Wayne Brown and Efeso Collins faced a robust set of questions at the NZ Herald newsroom today and were forced to grapple with some tough questions of attendance and past dalliances in mayoral roles

Soft spots like Efeso Collins’ record of attendance at council and Wayne Brown’s controversial past blurring the lines between his role as Far North mayor and businessman were under the spotlight at a debate at the NZ Herald newsroom today.

Mayoral candidates Brown and Collins faced off for one of the final times in what has been a gruelling “hard-fought” campaign for the two political hopefuls, fielding questions from Herald journalists Liam Dann, Simon Wilson and Fran O’Sullivan.

The candidates have each attended dozens of events and debates over the past few months, in a campaign set to officially wrap up next Saturday. “Thank God,” said Brown when this fact was mentioned.

It’s the second attempt at a Herald debate after an initial slot on September 16 was cancelled. Brown pulled out in response to Simon Wilson moderating the event, and when Viv Beck pulled out of the race on the very same day, it was either cancel it outright or host an hour of Collins talking to himself.

Instead, Wilson had a night out at the theatre.

But today was his chance to put some of the questions he had been preparing in columns over the past two weeks to Brown, who he finally had standing across the table from him, looking like he didn’t really want to be there.

But although there seems to have been some bad blood between the two men, their repartee during the debate was measured and professional, with Brown making a concerted attempt to bat Wilson’s lobs back over the net.

The measure of his success will depend on how seriously one views the man’s accused crimes – playing fast and loose with mayoral privilege back in the days of his Far North mayoralty, owning a South Auckland bar with pokies, and being grouchy.

Wilson zeroed in on a controversy that occurred back when Brown was the mayor of the Far North, when he was involved in a dispute with the council over rates owed on a Kerikeri property he was developing.

After using council stationery with his mayoral letterhead to send his own personal legal communications to the Far North District Council chief executive, a government auditor said he had unwisely blurred roles.

“We encourage Mr Brown to separate his personal and official roles more carefully in future and ensure that the capacity in which he is acting is always clear to council staff,” the auditor general wrote.

Wilson wanted to know whether Brown would admit his wrongdoing.

“I’ve never heard you say that it was wrong of you to do that,” Wilson said.

“I’ve learnt a lesson,” replied Brown.

“What is the lesson?”

“Not to blur them.”

Brown contended it was less likely for similar issues to arise in Auckland, seeing as most of his business interests are outside of Auckland.

There is however at least one business he keeps within the bounds of the city, which has come up as controversial in its own right.

Brown’s ownership of Milestone Bar, an Ōtāhuhu bar with pokies, was picked up by Collins’ team in the days following Brown springing to the front of the pack in the polls.

“My opponent owns one of these bars in Ōtāhuhu and while I won’t comment on this venue in particular, as a resident of Ōtāhuhu I see every day the harm pokie bars, taverns and off-licences cause,” Collins said this week in a statement on improving public safety in the city. “And as mayor I will make sure these outlets are being properly monitored so they aren’t fostering more alcohol-related crimes.”

Wilson said Brown’s bar makes a lot of money out of pokies and that he is on the record opposing a ‘sinking lid’ for pokies – a policy that would prevent any new pokie licences from being issued.

Brown rejected the claim, saying he had never said he opposed such a policy.

“The sinking lid is a fine idea,” he said. “So don’t invent stuff, please.”

Brown isn’t on record outright opposing the sinking lid policy during his campaign, but there is some evidence of leniency towards pokies in his past.

Back in 2010, as mayor of the Far North, his district council voted for easing of pokie restrictions, with Northern Advocate reporter Peter de Graaf quoting Brown as saying machines being allowed to be moved to new venues in tourist areas could help new businesses and improve entertainment options for visitors.

“The suggestion that they’re all bad news for the community is not quite right,” he told Stuff at the time.

Of course, these comments and actions were over a decade ago – but so is the track record of successes with the Auckland District Health Board and Vector, which Fran O’Sullivan pointed out to him.

Brown and Wilson’s tete-a-tete was cut short by moderator Liam Dann stepping in to move the debate on to the next topic.

Brown got in the last comment, saying opposing the ‘sinking lid’ would be against his own business interests.

“This is what happens when you decline the interview the first time,” Collins said to his opponent.

There was a brief back-and-forth between the two candidates with Brown giving Collins an inaudible reply – presumably something in the world of asking him how many events he had made it to.

“Seventy-six events,” Collins said to him. “Seventy-six events.”

Collins and Brown, both pictured at events in the campaign the other was absent from. Photo: Matthew Scott

The perception of Collins as a frequent absentee on the campaign trail has been picked up by his opposition, with ‘No Show Efeso’ being used as a hashtag on Twitter and many of the comments on his Facebook page accusing him of not showing up.

“Can’t even be bothered turning up to any debates so can you be bothered to actually run the city?? Do us all a favour & pull out like the other wannabes, let someone that wants to do the job properly do it,” said one Facebook commenter.

Whoever has the reins of Collins’ social media presence has not let these claims go unanswered, wading into the muck to reject them.

“Please fact check. Too much internet time for you today,” they said, signing off as Team Collins.

Accusations of ‘no shows’ on the campaign trail have been rife for both candidates, with Collins bringing up Brown’s absence at a CRL tour last month once more and Brown bringing up Collins’ inability to turn up to a recent event hosted by the Public Transport Users Association.

But the truth is it has been months of solid campaigning, and both men have appeared at dozens of events, often on subsequent nights and mornings.

They’ve both been hit by the same questions over and over by media and public alike. It hasn’t been an easy campaign for any of the candidates, Viv Beck and Craig Lord included.

But for Collins, the idea of him not showing up when he’s supposed to dogs him further back than just this mayoral campaign.

O’Sullivan was keen to put some pressure on Collins on the question of his attendance at council meetings.

“One of the issues that has come up is your attendance at council meetings, your attendance record. What confidence do we have in you given that?” O’Sullivan asked.

“The same confidence that the people of South Auckland who voted me into office know that for four months I fronted Covid vaccination events, and that’s where all of that time was taken up,” Collins said.

“Well, no no no, sorry – you were elected to council, why did you still not attend council meetings?”

“Because I’m a representative for the people of Manukau…”

“In council, you’re not an MP.”

“The people of Manukau wanted an advocate. When the MPs got it wrong, I stood up.”

“I don’t buy it,” said O’Sullivan when Collins said he was providing context for his attendance rates.

When it comes to recent attendance, Collins was at 86 percent of meetings or was off on other council business. Those are numbers from June to August of this year, during the thick of the campaign.

Over the same period, the 20 councillors and the mayor had an average of 92.7 percent. So recently, Collins has had 6.7 points more absences than other councillors on average.

During his first term, it was markedly lower, with him marked as present at 59 percent of meetings and workshops.

O’Sullivan also quizzed Collins on how he plans to fund his fares-free public transport, to which he said he had worked out a plan to divert other council funds up to a bucket of $2 billion.

These are issues and questions that have grown in prominence during the campaign, but as one of the final debates comes to an end, it is hard to believe that most people tuning in haven’t already cast their vote.

Whether the city is going Efeso or Wayne may well already be set in stone by the writ of a million sealed envelopes, waiting to be opened and counted before the final decision drops in just over a week.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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