Troubled candidate Viv Beck promises to answer her critics over campaign debts and ‘Trump-like’ messaging, but her time could be running out

Opinion: In polling terms, is Auckland’s mayoral race about to turn into Two and a Half Men?

The latest waterfall of public disputes from within candidate Viv Beck’s campaign over unpaid bills and hardline messaging threatens to wash away her bid five weeks before election day.

At the latest debate for the leading candidates, organised by Stuff at the Auckland University of Technology on Wednesday night, the C&R-backed Beck put on a brave face, saying the allegations against her campaign would be addressed in detail soon, and she claimed the political heat had shown her qualities as a leader under pressure.

She wasn’t asked directly if the political damage from having not one, but two, campaign advertising advisers go public against her would see her contemplate throwing in the towel.

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But the key question, from the debate host Todd Niall, on how Aucklanders could hope she could run a city when she could not run a campaign without such dissension and dispute summarised her campaign’s predicament.

“Can this person run the city?” he anticipated Aucklanders asking themselves.

Beck’s answer was she was holding her team together through the disputes and would issue a statement “saying that the assertions made are incorrect”.

It is often said that in politics explaining is losing. A statement, however comprehensive, is unlikely to magic away the $300,000-plus in claimed unpaid bills which is the subject of mediation, or the criticisms from the respected advertising man Mike Hutcheson that her campaign was adopting Trump-like negative messaging and he wanted no part in it.

Before the campaign divisions became fully public, and after another centre-right candidate Leo Molloy abruptly exited the race, former Auckland City Mayor John Banks had called for Beck to pull out, to clear the way for one clear candidate from the right – Wayne Brown.

On Wednesday night, as Beck tried to look past her predicament and debate the city’s issues, Molloy came out publicly saying he would vote for Brown.

Now, if Beck calculates her chances are wrecked and does depart, the field of leading contenders reduces to the incumbent councillor Efeso Collins, who at the last major poll, by the Auckland Ratepayers’ Alliance and Curia, was leading the field with 22 percent support, Brown who placed second on 19, and Craig Lord, who on 7 percent fell fourth after Beck (13). Molloy had secured 15 percent in that poll before quitting, saying he did not believe he could win.

If Beck folds, it would not necessarily be a two-horse race but on those numbers it would be a version of Two and a Half Men. Brown and Collins, with Lord currently well back.

Brown’s ascendancy on the centre-right would be assured if he could mop up both Molloy and Beck’s supporters before the postal voting period from September 16 to October 8. Whether that would be enough to shove past Collins, given the Auckland Super City’s record of four big victories by candidates of the left in Len Brown and Phil Goff, and the low voter turnout expected, is moot.

At last night’s debate, the psychic energy, as former rugby commentator and All Black Murray Mexted used to say, was clearly with Brown.

When Niall asked each candidate to ask a question of whichever opponent they chose, all three others targeted their query at Brown. The former Far North district mayor (two fractious terms before being defeated in a landslide in 2013) and energy and health sector chair grinned. “That’s what happens when you get in front,” he quipped.

Collins, who usually cuts a figure of calm and reasonableness in these debates, went hard at the man shaping as his main opponent, asking Brown if he would be prepared to make all his “commercial interests” public – a tilt at one of Brown’s troubles in the north, where he had repeated disputes with his own council over rating and council involvement in his property developments. 

Brown: “They are pretty much known already … You only have to visit the Companies Office.”

Challenged on the fact that register doesn’t record properties the candidate might own through Auckland, he said the lands registry made all that clear. And, in any case, “I haven’t got that many around Auckland.”

Niall had asked Brown about the disputes with his own council, and the Auditor-General’s report critical of him, but the answer was broad. “You’ve got quite a lot of that wrong. And it was a long time ago.”

Lord, short in stature but with a big voice, wanted Brown to explain why the north had voted him out. 

Brown: “It’s the National Party, mate.” (He lost to former National MP John Carter.) “The same people who did that want me back.”

He claimed people had started to take his “fixing things” for granted and wanted someone who could “kiss every baby” – and that wasn’t him.

He is, on any indication, not someone to suffer fools or even possible voters too gladly. Last onto the candidates’ stage at the debate, he was first off, heading straight to the door and no doubt some further campaign event. Glad handing, baby kissing, standard council processes are not Brown’s strength.

When it was Brown’s turn to question an opponent, he chose Collins, the man he might see as his only real hurdle now to the mayoralty. He likes to link Collins to the Goff era, with the implication that the Auckland Brown claims is broken can be partly laid at the feet of the incumbent councillor.

“As a sitting councillor and close colleague of Mayor Goff,” he began, could Collins front the people of Auckland about what the cost over-runs on the multi-billion dollar City Rail Link underground railway would be?

Collins said the council would make public any cost increases once mediation with the main contractor over Covid-exacerbated over-runs had been resolved. “Everyone will be finding that out … You expect us to jump in before the mediation has been completed?”

Brown was unmoved. “I expect you to know the prices right now.”

Debates don’t seem to be Brown’s comfort zone. He was an older person out of water when asked by AUT student representatives how he would listen to and act on young people’s concerns, first saying his son gave him plenty of advice then wandering through Indian and Pacific community groups in South Auckland and finally saying he spoke to sports groups.

Collins, with direct council experience and the Labour Party behind him, has a fuller policy list than most. He told the students he was the council’s youth liaison person, and had issued a rangatahi policy.

Lord said he favoured consulting through local boards and citizen panels and would not presume to tell the students what their issues were without first meeting them.

Beck had heard council-organised panels for some groups had not been working and people felt they had not been heard. She talked up proposals in the Koi Tū think-tank’s work on Auckland’s future for ways of involving groups in discussing proposals.

Her problem right now is whether she will continue to be heard through the noise of the debt and campaign difficulties besetting her. 

Even before the controversies, the Ratepayers’ Alliance poll for Beck has seen her fall month by month from 21 percent in June to 18 in July and then the 13 in August. If the timing is consistent, another result could be out before voting papers arrive in letterboxes. That 13 would need to be advancing substantially, not retreating towards Lord, for her campaign to remain viable.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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