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Who should I vote for to be Auckland's mayor?
I'm happy to report that I'm not cursing about the choices on offer
An irony of politics is that people are most interested in the political races that affect them the least. National governments are important, sure, but the services you interact with day to day—transport, planning, rubbish, public facilities—are run by local councils. I am exactly as guilty of this as the next person. But for the first time in twelve years, I soon get to vote for the mayor of the city where I live, so I felt like I should make at least rudimentary efforts to figure out what I’m doing.
I should say a little first about how I choose votes. I explain this more fully in a 2020 post, but I think of my vote as for a person, not their policies. How do they cope under pressure? Are they capable of navigating institutions? Do they comprehend nuance rather than oversimplify things? Will they work hard? Electing someone is like hiring someone: first and foremost, I want someone who will do the job well. If they do things I disagree with (within reason), I’ll get by, so long as they’re doing a good job of it.
That said, there is just one issue I’m paying close attention to. Candidates don’t have to be uncompromisingly pro-intensification, but they do need to demonstrate that they care about how to get more homes built, and not just issues like “character” that arise when developers try to do so.
I’ve attended a couple of community-organised mayoral debates (thanks to the University of Auckland Debating Society and the Auckland Chinese Community Centre), and I’ve watched the debates on Stuff (video) and Morning Report, as well as the Bernard Orsman’s interviews for NZ Herald (Collins, Brown). This probably makes me well above the median for informedness, but still below what I’d consider to be adequate. But alas, I can’t spend all month on this, so here’s what I have.
Efeso Collins is a Labour man, but he evidently prides himself at least somewhat on partisan independence. I remember seeing him openly criticise the (Labour) government about their handling of COVID-19, he’s been keen to play up his vote against the (Labour-proposed) regional fuel tax, and he didn’t wait for Labour’s endorsement before he announced his campaign. It’s important to me that a mayor put their city before their party, so it’s good to check this off.
Otherwise, I’m broadly satisfied that Mr Collins knows what he’s doing. He seems to demonstrate a sound understanding of Auckland Council—as you’d certainly hope from someone who’s spent six years on it! And I’m satisfied that his desire to work for all of Auckland, not just his corner of it, is earnest. (He’s been eager to remind voters that he asked to sit next to Desley Simpson, who represents Auckland’s richest ward, while he represented Auckland’s poorest.)
But I sometimes feel like he’s been trained to regurgitate talking points, rather than explain his own thought process. It’s possible that this is just a delivery issue, but since I expect mayors to have their own command of things, it’s a mild concern. My defence of him is that he’s trying to guard against typical reactions to tall, Islander men. Of course, I like to think it wouldn’t be necessary, or at least could be done without sacrificing talking freely, but if you’re playing risk-averse, you’ll inevitably have to compromise somewhere.
Mr Collins’ signature policy, fare-free public transport, is a bit silly. Transport economists have generally found that lower fares don’t help with uptake below a certain (nonzero) level; frequency and reliability tend to be the determinants. Some of his rivals have pointed this out, and I don’t think I’ve seen Mr Collins explain himself on that part of it. But I don’t see it causing a disaster, so this falls into my “things I’ll tolerate if executed well” bucket. On housing, he sits comfortably within the window of reasonable positions.
Wayne Brown’s claimed track record with “fixing” organisations is impressive, and from what I can tell, legitimate. At one of the mayoral forums, someone (with relevant experience) told me that he upset a lot of hospital staff, including doctors, when he made painful cuts at Auckland Hospital. One thing all the mayoral candidates have in common is they all love to tear into Council-controlled organisations and Council bureaucracy. Could Mr Brown’s experience help turn the monster around?
I’m not so sure. Mr Brown’s CV makes for an excellent fix-it manager, and I certainly admire the resolve to get things done. But the mayoral chains bring with them a different game. Auckland Council’s structure doesn’t grant the mayor the sort of executive power that a prime minister has—not even over CCOs and bureaucrats, let alone councillors. Mayors are left to play the leadership game with 20 councillors, elected from different wards and different political tickets.
Mr Brown is somewhat prepared for such critiques. He points out that the mayor sets the budget (not quite true: councillors vote on it), and this can be designed to constrain the chief executive (this part I buy). This might work, and I think his no-nonsense attitude will prove attractive to some people. But I’m sceptical that it’ll play out as he wishes.
Mr Brown waffles concerningly on housing. He’s expressed “total support” for the Character Coalition, not just sympathy for their concerns. With Morning Report, he lamented oddities in how planning’s playing out, but omitted any comment on a general need for more housing. On transport, his obsession with traffic light bus transponders is cute, but I guess more importantly it (among other things) demonstrates thoughtfulness about how to improve transportation that isn’t the headline-grabbing tagline approach taken by Mr Collins.
Some people have raised issues relating to his conduct while mayor of the Far North. This is poor form that he hasn’t really expressed regret about, and symptomatic of a mindset more suited for tough managerial roles than public office, but it isn’t by itself disqualifying.
Craig Lord is running an enthusiastic campaign, but I think he repeatedly demonstrates a naivety about local government that is disqualifying for a mayoral candidate.
The clearest example is his desire to conduct a “full audit” of every single Council department—as part of a waste-cutting endeavour. Has he considered how much that audit would cost? Stuff’s moderator pressed him on this question and he had no idea. Audits aren’t a bad idea, but a full sweep of every department seems destined to be an increase, not a decrease, in wasteful rates.
Similarly, his promise to prefer local contractors is not consistent with how to cut costs (it reduces competition among bids for work). More generally, I’ve felt from how he talks that he’s never had anything to do with Council processes. Being an outsider isn’t a bad thing—plenty of non-politicians make for excellent candidates and office-holders—but if I’m assessing this as a job application, Mr Lord clearly needs to spend a few years in more junior roles to learn the ropes.
I would’ve loved to include an assessment of Viv Beck, who I assumed would be the leading centre-right candidate. Her withdrawal is almost an argument for the STV system, in which it probably wouldn’t have been necessary (as right-leaning voters would have just had votes transfer from her to Mr Brown or vice versa). In brief, I generally thought she demonstrated thoughtfulness and nuance in her approaches to issues and I would have considered her a more likely contender for my vote than Mr Brown.
(Brief technical note: Ms Beck pulled out well after ballots were printed, so technically can’t withdraw. People can still vote for her, and if she wins, she’ll have the option of resigning. But I’m assuming enough people will pick up the memo for this not to be an issue.)
I didn’t really think Leo Molloy had the temperament necessary for a mayor and was clearly going for attention-grabbing headlines in a way that I would rather not see. But when settling into more serious forums, he turned out to be more credible and knowledgeable than I was expecting. It still wouldn’t have been enough, though.
If either Mr Collins or Mr Brown make it into the mayoral office, I think I’ll be content, and it’ll be interesting to see how they get on in the new job. In either case it’ll be a break from status quo: Mr Collins brings with him an understanding of South Auckland communities that’s hard to access otherwise; Mr Brown’s abrasive fix-it style may well shake things up. If you’re not sure who to vote for, I think they’re both credible candidates and, if it makes your life any easier, I’d suggest choosing between those two.
On balance, I’m leaning towards Mr Collins. As admirable as Mr Brown’s track record is, I’d need more convincing that his approach can make headway in an institution that, for better or worse, isn’t designed for it. The risk with Mr Collins is any shifts in direction will be barely perceptible as he mostly talks and negotiates (and compromises) with councillors. But that’s not intrinsically bad—most important local government work goes under the radar—and I’m at least satisfied that he’d have a good chance of doing this well.
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