Brown the key to Goff’s fate at polls
Local body elections usually attract half the turnout of national elections but the impulse to read wider significance into this year’s results is irresistible.
For one, the high-profile contest for the Auckland mayoralty brought out the vote there in large numbers. Overall, the message from all around the country has been that voters have reacted with hostility to the combo of highly centralised alpha male leadership, council amalgamation and the corporatisation of public services.
Clearly, the Supercity model is not one geared for export.
However, lest anyone try to depict this trend purely in left/ right terms it should be kept in mind that the model for fuzzy, warmly inclusive political leadership has been set by the prime minister, John Key.
In Auckland, the seemingly endless, presidential-style campaign finally saw Len Brown win out as the warmer, more credibly inclusive candidate.
All along, what incumbent mayor John Banks needed was a third party candidate on the left to split the Brown vote – yet thanks to a combination of personal failings and a virulent campaign to discredit him, North Shore mayor Andrew Williams could never credibly play a splitter role.
The crucial miscalculation of the Banks campaign was to treat Williams – and not Brown – as the more serious threat.
Local Government Minister Rodney Hide cannot escape responsibility for the results in Auckland. Moreover, the close outcome in Wellington can only be read as a rejection of any plans to import the Supercity model to the capital city.
Had property tycoon Sir Robert Jones put together a team for the local body elections, it would have split Kerry Prendergast’s vote and thrown the contest decisively to Celia Wade-Brown.
In Christchurch, the earthquake saved Mayor Bob Parker, mainly by enabling Parker as well to project a caring and inclusive style of leadership – while burying his past dealings with property developers that had formerly seemed to doom Parker’s campaign.
Nationwide, the results rejected the process of amalgamation. The implications will not have been lost on Key. While Hide is a now a proven electoral liability, his profile should subside as the ructions within the ACT Party fade from the headlines, and the Supercity spotlight shifts onto the performance of Brown’s new team.
Even so, keeping a low profile may not be enough to save Hide. His opponents within National will be urging Key to take ACT off artificial life support, and to run a serious National candidate in Epsom at the next election.
After all, Hide’s reforms of local government have now ended in disaster for the centreright. Thanks in no small part to Hide’s abrasive way of promoting them, the reforms have ended up delivering the nation’s biggest city and its business heartland, to a centre-left mayor, and to a council dominated by his supporters.
For the next few months, the nation’s bellwether politician will be Len Brown. If Brown succeeds in Auckland, Labour leader Phil Goff will enjoy some rub-off benefits at the next election. Yet if Brown fails and the Supercity mayoralty proves to be a poisoned chalice, Key and the centre-right may yet be the eventual winners next year.
Gordon Campbell is an experienced political journalist and columnist who has written for The Listener and Scoop.