Why are the govt really taking over on the Auckland Waterfront?
On the face of it, today’s call from Murray McCully to ‘nationalise’ the Auckland waterfront under the RWC Empowering legislation looks like a no-brainer. Shambles on Friday, so the government steps up to tidy everything up. Certainly that’s how Daniel Farrell sees it (see the previous post on this blog). Yet look a little deeper, and it looks suspiciously like a hatchet job on Len Brown, the Auckland Council, and local government in general.
The government last year passed the Rugby World Cup Empowering Act. The relevant bit of the Act in this context is section 52, which allows central government to declare specific activities or facilities as permitted activities. In effect, this means that for Rugby World Cup-related activity, the government can over-ride local government plans. Local government plans are in turn empowered by the Resource Management Act. Thus, section 52 of the Rugby World Cup Empowering Act effectively over-rides the RMA and the normal planning and consent processes for activities. One might say that’s a little undemocratic (and a little nanny state) – but we’ll come back to that later.
Anyway the fact is that this legislation has been in place since last year. If the government really were concerned about the Council’s ability to deliver on Opening Night, they should have used the enormous power given to them by the RWC legislation BEFORE the big party, not after it. There will likely not be another event the size of Opening Night for the rest of the World Cup – yes the big games are still to come, and more gigs are planned for Queens Wharf – but there won’t be another fireworks display, opening ceremony etc. Oh, and there’s going to be another THREE fanzones across Auckland for the knockout rounds – Albany, Mangere and Trusts Stadium.
So with the prospect of another 200,000-strong crowd at the waterfront highly improbable, why bother closing the stable door after the horse has bolted?
Quite simply, the government are playing politics. Given that there’s no event as big as Opening Night planned again, this latest move is not so much about ensuring the rest of the RWC goes smoothly as it is about undermining Len Brown and the Auckland Council. Make no mistake – the government created a monster with the Super City legislation, and they don’t like it. Ever since Len Brown was elected Mayor ten months ago, the government have been at loggerheads with Auckland Council, mainly over public transport funding. Associating Len Brown with the Opening Night fiasco plays right into the government’s hands – faith in public transport has taken a hit, and Len Brown is copping the blame. Meanwhile, the government is seen as the knight in shining armour, coming to the rescue of hapless Auckland.
The wider issue in play here alluded to earlier is democracy. How democratic is it when the government can pass legislation that directly over-rides the provisions of another Act still in force – in this case the RWC Empowering Act over-riding the RMA. Indeed, this is how ‘Party Central’ on Queens Wharf happened in the first place – the ‘Cloud’ is a permitted activity under the RWC Empowering Act, yet no democratic RMA planning process took place. The zoning of the wharf under the RMA is still the same as it’s always been – port activity. How fair is it that the government can take over what is Council-owned land and plonk what they want on it just because of the RWC, when every other normal land owner has to rightly apply for consent under the RMA to build something. Surely there’s some irony in this government labelling the previous one “nanny state” when they’re now passing legislation that effectively allows them to do anything they want.
This latest action by Murray McCully is simply an extension of this – using (abusing?) the RWC Empowering Act to further undermine a democratically elected local body. It is a continuation of a disturbing trend under the current government of showing a complete disregard for local government democracy. Remember, it was just last year that the government fired Environment Canterbury’s elected councillors and replaced them with hand-picked commissioners, simply because they refused to grant consent to high intensity dairying in ecologically sensitive river catchments. Earlier this year we see central government sweeping into Christchurch post-Earthquake, sidelining Christchurch City Council and establishing CERA under Gerry Brownlee. The wet-blanket reaction from central government to Christchurch City Council’s rebuild plan is familiar to any follower of Auckland’s struggles with central government.
So in short, let’s not delude ourselves – this is nothing to do with the RWC going smoothly. The biggest RWC event is over, so the government is solving what is likely to be a non-issue in the coming weeks. This is nothing more than political points scoring in the on-going battle between the central government and local government, a battle that has been raging in Auckland for decades and has only gotten worse with the advent of the Super City and the mayoralty of Len Brown. The constant meddling by central government in the affairs of local government fundamentally detracts from our democracy in my view.