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Local Elections 2022September 29, 2022

Wayne Brown and the cantankerous track to the mayoralty


Instead of a grand vision, Wayne Brown more often offers tetchy critiques. Yet it appears to be working. Duncan Greive meets the outsider who is topping polls to be Auckland’s next mayor.

All things being equal, Wayne Brown would rather be surfing. This is a relatively rare October which finds him in New Zealand and not floating just off Maui, chasing a clean break. He says he once won an election while surfing in Tahiti, and a surfing competition while mayor of the Far North. He broke the ice with Hannah at BluTV studios in South Auckland by telling stories about leaving skin on the reefs of Sāmoa. Most weekends you’ll find him eyeing up the West Coast if the swell’s small enough, or the East if it’s big enough. 

In the surf is where Wayne feels most at home, and core to his self-image – rugged, fit, self-reliant, fearless. He would like you to understand him that way too. He’s the “token whitey” in a pub band called the Hāngi Stones, played rugby for Te Papapa and grew up next to a dump in Remuera before gentrification – “the part that had the Bassett Road machine gun murders”, says his press secretary Ben Thomas. If you can’t imagine a Remuera before gentrification, understand that Wayne Brown is 76 – one of the oldest of the baby boomers – and he grew up in a very different Auckland to the one we know today. 

Brown feels that the media coverage of him has been too narrow and nitpicking – “a very small bit of what I am”. He has developed a notably antagonistic relationship with some journalists. He refused to take part in one debate because the NZ Herald’s Simon Wilson was the moderator, and as a result Wilson has dedicated his last two columns to questions he would like to have asked Brown.

For his part, Brown sarcastically calls Wilson and Stuff’s Todd Niall “well-known financial geniuses” for their critiques of his statements around council debt. Niall and Wilson are two of the most well-informed reporters on Auckland Council, and if you boil down their theses of him it’s that for all his business nous he does not seem to have taken the time to understand how council works, its constraints and functions. But to Brown, that’s almost the point: it doesn’t work, his campaign says. So he’ll fix it. 

As Brown’s prickliness has become more prominent, so the endorsements of his rival Efeso Collins have piled up, with this past week alone seeing current mayor Phil Goff, Metro magazine and a key regular contributor in former Waitākere mayor Bob Harvey, previously supportive of Brown. 

One thing no one can suggest is that Brown is doing it for the money – he’s made more than enough of that over the years, working as a developer and engineer on large scale projects. “I’m doing it for the challenge and to fix it,” he says. “I feel that I can do that. And if I didn’t do it, I’d look back and watch somebody else make a mess and think, I could have done that. And I’d never forgive myself.”

Uptown Wayne Brown

I meet up with Brown at the end of a long week, just after voting papers have been sent out. We steal an hour ahead of Q+A’s mayoral debate, held at AUT on a Friday afternoon. Brown wears a checked blazer and a beaten up Casio G Shock, and is more engaging in conversation than in debates, where he can come off as haughty or dismissive. 

He is right to maintain that he is a more complex character than the way he can be reductively portrayed. It’s not just the surfing and the band, the dump and the rugby club. It’s living on and loving the mix of people you find on Karangahape Rd. It’s pulling out his phone to proudly show the pretty street signage he says he introduced while on the Ōtahuhu Business Association. It’s his opposition to the postal ballot – “most young people have never posted a letter” – even though it is clearly helping his campaign.

Efeso Collins and Wayne Brown

For all that, he comes off as deeply old-fashioned in many respects. He pronounces Whangārei as “Wongaray”. He mock-recoils at having to get makeup done ahead of the debate. He has referred to Chinese migrants as “Chinamen” and spoken admiringly of the “transactional” nature of East Asian constituents. The two politicians he quotes during our interview are Clint Eastwood, during his time as mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea, and Ronald Reagan.

It does feel telling that the peak of Eastwood’s fame came in the 70s, while Reagan left the US presidency in 1988 – just as the average Aucklander (aged 34) was being born. He talks about the power crisis of 1998 – which he says he played a key role in resolving – as if it were yesterday. This is the world as he understands it, and while it might be alien to many younger residents of this sprawling and youthful city, it is very much recognisable to its voters, who tend to be much older. 

Last Wednesday I watched as a packed community hall in Greenlane played host to the Ratepayers’ Alliance debate. After a fairly unedifying exchange, in which Brown and Collins suffered from low energy and were largely bested by the feisty independent Craig Lord, the floor was opened to questions from the crowd, which immediately requested the removal of speed bumps to halt climate change. The audience scanned as almost entirely eligible for SuperGold cards, and angry at the way the city was changing. They wanted someone to fix it. Or just stop it. 

Brown argued with Lord about bridge failures, railed against what he called an “obsession with safety”. He was not ideologically rigid, repeating another quixotic idea to give buses transponders which turn lights green to speed up public transport times. His biggest applause lines came from a populist desire to shut down the Council’s development arm, Eke Panuku, and promotion agency Auckland Unlimited. This went for anything which implied a shrinking of the Council workforce, as you would expect from the Ratepayers’ Alliance’s faithful. 

Predictable, sure – but also a useful energiser of his base. In a tight race, it’s turnout which is the most reliable indicator of victory. Wayne Brown’s demographic show up to draughty community halls and know the location of their local postbox. According to Q+A’s Kantar poll on Sunday, Brown has a small but significant lead, and with turnout to date abysmal even by Auckland’s pitiful recent standards, it suggests that Brown is currently the man most likely to be the city’s next mayor.

Mayor Brown’s noise

Between the debates and our interview I heard Brown speak for well over two hours last week. He has a soft voice that forces you to lean in, and a digressive style which can make the thread hard to follow. That is ultimately a pretty decent metaphor for his campaign, which feels more like a rambling talkback caller’s list of gripes than a big, joined-up vision for the city. 

“If you read the definition of a house in Auckland, it’s actually the definition of a kitchen.” “They’ve allowed the contractors to sort of invade Albert Street and kill it off.” “Queen Street’s a crime scene.” Light rail? “You can’t explain what problem it’s fixing.” Three Waters? “You can’t explain what problem that’s fixing, either.”

Brown sounds like an unimpressive candidate, and that’s true in some respects. He doesn’t have a natural politician’s oratory or ability to stay tightly on message. He was reprimanded by the auditor general for using Far North Council staff on his own personal rates issues. He does seem to have consistently rubbed some people up the wrong way. Leo Molloy had far more charisma, while Viv Beck seemed the natural representative of modern business.

Yet both are out of the race, in part through Brown’s sheer doggedness. His pitch is that of the archetypal reality TV contestant – he’s not here to make friends, just to win. He says we have had six years of a conventional mayor, and seeks to paint Collins as heir to Goff, as long a bow as that might be. That naturally contrasts with his iconoclastic style – he wants to project as a person who bashes heads together and gets things done.

A typical Wayne Brown story features a languishing, seemingly impossible situation, which he arrives to solve. This is how he recounts his time at the Northland District Health Board. “There’s seagulls that can fly. And there’s pukekos that can get off the ground, with a bit of help. And there’s dodos. Northland was a dodo,” he says. “But it turned out to be the first one to break even and deliver all of its contracted services.” 

A vote against Labour’s vision of the future

Voting for Brown can be seen as a protest against what some of the electorate perceive as a paternalistic and anti-local democratic instinct which has emerged from central government post-pandemic. Labour’s ambitious reform agenda includes Three Waters and light rail but also the major change in regulations around density which Christchurch’s Council just roundly rejected. Brown represents a constituency which is deeply suspicious of all that.

“My general principle is that governments need to keep out of district plans,” he says of the Auckland Unitary Plan. “The district plan here took years to get into place. It was quite well thought out.” 

For the last two years Labour has had an absolute majority in parliament and the mayoralty in two of our three largest cities, which Brown thinks is a big part of the problem. He says Auckland needs a mayor who will dictate terms to Wellington, give it a list of wants, rather than passively receive whatever solutions its bureaucrats believe the city needs. 

“It’s very difficult for a mayor who’s part of the governing party,” he says. “They tell him what to do. It’s very easy for a person who isn’t. Particularly when there’s an election coming up. They’re all going to be very keen to hear what my views are on things, I can tell you that.”

While his opponents want to paint Brown as out of touch and cranky, he and his voters see a man of action, willing to stare down the vast machinery of central and local government and bring it to heel. They’re sick of Auckland being under construction, sick of being told how to get around the city and what kind of houses to live in. When the city proudly issues press releases about being a finalist for best global music city or celebrating its various advisory panels, they view that as wasteful mission creep. 

Thanks to an arcane voting system – and a Collins campaign which has felt halting and tentative at times – the older minority has more of an air of confidence with just over a week to go. We have hardly seen Waynemania, but there has been a relentlessness to Brown which mirrors, in his supporters’ eyes, his claimed attributes in business and local government. In less than two weeks we’ll know whether he’s been given one last huge job, or has all the time in the world to go surfing. 

Keep going!