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AucklandOctober 7, 2016

A final Pokarekare Ana and a punch in the air: post-mayoricide, Len Brown goes out on a high


This is not a tabloid story, taking things out of context and boasting a headline like:

“Sex Scandal Made Me a Better Mayor” – Len Brown

But you could see how it could appear under that title.

For, in a more nuanced, reflective and brutally self-aware way, that is what Len Brown said, when we sat down for an exit interview this week to mark his retirement today from six years as head of this Super City and three years before that running Manukau.

Len Brown in his last week as mayor. Photograph: Jose Barbosa
Len Brown in his last week as mayor. Photograph: Jose Barbosa

Spending time with Brown this week revealed a man happier in his own skin than he has been in years.

He is once again that vital but irrepressible little guy who burst on to the big stage in 2010, cleaning up John Banks and taking the first united mayoral chains for the previously fractured and fractious region.

The head-slapping, smack-talking, singing city leader committed mayoricide with a young, burlesque-dancing, council appointee and suddenly he was gone. Still stubbornly in office, chains firmly gripped, but gone from the A-list invitations, gone from the B-list invitations and gone from public affection. Gone, too, from being taken all that seriously.

But he hung in where it mattered – which was within the council machine and within the high-stakes grappling Auckland had to undertake with the National-led government. Fascinatingly the deputy prime minister, Bill English, voiced his regard for Brown last month in an interview for Politik, saying he was someone who the government could do business with and who could get things done, unlike the likely successor, Phil Goff.

In our interview, I did not ask directly about Brown’s affair or the aftermath, which had included my former paper, the New Zealand Herald calling on our front page for him to resign for compromising the authority of the mayor’s office and for conflicts of interest.

It was a case, as the South Africans say of “Why beat a dead snake?”

But Brown did. Tangentially, repeatedly and each time within the context of the point being discussed.

I’d declared – with the conceit of newspaper editors – that with the Unitary Plan agreed, the transport plan out, and the Central Rail Link works already under way that I thought he would walk away today with his legacy already nudging into positive territory. Just.

Brown roared with laughter, turning to his press secretary Glyn Jones and saying: “Oh that’s very big of Tim.”

His first response was to offer the overworked humility of the try-scoring All Black. “I don’t think you could characterise these six years as being about me, because it has been an extraordinary performance by a whole group of people, my political colleagues, Penny Hulse, Penny Webster and in this term Bill Cashmore.

“I would not say this is my legacy alone.”

A Len Brown flyer from 2010, and that Herald front-page editorial
A Len Brown flyer from 2010, and that Herald front-page editorial

But then something else. “My personal challenge” – a euphemism for the scandal – “as Mayor was a bit difficult in the community. So as it turned out I was able to just get on with the job. I just wanted to get my head down and get a complete focus of delivering on the vision and on the plan.”

Ostracised. Whispered about. Uninvited and unincluded by a portion of the citizenry. So he was less out in the community and more into the issues and the boring task of getting things done.

I did mention the stubbornness, or courage, which saw him press on in November 2013. “It was something I needed to have to do this job. I really don’t know where the resilience has come from. My mother was a Depression child and they had to fight for everything. My father was a strong character also.

“I had a real sense of determination to finish what I started and did not think back then that [resigning] was how things should finish up. No matter how bad they were for me, my family were strongly in support of me. I took a lot of strength watching how my children were responding.”

His eyes moistened. “Things happen and when the chips are down it is about how you respond. I survived a near-death experience (a heart attack on stage at a public event while mayor of Manukau) and this was not dissimilar in terms of trauma.”

His father Tom, who died this year, was described by one friend of the mayor’s as one of the “Papatoetoe Catholic royalty.”

Was he proud of his son? “I never had intentions to fill those shoes. My father was a local hero in every sense of the word, who lived a glorious life of being a good and faithful man. He mostly was proud of his son.”

In many ways Brown’s family background moulded him into the smart, extroverted man who walked comfortably in the multicultural world of modern Auckland and whose Catholicism bred that keen focus on social justice. A progressive with conservative characteristics.

His father was a school principal and the family lived near Parihaka, South Taranaki, for a time. “My early years were primarily with Māori youngsters, which was a completely unique thing to happen in the 1960s,” Brown says. Teroi Tataurangi, a former Auckland rugby player and father of golfer Phil, was an early mentor in Maoritanga and Len Brown found himself talking on the paepae at age 21.

Brown speaks lovingly about Tāmaki Makaurau – Auckland’s “Māori heart”. His reo is natural and well received.

He welcomed the Independent Māori Statutory Board to the council apparatus after the Super City formed and moved to embed it throughout the governance structure. He’s not for changing that now by joining the call by some for elected Maori seats for Auckland Council.

Fittingly at the final Auckland Council meeting of the term, Brown was presented by mana whenua with a tokotoko. “I was just stunned; it is the most amazing carved speaking stick, it is big, up to the ears on me. It completes the circle of service for me.”

This week the departing mayor attended public events until Wednesday. Yesterday and today are for the inner circle, private farewells for a mayoral office that actually vacates the premises at the end of business this evening. Packed up and gone, leaving the new mayor a clean slate and a physical emptiness.

Among Brown’s last events was a formal duty to welcome delegates to an international police conference at the town hall on Wednesday morning. School kids parading into the hall to perform a haka walked past the mayor and were waylaid by his interest and questions. “Edgewater College is IN THE HOUSE!” he cried out to no one in particular.

At the end of his speech, it was time for the Singing Mayor’s last solo. And Brown soared into his version of Pokarekare Ana, a good voice and his arms waving to get the crowd to join in. At the end he did a kind of descant, voice at full stretch but holding. And then a final punch of the air. It didn’t exactly bring the house down but the Concert Chamber hasn’t seen that kind of acclaim for a politician for a long time.

Later that day the mayor was in one of the most apposite places to mark his departure: the offices high in the AMP Tower on Albert St of the Central Rail Link, CRL, for a farewell afternoon tea.

It would probably be one of the most welcoming places in the city for the man who is credited with forcing the rail tunnel into existence. There were selfies. There was a farewell cake, a long, perfectly formed Auckland Transport train with Len Brown’s face on the front like Thomas the Tank Engine.

An electric Len train cake, obviously. Photograph: Tim Murphy

They presented the man who has numerous plaques bearing his name across the city with a plaque – laid into a piece of tile from the floor of the Britomart train station which is soon to be redeveloped. It read, “Thanks, Len.”

When he was Mayor of Manukau, Brown had had misgivings about the Super City merger. He worried about how the keen focus the Manukau City Council had brought to some social issues and to the strong Pacific and Maori populations would be diluted.

I asked him if Manukau was better off now than when he voiced those fears. “While as Auckland Mayor not having the same level of pure passion and focused energy that I had for the Southside, I do still think some of the broader benefits that have come over the past six years are a net positive.

“Yes on affordable housing and so on, we have gone backwards. But as a city and a as a community we are making good and better progress.”

He thinks it is too soon to tell if history will judge the first six years of the Super City formation well. “A lot of it is packed up with people’s views of me personally. They will have a view of that as a consequence of what happened in my personal life.”

The Brown list of policies to tick off, projects to get moving, has been achieved, he says.

“To some people it’s come as a bit of a surprise. How the hell did that happen? The guy’s supposed to have been comatose. My staff ran out of things to do in the end. Our whole range of objectives has been met. I’m comfortable with how we have done. You can go through my entire platform and it is done.”

He reckons the next mayor faces a time of adjustment. “The job here is unique. It is different from being in charge of a government or ministry. The expectation is the mayor leads and all the bucks stop there. All of them. You do not know how you are going to be in that job until you’ve actually sat in the chair.

“The job itself never ever worried me. It is not the politics that is the problem …”

He’s not going to stick around and get in the next mayor’s way. John Banks and Sir Barry Curtis showed Brown respect by leaving him to it and he will do the same.

Today he and his wife, Shan, settle on a new house at Karaka Lakes, where they will live with one daughter and Shan’s 89-year-old mother, “a wonderful woman who has been with us almost all of our marriage.”

Len Brown thinks about train cake. Photograph: Jose Barbosa
Len Brown thinks about train cake. Photograph: Jose Barbosa

They’ll shift in and then the 60-year-old former mayor will get into the garden – “landscaping heaven”. They’ll travel next year and Brown is keen to form a consultancy to make use of his expertise in bringing together local government entities in international relations with cities from China to the United States and in fostering technology start-up companies.

He hasn’t been offered a job by Phil Goff, nor has he asked for one. And there’s no chance of him standing for election again, even for a local community group committee.

“I don’t know if I really want to go out and take on the world again at this age.”

His council colleagues gave him a young Pohutukawa plant as a parting gift, one from the many grown as back-ups for the grove planted back atop One Tree Hill. It won’t be joining the rest of the landscaping at the new Karaka home. “I can’t plant it – it stays in a pot as it will have to stay with the family and somehow we have to hand it down the generations.”

Has he left Auckland in a better place than he found it? “Obviously it is going through very big changes and I think the physical changes will continue for the next 10 years. The real change is in the spirit of this city. We have made some amazing connections internationally and as a small city we are going to lead globally.”

And is Len Brown the man now happy? “Oh, yeah. When I first started out I looked at doing a decade. It could have been shorter. And if it had have been longer that would have been fine. I know I’ve done my best, Tim. I do not think I could have done any better.”

If he could go back in time, what would he have told his younger self: “Oh I’m useless at these questions. I’d say: ‘Keep focused in every sense of the word, in all parts of your life. It’s easy to lose focus. It does not work if you are only focused in one part. You’ve got to keep your control and focus on all parts of your life.’”

And would his young self have listened? “If you are visited from your future with the wisdom of mistakes of the past, yes, I’d have hoped I’d listen.”

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