Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

15th March 2002 - Spite, Arrogance and Deceit

Copyright © 2002 Russell Brown

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Chaos. Tears. People arrested but not charged with any offence, or driven away by private muscle. An autocrat who badgers and intimidates his political opponents and accuses them of things they have not done. No, not Zimbabwe. That's serious. This is, well, pathetic.

So John Banks and his Citizens and Ratepayers Now cronies had their meeting and got to vote through their programme this week - unanimously, as it happened, after eight of their fellow Auckland City Councillors walked out in protest at the way the mayor was behaving.

Now, it's doubtless true that some of the peasants were revolting - our friends at the Water Pressure Group more than most, probably. But it is not unreasonable, surely, to allow people to have their say on a range of issues nobody in Auckland got to vote on - from the sell-off of pensioner housing to the ending of chemical free weed control - because they weren't in any manifesto.

Among the members of the public at the Town Hall on Wednesday night was Dr Muriel Watts, who had formally applied to speak, 10 days before the meeting. Her application was thrown out by the mayor on the preposterous basis that she had briefly spoken to the council three years previously. As the evening declined into farce, she went to leave - and was arrested for touching the arm of one of 20 security guards hired for the evening. Sixteen others were also arrested and later released without charge.

Banks - whose account of events at the last aborted council meeting seemed to spring largely from his imagination, given that he wasn't actually in the room - was back on the radio gibbering this week. He described councillor Victoria Carter - who was in tears after being bullied and prevented from speaking herself - as a member of the "far left". And, remarkably, he made the claim that "the vast majority of Aucklanders" had given him his mandate.

Well, actually, 18 per cent of eligible voters in Auckland voted for John Banks. Fewer than one in five. And it would be a safe bet that quite a few of those are having second thoughts now - about both Banks and his Citizens and Ratepayers Now cronies.

The most prodigous insult to the voting public came earlier in the week with the release of a draft Auckland budget containing a nine per cent rise in residential rates. This, from a council controlled by CitRats Now, which campaigned on freezing rates for the whole of its three year term.

So is this the result of some hitherto undiscovered crisis in the city's accounts? Hardly. The huge increase in residential rates is due largely to cuts in business rates and a new flat charge for rubbish collection that benefits large businesses and people whose homes are valued at more than a million dollars.

Now, there are potential arguments for such a policy. You could argue that charging an inner-city business $195 a year less will mean it has the money to invest in growth and employment. BUT THAT IS NOT WHAT CITIZENS AND RATEPAYERS NOW CAMPAIGNED ON. They solicited votes on the clear promise to freeze rates for three years - regardless of how realistic that promise was.

The response of C&R Now's deputy mayor David Hay when this was put to him by the Herald's Bernard Orsman was simply extraordinary. He was, he declared, not bound by his party's manifesto because he was not its "team leader" at the time of the election. The next day, he refused to comment when Orsman confronted him with the minutes from a C&R committee meeting in May last year. At that meeting, the motion that a three-year rate freeze be written into the party's manifesto was carried. The motion was moved by - you guessed it - David Hay.

It appears that council staff were never even asked to model a zero rates increase. Even if the resultant outrage forces a backdown, this much is clear: the people who voted C&R Now candidates expecting them to honour their manifesto have been taken for fools. And you can't say I didn't warn you. Citizens and Ratepayers damaged this city quite badly last time around. Now, they're doing it again.

Banks, meanwhile, blamed the rate rise on a massive increase in the levy demanded by the Auckland Regional Council. This was a complete fabrication on two counts. One being that the ARC hasn't even set its levy yet. The other being that even if it is at the level the city council has anticipated, it would make up only a fraction of the increase.

But it's not just the rates. It's the undemocratic, arrogant and sometimes just spiteful manner in which Banks and Hay are behaving. Having voted on the last council that a life-sized statue of former mayor Sir Dove Myer Robinson be placed on the wide footpath at the apex of the Town Hall, Hay led the move last week to renege on that pledge and ship Robbie off out of sight to the rose gardens.

You might think that a little bronze statue of Robbie amid the bustle of Queen Street would be nice. I certainly do. But Hay's meanness of spirit didn't stop there. He felt obliged to smear Robbie's memory with the nasty - and completely fallacious - crack that the former mayor's drainage scheme had "fouled the beaches of Mt Roskill".

From somebody from a party which systematically underfunded Auckland's drainage system - thus fouling the beaches of Takapuna, St Heliers and Point Chev - this was particularly rich.

Banks, meanwhile, carries on saying the first thing that comes into his head, whether it makes sense or not. And quite frequently, it doesn't. This week, it was the Parnell Baths, where a $3.8 million restoration project was approved by council last year and has been held up only by a small group of rich residents in Judge's Bay.

Now that they've been sent packing, it should go ahead. But it's "on hold" according to Banks, because the baths might have to be demolished to make way for his proposed motorway across Hobson Bay. The fact that - unlike his motorway - the renovation has been authorised by a democratically elected council is of no account to him.

Meanwhile, the grand plan to close Queen Street at nights has proven to be little more than a Banks fantasy - along with the appalling sculpture of Sir Peter Blake he claimed would be installed at the Viaduct. And we still can't get a bloody tree planted on One Tree Hill - another action authorised by council and blocked by the silly little control freak in the mayoral chains.

Banks' deep problem is that he is, basically, ineffectual. He lacks leadership qualities and alienates people. A mayor with mana might have addressed the people in the public gallery, given them a chance to say their piece and got on with it. Banks spent the ratepayers' money on hiring security guards to rough them up. He is a bully precisely because he is weak.

In a perfect world, Banks would take the hint from what happened when he ventured out onto Carlaw Park two weeks ago - and was jeered and booed by 20,000 Warriors fans - and resign. The problem is, I think that would make David Hay mayor. Out of the frypan and into the very belly of Hell, you might say.

Anyway, talking of footy, will New Zealand be co-hosting next years Rugby World Cup? Who knows? It is already a very rum business indeed. The NZRFU refused to sign its co-hosting agreement last Friday - instead proferring one so grievously amended that both Rugby World Cup Limited and the Australian rugby union declared that it was all over and New Zealand was out.

The initial problem was that neither body actually had the right to do anything of the kind. It states quite clearly in the International Rugby Board's own published rules that only the IRB council can un-invite troublesome hosts from the World Cup.

The New Zealand union's view was that it could not legally meet the contract requirements - which included a clean-out of all corporate boxes and season tickets, and advertising both in every ground and within 500 metres of its perimeter. This, in the IRB's own words, is so it can all be resold to maximise profits.

But the NZRFU overplayed its hand - and then compounded its troubles by publicly attacking Vernon Pugh, the elusive Welshman who chairs both the IRB and its commercial arm, RWC Limited. This earned the union a long rebuke in a Herald editorial - which sermonised about following "established rules".

The trouble is that - and it staggers me that no one in the media has been able to dig this up - the "established rules" are anything but. There have never been "clean" stadia at a Rugby World Cup - least of all at the last one in 1999. Then, the Welsh, French, English, Irish and Scottish unions signed contracts committing them to clean stadia - and then simply refused to honour them. The rules were broken in almost every way by the unions that will probably punish New Zealand.

Good trick. So could New Zealand have done the same thing - just contracted in bad faith and got on with it? No. The IRB's post-99 report - in which all this information is contained - called for substantial financial penalties for such conduct this time.

Indeed, the Minister of Sport, Trevor Mallard, secured an opinion from the solicitor general that the union would have risked legal action on three separate counts had it signed a contract it could not honour.

Mallard's entry to the fray provided some hope this week. The head of the Australian union, John O'Neill - who had threatened vengeance over New Zealand's veto on Super 12 expansion - was declaring it was all over. Australia had signed and would host the whole event. Nyah nyah nyah, he might have added. Pugh was refusing to speak to anyone.

Leaving aside party affiliation for the moment, there is probably no current member of Parliament who would stand a better chance of hauling this one out of the fire than Mallard. He managed to get a meeting with Pugh - which is more than the NZRFU has managed in the past few months. He does, of course have plenty of motivation. If he pulls it off, not only does he get to see the rugby but the election's in the bag. Seriously.

What we are seeing is really just the result of rugby's status as an asset for the global media and advertising industries. But it is not the inevitable result. We can only hope that someone, somewhere, will pause a moment to think about the game and the people who keep it going


Russell Brown

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