The three front-runners for the Auckland mayoral race face a robust set of questions in a new environment
Cycle paths, cannabis, and Auckland’s night life were the issues de jour at the Karangahape Road Business Association’s Meet the Candidates event.
There were a few more suit jackets than normally on display among the punters at Whammy Bar on Wednesday night, as the underground venue hosted a debate between the three mayoral candidates currently leading polls.
Viv Beck, Wayne Brown and Efeso Collins all admitted it was the first time they had set foot in the bar, which is usually more likely to host touring punk bands than political hopefuls.
Questions from the event host, media commentator Russell Brown reflected the culture of Karangahape Road, with the candidates at times seemingly struggling to strike an appearance of young, progressive and likely to commute by bicycle.
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Previous business association meetings have seen candidates like Beck and Brown pushing a more business-first agenda, where talking points were more likely to deal with traffic and rates than music, cannabis legalisation and cycle paths.
Centre-left candidate Efeso Collins had a shorter distance to travel when it came to policies around climate action and public transport, although he was still caught out in the crowd’s eyes when quizzed about his opposition to the legalise cannabis bill.
“There may be people in the room who are saying there’s a moral conservative that I can’t get behind.” Russell Brown said, before asking each of the candidates where the stood on weed, with Beck and Collins saying they both supported decriminalisation but couldn’t get behind legalisation. Both said they had seen damage done to young people’s lives from excessive cannabis use.
Wayne Brown won the crowd’s favour by saying he was behind legalisation, citing methamphetamine as a worse scourge on the community.
However, Brown was less in favour with the Whammy crowd when it came to cycle paths.
He lambasted the recent cycleway upgrades on K Road as being overpriced.
“I’m boringly about the numbers,” he said. “When I was up north we rolled out cycleways from coast to coast at $100 dollars a metre – the cycleway along here cost $12,000 a metre.”
However, a member of the crowd interjected, saying that figure included plumbing renovations that were included in the cycle path works.
Each of the candidates extolled cycling as a way to get around, but there were different levels of commitment as to how much they would invest in it as a legitimate transport option for Aucklanders.
Russell Brown said Beck had “poured cold water” on cycleway plans the night before at a debate hosted by the University of Auckland’s student association, and asked her if she would reconsider.
“What I want to see is balance,” she said. “It’s not that I’m anti-cycling, I like cycling personally… but we have to think about ‘okay where does it make sense’.”
She said cycling issues had become a charged and polarised area in Auckland’s local politics, and there needed to be consideration of both sides.
Russell Brown wondered if this gave too much power to the naysayers.
“What we have out where I live is one group of nutters who have basically delayed a crucial safe cycling route for six years,” he said.
Beck repeated she would find a way forward that took the needs of both sides into account.
“Not everyone likes everyone, but you have to find a way through these things,” she said.
Collins drew applause by saying an ambitious plan was needed around transport options in Auckland for climate and safety reasons.
“In the emissions reduction plan we are looking at increasing cycling by about six times – so we have got to get there,” he said.
“People might say you’re drifting off into ‘build it and the people will come’ – no, we build it because it keeps people alive.”
Russell Brown said it was an awesome sentiment, but questioned why it wasn’t laid out clearly as a policy on Collins’ website. The candidate apologised and said it would be included in a forthcoming transport policy.
Wayne Brown called back to his past as an engineer to criticise the construction of the City Rail Link, saying it was poorly organised by the Auckland Council.
“It’s running over a billion dollars, and every nine months they say it’s going to take a year longer,” he said. “Well, think about that – that means no-one in the room is going to be alive when it finishes.”
Other topics at play included Auckland City by night, especially on Karangahape Road.
Russell Brown launched into the topic by asking each candidate to recount a formative memory of the iconic street. Beck remembered being driven along the street as a child and having her parents “describe what happened here… it began with red”, while Collins’ parents met and later married in nearby Newton.
Brown’s memory was living nearby and he talked about the protracted construction of the cycleway, joking that his wife had forbidden him from recounting any juicier tales.
Karangahape Road as an entertainment precinct was hit hard by lockdown restrictions, with existential risks for live music venues across the area.
Russell Brown pointed out that Whammy itself was a vital part of the pipeline for New Zealand performers who made it onto the world stage, giving Benee’s first gig in one of Whammy’s back rooms as an example.
The candidates all said they were supporters of nightlife, and there was general support for the idea of a ‘night mayor’, a role first seen in Europe that puts a civil servant in charge of a city’s nightlife.
There were different issues around nightlife that were top of mind for each candidate, however. Beck talked about issues of safety on the streets. She has previously vowed to take action on crime, saying Aucklanders have had a “gutsful”.
Collins was briefly philosophical, wondering aloud if not enough focus was given to the night and reminiscing on his university days when he would get his assignments done in the wee hours.
He said things like noise restrictions needed to be looked at, citing complaints his church in Mangere Bridge received when the choir really got going.
Brown said areas like K Road needed a bit of leeway to be themselves, and wanted to elevate the power of local boards to make calls for their own areas.
He said he walked down K Road almost every day.
“Each time, I see something you don’t see everyday,” he said. “We’ve got bits and pieces that a pernicious building inspector or monitor would find something wrong with… keep them out of it… It’s that edginess that’s not quite right that makes it cool… I love that.”
He wondered why strict codes had to be adhered to.
“Fires,” said somebody in the audience.
One familiar face in the audience was former mayoral candidate Leo Molloy, who said he had come along to see if any policies had evolved since his time in the race.
Molloy brought the audience-written questions up to Russell Brown, and had a question of his own for the candidates.
He wanted to know what they considered to be their rival’s best quality, and what job offer they would have for them if they win.
Collins said he admired Wayne Brown’s absolute clarity around what needs to be done, and said he would be well-suited for head of finance.
Wayne Brown said Beck’s strength was empathy and said she would work well in his communications department, to a fair amount of jeers from the crowd.
Beck commended Collins’ empathy and ability to collaborate, and said she would want him to get the “social side of the city working”.
Fitting for a music venue, one of Russell Brown’s final questions for the candidates was asking them to describe themselves with one lyric from a song.
Wayne Brown went with a retooling of a Ray Charles classic with “Hit the road, Goff”, while Collins opted for Michael Jackson’s ‘Man in the Mirror’.
Beck, however, was quickest off the mark with her answer: Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’.
There are more than 20 candidates running for mayor, with the ultimate decision to be made on October 8.