The ‘crank’ who saved our beaches
It seems like old times – Greater Auckland (referred to regularly in this column as the not-so-great-city) is in an uproar.
Well not exactly. Auckland is just living up to its reputation.
Various minority groups holding council seats – and looking to keep them in the October elections – have that unitary plan to cope with.
They’re trying to smooth the hackles of critics raising understandable hell about what they fear will change their life and their specific surroundings forever.
In my working lifetime, I can’t remember more than one Auckland city council united behind a mayor, working as a team for the betterment of the community which elected them to serve.
Too often jealousy and ill-feeling ruin any hope that oneness of spirit and co-operation would replace bad feelings and back-biting.
Closest was the reign of Sir DoveMyer Robinson in the 1950s-1960s. Interestingly, he was never physically far from the centre of the city he was to dominate.
Campaigning money in his deep pockets came from his Childswear clothing factory on the general area which is now Aotea Square.
There he held court to the media, planning successive and successful political campaigns.
An advocate of pure food and a natural life and totally opposed to fluoride, he’d be a Greenie if he was alive today.
Robbie’s campaign against a Browns Island sewerage plan which involved discharging unpurified sewage into the Waitemata, set him up against Sir John Allum who was, all at the same time, mayor, chairman of the drainage board, transport board – and his pet project, chairman of the harbour bridge authority, among other things.
A rare Allum mistake was to see Robbie as a noisy crank when he began beating his personal political drum.
He could never have seen someone from the Robinson ‘‘Auckland and Suburban Drainage League’’ as likely to finally displace him.
Auckland historian Graham Bush would later label this clash as ‘‘between two men of steely character who … deserve being ranked among the half-dozen greatest men in Auckland municipal history’’.
Robbie made his first unlikely move in a by-election, taking a vacant city council seat as a minority of one in 1952.
As a spin-off, he joined the drainage board as a council representative.
Within a year, Sir John Allum had been ousted after 12 years. A pro-Robbie team with little local body experience, including among others, the formidable university geographer Dr Ken Cumberland, were on the council.
A strong vote for these ‘‘United Independents’’ with Labour cost Citizens and Ratepayers the majority they had come to think of as their permanent place by right.
And Robbie became chairman of his old adversary, the drainage board.
Ultimately, and not surprisingly, the Allum plan for Browns Island was scrapped and Robbie’s oxidation pond alternative replaced it.
By 1959 Robbie was mayor. Rejected by voters in 1965 – and never a man to take ‘‘no’’ for an answer – he stood and won another term three years later.
Yes, Robbie had his secret ways. Like a meeting which approved the overseas experts’ plan for the Mangere sewerage plant.
It deliberately went on well past midnight.
Why? Because the given Robbie the believed he deserved.
By the time the meeting reached the Mangere drainage decision on its agenda, the Herald’s deadlines had closed. Herald hadn’t
The evening Auckland Star, which had backed the Robbie plan, had the story first.
That may not have boosted the Star’s circulation, but Robbie saw it as justified comeuppance in a decade of battles and blood-stained backs, libel claims, dirty linen, commissions and backroom conspiracies.
The final outcome: Auckland and Sir John Allum got their bridge.
And in his nine years as mayor, Robbie and Auckland won the controversial Mangere drainage scheme he advocated, saving Auckland harbour from Auckland’s sewage and the first form of area governance he had urged.
He was a founding member and a chairman of the new Auckland Regional Authority he had urged.
He drew the votes of those who recognised his strengths and forgave him his sometimes annoying singlemindedness – the weapon he aimed at bloodyminded tenants in the Beehive.
He also had occasional flashes of local government circus, not only walking from Remuera to the town hall but doing it shirtless and with media cameras in tow.
He could be crass and maddening as well as inspiring. If current columns about ‘‘A-listers’’ had been wasting time and space then, they would have made much of his personal life.
Whose name on October voting papers will be remembered 60 years from now?
Auckland raised a statue of Robbie. He would have liked that.
But if you want to share the real monument to him, look out at the clear waters of Waitemata Harbour and breathe in the fresh sea air which the Browns Island scheme would have polluted.
The ‘‘crank’’ saved the harbour for Auckland. In the mailbag, a voter sums up: ’’I understood that the rationale for amalgamating all Auckland’s cities into one big body was that it would be cheaper. I really believed it. It sounded logical – one mayor instead of four or five, one administrative centre, and so on.
‘‘Instead, our rates continue to go up with no additional or recognisable benefits. As soon as they got into office the councillors voted themselves bigger salaries and as far as I can make out, most of the people who staffed the five cities still seem to be in other positions.
‘‘I wonder how much unnecessary money was spent on designing and repainting signs and logos spattering all the new cities’ cars and trucks with this dinky new labelling.
‘‘We have a mayor and council who seem to be intent on diminishing democracy by not listening to the concerns of the people who elected them, and who instead initiate expensive projects which are their hobby horses.
‘‘It feels as though they think they have the right to impose their limited vision and understanding on the people who live here now, and on the people of the future who will be the victim of their decisions and mistakes.’’
Sir Dove-Myer Robinson: In his heyday.