This week, the Auckland Transition Authority announced nominations for the new Auckland Council elections. The “super city”, as it’s called, will amalgamate eight local and regional authorities into one unitary council – the largest in Australasia, representing 1.4 million people and covering 6000 sq km. Postal voting begins in September and the council comes into being on 1 November.
So far, Aucklanders are underwhelmed. The shake-up was designed to overcome a gridlock of competing council interests and decades of underinvestment in infrastructure. But the campaign has so far been dominated by tit-for-tats over personal spending and a belief that central government is doing away with local identity.
“It’s been sabotaged by both the left and the right,” says Simon Wilson, editor of the city monthly magazine Metro. The conservative minister for local government, Rodney Hide, has been unnecessarily adversarial; the left has “stirred up and made the most of the fear and concern.”
Fifteen mayoral hopefuls have put their names forward: there are two frontrunners, Len Brown and John Banks. Both are sitting mayors. Both are very short. Both are a little odd.
Brown is the current mayor of Manukau City, a multicultural, poor area in the south of the city. A former lawyer, he’s backed by New Zealand’s left-wing Labour party. He suffered a heart attack in 2008 and was recently outed for irregularities with his mayoral credit card (caught short without his personal card, he bought a ham and a stereo). This prompted an emotional display in the council chamber in which he slapped himself; he has been known to rap.
Banks – “Banksie” – is a self-made millionaire, former National party cabinet minister and talkback radio host known in his younger days for homophobic pronouncements. In his first term as mayor of Auckland City (2001 to 2004) he proposed building a motorway through the city’s wealthy eastern suburbs – his core constituency – and was known for driving a Ferrari. After being dumped from office, he underwent what he calls a “transmogrification” and a humbler Banksie was returned to office in 2007. He is known for being obsessively tidy.
Also putting themselves forward for mayor are Penny Bright, a veteran protester who has called the process a “corporate takeover of Auckland” and has been arrested several times, even at council meetings; Andrew Williams, the North Shore City mayor recently caught urinating on a tree after a few drinks; and Simon Prast, an actor who rose to national fame in the 1980s in a soap opera, ran the city’s theatre company and recently admitted to overcoming a methamphetamine habit.
Meanwhile, many current councillors are seeking election to the new council, and a man calling himself Jedi Craig is running on a ticket of “light sabre based progress”.
All of which leaves Aucklanders hoping that future elections might produce a better crop of candidates. “As the power of the Auckland council grows over time,” says Wilson, “I think it will change.”