dick Hubbard II?

I’ve got a lot of time for Dick Hubbard. I think he’s a great Kiwi, and a great businessman. His time as the mayor was ..his time. I’m the mayor of Manukau. I was elected on a thumping majority because….I’d served extensively in my community and knew the community back roads, front roads, side roads, inside out roads. I’d done my porridge. I’d served my time. I will sit in that Council with a strong support base of people who come from a similar mind to mine – who will be people from the left and the right and the centre and residents and ratepayers. We will not have the kind of divisive Council that we have had in Auckland for decades ! We will have a collaborative Council, and I will lead that collaborative Council for those people who come from wherever.

Will the Supercity structure enable you to do things that Hubbard couldn’t ?

I don’t want to reflect or talk about Dick. Its irrelevant.

No, its not. Some would argue that the style – and the promise of consultation –are not dissimilar.

Oh, rubbish. I have a style that’s could be a mix of Bob Harvey, of John Banks, of Kerry Prendergast. We each bring our unique style to this. Mine happens to be collaborative and inclusive. But experienced, firm, and fair, right? My record in Manukau stands. And I have held the confidence of those people, overwhelmingly.

Collaborative is fine. But being the mayor, and managing a diverse range of competing interests and priorities is not a situation where everyone can always be sent home with a prize. Have you got it in you to say “No” to people?

How would you like it if you were having to make a decision in your Council, on putting in place outside someone’s house a cell phone site that they firmly believe is going to kill their children from radioactive waves, and is going to drop their property value by a third as soon as it goes up. And you’ve got the neighbourhood sitting in front of you in your chambers, screaming their heads off to NOT make that decision ? What do you think it takes to make a decision against that ? I’ve had to make some tough decisions in my time as the mayor. Basically, delivering out moral authority – you’re making a decision beyond the personal interests but about the public good.

Personally, if you want to know what’s making my motor tick, I had a choice to walk away from everything. I nearly lost my blinking life [from a heart attack] And I came back from that. And I came back from that because of the love of the blinking people.

ENDS