On 12 October, Auckland may have a new mayor. John Tamihere promises to ‘shake it up and sort it out’ if elected. Rates will be frozen, the regional fuel tax abolished and the city’s problems fixed. We can expect homelessness to disappear and traffic to move fast. If that sounds implausible, it probably is. A mayor does not have the power to do any of that. But herein lies the significance of Tamihere’s campaign. He is seeking to redefine the mayoralty and in doing so push the boundaries of what is possible.
Until now, the mayor has been nothing more than an elected bureaucrat. Although central government is referred to as an ‘external partner’ on the Auckland Council website, the Council itself is an organ of the state. There might be a pretence of autonomy but decisions are made within the parameters set by Wellington. Perhaps that is why Phil Goff makes so much of the fact that the Ardern Government has spent $9 billion extra on Auckland under his mayoralty. But that figure means very little when your train is delayed, or you are stuck in gridlock traffic. These are almost daily experiences for the average Aucklander. The City Rail Link is not due for completion until 2024 and the proposed second harbour crossing is deferred for another ten years. Light rail to the airport is unlikely to materialise soon. Meanwhile, the Council is spending $500 million on cycleways that too few use.
The most original idea proposed by Mayor Goff? To politely ask the government for more money. This is Goff’s Auckland. There is no alternative but to wait. Goff lacks the political imagination to see the world any differently. He has been a career politician his entire adult life, having spent a total of 15 years as a Cabinet minister, and more than 30 years in Parliament. While Goff’s commitment to public service is admirable, his ability to represent the average Aucklander is questionable. There is growing frustration with the Council. Many are bewildered by a perceived lack of consultation on issues (see for example Chamberlain Park or the proposed Erebus memorial). The local board model should have improved public engagement. But communities feel more disconnected from their elected representatives than before.
Goff is not to blame for the ‘democratic deficit’ in Auckland nor the slow pace of change. But he represents an establishment fearful of new ideas, unwilling to experiment and beholden to ‘official advice’. Tamihere offers something quite different. If Goff is a bureaucrat, Tamihere is an activist. If we are to believe his rhetoric, Tamihere would spend the next three years advocating for a radical shift in central government priorities and major policy innovations. If nothing else, he will change the way Aucklanders think about the mayor. He promises to be a democratic outlet for their rage against the system.
And if Tamihere fails to get elected? It is likely he will move on to other things. A return to Parliamentary politics is in the offing. The path will then be clear for a truly populist mayor come 2022. Craig Lord is easy to dismiss as ‘the third candidate’ now but he offers something Tamihere cannot: a life untainted by politics. In the end, it could be Lord who fulfils Tamihere’s ambition of redefining the mayoralty. But only after three more years of waiting in Goff’s Auckland.