Attempts to have Māori Statutory Board members excluded from the vote on the Unitary Plan called for a proper Mayor in the Chair. So up stepped Len Brown. Tim Murphy watches a critical chapter of council squabbling
Have we just witnessed Len’s Last Stand?
One day after the Unitary Plan landed back in the Auckland Council’s lap, retiring Mayor Len Brown has risen again – to ensure it receives a final debate worthy of its size and scope. And to stop an underlying split over Māori’s voice on council matters from running the plan off the rails.
A peculiar aspect of the Unitary Plan process is that councillors, because they will ultimately decide on its fate, have been cautioned against voicing an opinion on its merits and any controversies arising. If they did, they could pollute the process.
Yesterday, everyone praised the history being made rather than the issues raised. There was almost unanimous agreement the plan is the single biggest, most historic change to be voted on in local government history.
But first, those voting on it had to sort out some small-town politicking.
A bid was made to take the debate out of the hands of a committee, which happens to have all councillors on it, and place it directly before what’s called the Governing Body, which also has all councillors on it.
Why? To eliminate the votes of two members of the non-elected Independent Māori Statutory Board – despite them having been on that committee and negotiating with the Independent Hearings Panel in all these weeks and years leading to this point.
Inevitably, the debate became a minefield of race, honour, history, governance, political manipulations and grievances. All overlaid with allegations of conflicts of interest and fears of the long planning process being imperilled.
This needed a proper Mayor in the Chair. Brown must have known beforehand what lay ahead. He knew what it would say to Māori in Auckland and everywhere if at the last minute, five years into a process, the Māori voice was silenced on Auckland’s future shape.
As the independent panel has summarily deleted a provision protecting sites throughout the city deemed significant to Māori, it would have been doubly provocative to have side-lined the board now.
Having led the appointment of the Māori Statutory Board members to 15 of the 18 committees when the law required far fewer, he was in no mood for backsliding. It was a spirited performance, part of which was inspired by his wish to have his own say, later, on this pivotal plan for the Super City.
He told councillors: “Stop mucking around. Consistency demands that we keep the Auckland Development Committee to consider it and then sign it off with the Governing Body.
“The prime minister wants the job to be done. All the members of parliament want it done and most importantly all Aucklanders want this job done and they want a plan. I’m ready to make this plan happen and get it done.
“If you are not ready to get this plan signed off and done you have wasted your time being here these past three years or six years.”
The Unitary Plan – required by law – would unify Auckland’s multiple town planning measures and lays out a blueprint of how the city can deal with its population growth and housing demands in the next 25 years. It returned from the Independent Hearings Panel calling among other things for more intensification of housing through medium-rise apartments and house and provision for multiple small homes on sections. It also eased the city’s boundaries for development.
Those calling yesterday for the plan to go directly to the Governing Body cloaked their arguments in the need for final recommendations to be made by the highest level of decision-makers; for it to be chaired by Brown as Mayor and the only person elected by all of Auckland rather than by his deputy, Penny Hulse, who represents the West.
There were concerns that because six people who serve on the Independent Māori Statutory Board had made submissions on the Unitary Plan to the hearings panel, they would or should be conflicted off the deliberations by the committee. To prevent that risk, send the matter straight to the Governing Body.
Councillor Mike Lee declared: “It’s essential that decision-makers are not conflicted.” He was willing to leave it at the committee level so long as Brown promised to let a proper debate play out at the final stage at the Governing Body.
Christine Fletcher proposed leapfrogging the committee and to a one-step deliberation. She had been told by officials over the years this would be the case and was determined to hold them to it. To Brown, she added: “You’ve regularly reminded us that you are the only one who has the mandate for the whole of the Auckland region and you are the appropriate person to lead this.”
Councillor John Watson argued the Governing Body could not be “undercut by the perception it is a rubber stamp”. Wayne Walker was more direct: “We should not have people around the table making decisions who are not accountable. It is not fair. If ever there’s a decision that goes to public confidence and fairness it is this.” Dick Quax ditto: “It is a disgrace on democracy to have unelected people sitting in judgment.”
The two councillors of Samoan heritage, Alf Filipaina and Arthur Anae, backed the debate staying at the committee level for the Māori Statutory Board members to participate. Filipaina said Māori members had been at committee meetings when not enough full councillors could attend. “Someone should apply under the Official Information Act and let’s see who here actually attended the Unitary Plan committee.
“The Māori Statutory Board have been legislated to be part of this Auckland Council whether we like it or not,” he said.
Councillor Linda Cooper, who wanted the committee and Māori board to debate the plan, cut to the chase: “We do not have elected politicians from Māori around the table. If you look at our faces we have got a couple of gentlemen of Samoan descent … But we are pretty European, aren’t we?”
Cathy Casey was embarrassed the debate was being held. “If you say no to the Independent Māori Statutory Board, you are effectively saying no to the Māori voice. I actually think this debate is insulting.” Then, indicating the livestream on the web, she added, “I’m sorry, David [Taipari, board member] if you are watching.”
Centre-right councillor Cameron Brewer likened the situation to parliament’s procedures: the Unitary Plan now being at third reading stage should not be sent back to a select committee for deliberation. He indulged in a rare show of confidence in Brown. “I think you are the appropriate person to chair it. Particularly as your views have been close to your chest and you are at the end of your term. Take the chair.”
Councillor Sharon Stewart, who also faces concerns over whether she has a conflict of interest for making a personal submission on the Unitary Plan, said she had not done so “with malice. I do not want to stuff it up. I care about everybody and want everything to be right.”
The last speaker, Chris Darby, urged a collective chill. “God knows how we got here,” he said, to a laugh from the mayor. “But it’s been a good process, a phenomenal process. We are not far. There’s 50 metres, maybe 70 metres [of a marathon] to go. Stick with it.”
As for Brown, he said he would not take the chair in the next phase as he had things he wanted to say, and could not if constrained by the “independence, blah, blah, blah” the chair had to exhibit. He flatly ruled “out of order” a bid by Christine Fletcher to have him chair it.
“All of those who have been sitting around the table will manage any conflicts. It’s fair to let those who were there from the start be there at the end.”
There was little Brown sentiment in his forceful backing of the Māori board, his deputy mayor’s chairing of the next phase and this big, audacious city plan.
“This [plan] is the most significant last piece of the jigsaw puzzle of the amalgamation of this city.”
Then, almost as if psyching himself, he said: “Just keep a straight furrow, right through to the end”.
Brown’s move to send the plan to the committee prevailed by 13 votes to 8.
Shaped by years of argument by everyone from Rodney Hide to Nick Smith, character conservationists to Zeroistas, lobby groups, developers, lovers of bungalows and advocates of sprawl, the Unitary Plan reaches its final stanza.
Now it’s down to 20 councillors, two Māori board members and a man bowing out, Len Brown.