Things are acutely uncomfortable for Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown right now, but can he recover to save his mayoralty?

Less than a month after Wayne Brown was sworn in as Mayor of Auckland, a leading figure in central government was asked privately how the city might handle this unconventional figure for the next three years.

The observer from Wellington didn’t pause, but answered, sagely: “Hooton will be gone within three months and Brown will give it away within a year.”

The mayoral communications guy, Matthew Hooton, did indeed seem to exit stage right towards the end of the year.

Why sluice-gates didn’t open: ‘We’re petrified it might happen again’
Raw sewage leaves Auckland’s weekend up shit creek
State of emergency: Auckland floods ‘a wake-up call’

Wayne Brown, shorn of his messaging man, careered on into his fourth month in office.

The central government person’s thinking seemed to be that Brown would become fed up with the media, the public and even his own team as the task of correcting course on the great Super City tanker proved harder than anticipated.

This Newsroom story The Storm Before The Storm, written on the day he was elected in October and previewing his promised assault on the council’s costs and spending, unintentionally bookended Brown’s opening phase in the mayoral chair.

The storm came, literally, and his lack of leadership during the biggest physical crisis Auckland has faced for decades, and his tin ear for the public’s demand for information and reassurance throughout the worst rain and flooding ever, could see our observer from the capital proven right.

Brown won’t resign over his unsuitability for the job. He’s not as self-reflective as the Pope or Prime Minister. 

He’ll ignore current calls for his resignation, the petition for his removal and even the classic Newshub tabloid headline ‘Wayne, Wayne, Go Away.’

But his mana has sunk. The legend has sprung a leak.

If in coming months he loses support from among the 20 Auckland councillors, the regard and cooperation of his fellow mayors, and the respect, gratitude and ego-soothing of senior officials in Auckland and Wellington, he could well tell them, and us, to stick it. 

If he stays on, it could be a long 32 months until election 2025.

He has potentially lost the bulk of his political capital – the great wodge of ‘fix Auckland’ votes that propelled him to a comfortable victory – down a drain already chugging on a city’s shock and anxiety.

Brown’s mayoralty will likely never recover, even if promised reviews show minute-by-minute that he was present at his desk in his tennis shoes, obediently listening to experts’ advice, and demanding more and better communications to the public.

All the public saw, or didn’t see, was an absence of leadership, then a bit of buck-passing, then defensiveness, then delayed attempts at concessions over poor communications.

It was by no means all the Mayor’s fault – the Auckland Council’s huge apparatus (that Brown wants to cut) did not perform fast enough or effectively. And Brown’s disdain for the media meant his personal failings and mis-statements were brutally amplified, possibly obscuring more important emergency information on roads, safety, alerts and recovery.

Did he really not care about what was unfolding for Aucklanders? Unlikely. But the cavalier and off-the-cuff manner that is everyday Brown didn’t suit this day, this moment.

Some of what he said, about it needing to rain less, that houses maybe should not have been built on flood plains, and that the mayor’s job isn’t to grab a bucket and fight the waters, were self-evidently right but wrong all the same. Pick your moment.

Speculating on how Wellington might handle an earthquake in the future gave the rest of New Zealand a taste of Brown’s mindset. Hold your tongue.

The sideshows about tennis matches foregone, about the exact timing of his signing of the state of emergency declaration and his irritation at councillors who were publicly pleading for leadership just add to a public distaste rarely so evident in Auckland.

The first Super City mayor, Len Brown, embroiled himself in a high profile sex scandal, resisted all calls for him to depart and saw out his term much diminished politically, his early achievements in the role obscured. But that Mayor Brown’s offence seemed sad rather than directly dismissive or condescending to the voting public.     

Once this storm of storms eventually passes, Brown will have a lot more of Auckland needing his ‘fix’.

A TV ad years ago for an electrical retailer used to say ‘It’s the putting right that counts.’

Here’s where it will also be tough going for Brown.

He has drafted a budget for the next financial year that looks to cut council operating costs and cuts and defers some capital spending. As an aside, it lowers the amount of money raised for the water quality (!) and natural environment targeted rates, while using unspent monies to do current work that is pre-planned. There is also a budgeting change to money to be spent on Healthy Waters maintenance, but his proposal promises the same level of service. 

In all likelihood, the damage from the rains of January 27 into February will require more and faster council operations spending to clean-up, restore, put right and prevent further damage.

It will renew political and public pressure for a high focus on water quality, the natural environment and climate change prevention and mitigation policies.

How Brown can hang tough on his fiscal solutions with bills mounting and a public need for basic services to be protected – and improved – to stop damage from the next big deluge is another thing again.

Brown came to power vowing to rid the city of orange road cones, symbols of diversion and delay. Right now, and for some time yet, cones will be everywhere he goes, fluoro reminders of a weekend he’d rather forget.

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

Leave a comment