Council and mayoral election results present the Labour Government with a stark dilemma, writes Peter Dunne: Back down on major policies or call the local electors’ bluff?

When the Auckland Super City was being established there was much commentary that the mayor of this new entity would potentially be the second most powerful person in the country after the Prime Minister. There was speculation about how this relationship would work in practice, especially if the two were on different political paths.

The first two mayors, Len Brown, and Phil Goff, both Labour-aligned, sought to work constructively with central government – Brown for pragmatic reasons because he got on well with Sir John Key, and Goff out of a lifetime of unflinching Labour loyalty – meaning confrontations between Auckland and central government were few and far between.

That relatively cosy relationship looks set to change with the election of Wayne Brown.

Many of the issues Brown identified in his “Fix Auckland” campaign – such as public transport, urban infrastructure, water services, and housing – go to the heart of the city’s relationship with central government. The focus of Auckland’s last two mayors on seeking to work collaboratively with Wellington has, according to Wayne Brown, caused many of the delays he says are now clogging Auckland and need to be “fixed.” The election result shows a significant number of Aucklanders agreed with his diagnosis.

Brown has a starker view of Auckland’s relationship with Wellington than his predecessors. As far as he is concerned, central government, from the Prime Minister downwards, will now effectively be “told” what Auckland needs and expected to respond accordingly. With a less-Labour inclined Council supporting him, and a general election next year, likely to be decided by how Auckland votes, the relationship has suddenly become much more interesting.

In a comment after the election, the Prime Minister observed that both Auckland and central government “face the long-term challenges of needing to grow our housing stock, keep investing in transport, public transport and our ageing water infrastructure,” and that as “the challenges of climate change and the severe weather events it brings continue, we need to join forces to reduce its impact, prepare and recover.” The problem she is about to face, though, is despite her hope, Brown has made it clear he will not be told by Wellington what to do, but rather, he expects central government to help Auckland fix these issues its own way.

That approach immediately creates two major headaches for the government. First, so much of its brand is linked to its being able to achieve its public transport, housing intensification and Three Waters policies on its own terms before the next general election. Failure to do so would be a major political embarrassment it can scarcely afford at present. But if it ploughs on ahead regardless, it risks not only a major confrontation with Brown and his new council who have different ideas, but also alienating a significant level of its existing political support in Auckland.

The level of support for Brown, and the make-up of his new council, shows a level of antagonism to these key government policies which is unlikely to go away before next year’s general election. And if Labour does badly in Auckland, it will lose office.

But second, the Government’s bigger problem is that the issues Brown was elected on are not just issues for Auckland alone. They are also having a wider impact across the rest of the country as the general swing away from the centre-left to the centre-right everywhere else (bar beltway Wellington) shows.

So, it is not just a case of the Government now needing to moderate its policies to mollify Auckland, even if it were of a mind to do so. Any changes it might now consider making will need to be applied across the whole country to be politically credible. After all, the Government can hardly expect to address Auckland’s concerns without the rest of the country noticing. It would risk a wider backlash if it moved to pacify Auckland and did nothing for the rest of the country.

Three Waters has been unpopular, and the new make-up of councils is likely to entrench that opposition further. Also, councils like Christchurch that have been speaking out about the impact of housing intensification could well now feel electorally empowered to act more strongly. With the added spice of what looks likely to be a tightly contested general election within a year, the pressure is on the Government to backdown on, or at least extensively modify, these core, but widely unpopular, infrastructure reforms.

The Government’s dilemma is stark. It could attempt to push on regardless with its reforms, and call Auckland’s and everywhere else’s bluff. That would be extremely high-risk, given the current public mood. It would also play right into Brown’s hands.

But an about-face on Three Waters and the other controversial areas would be an utter humiliation for a Government that has invested so much political capital in promoting them over the past couple of years, despite not having campaigned for them at the last election. For the sake of its credibility, it cannot afford to do that. Even a delay on these policies will smack of backdown and defeat.

So, much is now riding on how the relationship between Brown and his council and central government plays out. The claim from the early 2000s that being Mayor of Auckland could become the most powerful position in the country after the Prime Minister is about to be tested directly. Brown’s forceful style, compared with his predecessors, and his avowed single-minded focus on getting what Auckland wants, rather than doing what central government wishes, presents this Government with one of its most direct challenges.

The country’s two most powerful politicians are about to go head-to-head. Although Brown holds the cards at present, there are still several seasons before the next election, and little is certain. At this stage, though, it looks like Auckland’s future – as well as the outcome of the next general election – will be decided by who blinks first.

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