The ‘crank’ who saved our beaches

Auckland City Harbour News - - OPINION -

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

sup­port he

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.

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