For Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown, sorry seems to be the hardest word to say

The mayoral chains must have been heavy this week for Auckland’s Wayne Brown, as his response to last week’s flood garnered its own veritable torrent of scandals and media scrutiny.

Almost exactly one week on from the moment when the waters around the city began to rapidly climb, Brown appeared in front of a camera to announce the extension of the region’s state of emergency.

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Notable in his address was the biggest admission of guilt the Mayor has made since a week ago, when many of the country’s loudest social media voices began calling for his head.

“I dropped the ball on Friday, I was too slow to be seen,” he said, appearing repentant with a hang-dog expression in a close-up shot that gives the impression he is sitting just across the cafe table from the viewer, tendering his regrets within the private and personal arena.

“The communications weren’t fast enough – including mine. I’m sorry for that.”

It’s been a very gradual apology: seven days on from the Friday night where many criticised the time it took for him to declare a state of emergency or send a message out to constituents.

With his engineering background and the no-nonsense pragmatic campaign promise of ‘Fixing Auckland’, it’s no surprise that Brown focused on the practicalities of immediate disaster response.

From the moment the floodwaters amassed, he’s leant on a ‘just-following-protocol’ explanation that saw him waiting on guidance from the Auckland Emergency Management team before he could do his mayoral duties.

To many in the soaked streets of the Super City, however, it may have been enough to appear on our screens then and call us all magnificent, as he did today.

It certainly didn’t help that on Friday night that he signed the declaration with a cup of tea clearly within reach.

A cup of tea is no great crime.

In fact, a little injection of caffeine may have been the prudent course of action for somebody jumping into action late on a Friday night. The misstep instead is one of public relations – that cup of tea represented what people suspected about Brown: that he didn’t really care.

What followed was the toughest of weeks for Brown’s public image, although it should be noted that it was a drastically tougher week for the thousands of Aucklanders picking through the sodden remains of their worldly possessions, or the families of those who died.

Prominent Aucklanders like David Letele are calling for his resignation, while 20,000 people have signed a petition for him to step down.

The result of this week in the trenches for the ego of our Mayor is this video, an attempt at a u-turn and to say that hardest word to say: sorry.

Brown was generous with his gratitude to Aucklanders and central government politicians alike for helping the city out of the mess, but when it came to the details of his own missteps he fell back on the half-apologies of earlier in the week.

“I will act on advice, as I did last Friday,” he said.

It’s difficult to get your head around the apology when it is followed by the once more repeated assertion that he was acting on advice. Is the Mayor apologising rather on behalf of the people who gave him poor advice?

He appeared in front of a small group of media on Friday night to say that what we really need is for the rain to stop, kicking off a week of polarising media appearances.

A satirical cartoon by Dan ‘Yeehawtheboys’ Vernon of Wellington punk band Dartz was already doing the rounds, questioning the state of things in the city of sails: Whole lotta’ of rain, not a lotta’ Wayne. 

The very next morning he was having to explain himself to Kim Hill, who wanted to know why his office hadn’t acted sooner and whether Auckland was ready for the disaster.

Brown responded with a tone-deaf comparison to ‘The Big One’ striking Wellington, which Hill immediately labelled a “low blow”.

Later that day Brown appeared alongside a stoney-faced group of senior Labour politicians, and told the country that the night before had been a tough night for everyone – including the city’s leadership.

But this wasn’t the day when Brown would get his naysayers on side. In stark contrast to this Friday’s acknowledgement of slow action, he was defensive.

“It happened quickly and the response was way quicker than people acknowledge,” he said. “There were thousands of people out there well before 9:27pm when we did actually announce the declaration which the lead Fire and Emergency gentleman has just confirmed was at the right time for what they wanted.”

From here, he started talking about the lessons that would be learned from the crisis, including the perhaps ‘too soon’ assertion that some of the flooded houses shouldn’t have been built where they were.

Ron Devlin, Fire and Emergency New Zealand regional manager for Auckland, backed Brown up, saying the declaration went through in a timely manner once requested.

But whether the gears of office turned fast enough is one question – whether Brown showed political leadership another.

“I followed the leadership of the professionals who do this regularly,” he said.

But the questions continued – why did he say nothing to the public?

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, just 48 hours into the new job, said it was a fair question but wanted it explored once the immediate urgency of the disaster was passed.

“I accept that people will have questions, they’ll have observations. In the fullness of time there will be an appropriate time to go through those things. At the moment I want the people on my right to be focused on the response,” he said.

“Undoubtedly, when this is reviewed there will be lessons to be learned from the experience.”

But reporters passed on anecdotal reports of people feeling abandoned and Brown was very quick to deny the legitimacy of that feeling.

“They were not [abandoned]. What we were doing was ensuring they were not actually abandoned.”

But they felt abandoned.

That was about the closest Brown came to visible anger.

Thousands of people feeling let down by their institutions up against a leader who feels misunderstood, and like people want him to rush out into the streets with buckets: it’s not a match-up that will please anybody in the long run.

Perhaps somebody whispered that in Brown’s ear, for the next time he appeared in front of the camera he carried a fresh attitude.

On Tuesday he acknowledged climate change’s role in the disaster – an absence of which had garnered criticism days before.

He began to acknowledge on the same day that things could have gone quicker on Friday night. However, his apology was couched in justifications, as he said he had just been following the instructions and maybe it was those instructions that could be improved.

“I don’t think I personally did any wrong, but I actually followed the instructions closely and it may well have been that one of the things we’re going to review is whether or not all of those instructions were as clear as they might have been as well.” 

But while calls for resignation were flying back and forth on social media, Brown had little to say to them.

“I’m certainly not going to resign,” he said. “I was elected to fix Auckland and this is a giant fix-up.”

Later in the week he referenced the 180,000 plus Aucklanders who had voted for him, saying he had the political will to continue, after a tennis-playing buddy outed him for calling the media “drongoes”.

That was another thing Brown couldn’t quite bring himself to apologise for. Following the gaffe, he said he was sorry that he’d said it in a place where it could get to media, but didn’t go so far as to actually take back the words.

The exact same thing happened when he called New Zealand Herald journalist Simon Wilson a prick in the weeks leading up to the election.

He was clearly aware of the headache it was going to cause for him if his words were published, coming back to the Herald with a text that is certainly sorry in its own way: “Please don’t”.

So to hear the words “I dropped the ball” coming out of Brown’s mouth after the past week of press conferences and media run-ins could represent something of an about-face. 

It’s the most central he’s cast himself in the retelling of what many agree was a bit of a shambles.

Whether the apology is translated into action and a closer habit of communication with the public remains to be seen, but if anybody has the patience to give Auckland’s Mayor the benefit of the doubt, he might have learned his lesson:

“There’ll be regular updates like this from now on. From me.”

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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