Published in Stuff, 24 August 2022
With Auckland Council entering its fifth set of local body elections, it seems as good a time as any to take stock and look to the future for a city which, on its current growth path and with the right leadership and public support, could become a thriving, major multi-cultural hub in the Pacific region.
When I first came to Auckland there were about “30 boroughs” ranging in population size from nearly a quarter of a million (Auckland City) to less than 10,000 (Newmarket), each with its proud mayor and council advocating for their patch. You could go down to Queen Street on Friday evenings for late-night shopping and practically park in the street, shop, yarn, and then head back home for the week-end. I often cycled to work, we had a rattle-trap “yellow bus” company that served the region, an airport terminal that looked like a converted hangar with sparrows nesting in it, Ponsonby was a low-income area for migrants and students, and the motorway system was starting to gouge its way across the isthmus and through our pristine valleys.
I first ran in local body elections in 1977, and on through the 1980s, holding office for a term on the hospital board as it transitioned to a health board, and also on the Auckland Regional Authority. I then took time out to pursue an academic career, and returned for one more term as an elected member of the Auckland District Health Board, which has just ended.
In that time, Auckland has transformed. It is now the largest single city entity in Oceania with a sizeable population and budget, it has very large urban investments in transport and water infrastructure under way, 40% of its population is foreign-born, and, despite the naysayers, it has experienced steady growth and largely cohesive leadership.
What made the difference – from provincial, fragmented backwater, to a regional metropolis? Auckland has benefited from an unprecedented outbreak of strategic, long-term thinking and planning that achieved bipartisan buy-in. The Royal Commission of Inquiry into Auckland Governance was established in 2007 under the fifth Labour Government, and its recommendations and findings were then largely implemented by the incoming National Government. The two mayors to date have been Labour-aligned, but many of the key positions on council have been held by National-aligned members, and the Council has managed to usher through some complex and contentious issues, including the Unitary Plan, although now subject to amendment.
For a population of 1.6 million spread across a large sprawling area, Auckland seems so far to have found the right balance with local boards displaying contested elections and contrasting policies alongside a large centralised bureaucracy in Albert Street for the Council. With the council-controlled organisations (CCOs) Auckland has pioneered a version of the State-Owned Enterprise (SOE) model for local body businesses that seems, again, to strike the right balance between political accountability through elected members and operational effectiveness through corporate-style boards of directors.
What has not gone so well? There is still a lack of diversity at higher levels of the organisation, and responsiveness to Māori, as well as to Pacifika and to other migrant populations, is still a work in progress. With two CEOs being forced to resign and some issues about the effectiveness of governance at Watercare and Auckland Ports, there must be some questions about how well the CCO model is actually working in practice. Auckland’s care dependency is a major issue with only limited evidence that the city is taking the right steps to encourage alternative modes of transport of a feasible and bankable kind, and within a reasonably short timeframe. The Helen Clark Foundation has explored at length the ways in which change in this area can be accelerated, including an acceptable way of introducing congestion charging.
The operation and location of the port is something that needs to be resolved, as other major cities of our kind on the Pacific Rim have managed to do in opening up full access to their waterfronts to the benefit of their populations. The city has also yet to find its productive economic and business mojo, whether it be industry, technology, R&D, arts and culture, finance, tourism, international education, or some combination of these.
With 23 candidates for mayor, electors seem spoilt for choice. But actually there are likely just a few among that number who are serious contenders for mayoral office with the necessary combination of name recognition, proven track record in local government, a vision befitting the city’s potential, an ability to work with central government, and a commitment to reaching across different communities of interest and culture. Much rides on this choice.
Peter Davis, Emeritus Professor, University of Auckland, and Chair, The Helen Clark Foundation, an independent public policy think tank