A DIVERSE CROWD GATHERS AT THE RATEPAYERS ALLIANCE DEBATE

Auckland’s penny-pinching rates protesters find a new hero

In the last public debate of the Auckland mayoral campaign, the three leading contenders fronted up to a crowd of rates-averse elderly people – and an unlikely hero emerged. Hayden Donnell reports.

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Phil Goff had low expectations going into the Auckland Ratepayers Alliance debate last night. “I’m expecting 99% of these people to be to the right of Genghis Khan,” he said before getting up on stage. He wasn’t far off. The jeers came quickly for the mayor, and they didn’t really let up for the next hour and a half. “Rubbish,” the crowd yelled as Goff talked about building cycleways so children can bike to school. “Boooo,” they shouted as he talked about council’s spending on the arts. “Oh yes, yes, yes” they said sarcastically when he claimed council workers were paid less on average than those in comparable private sector or government jobs. “Now listen people,” Goff said several times, as if remonstrating with a spoilt toddler.

The Ratepayers Alliance is a subsidiary of the Taxpayers Union, and the debate was moderated (quite fairly) by the union’s executive director Jordan Williams, and attended by Don Brash and a collection of Don Brash lookalikes. The evening’s only hint of diversity came from the Ihumātao land protectors, who stood silently against the wall as Brash looked on.

IHUMĀTAO PROTECTORS AT THE RATEPAYERS ALLIANCE DEBATE

Goff never really had much of a shot. But if he was the villain, you’d think his leading opponent, John Tamihere, would’ve been the hero. Tamihere has proposed a rates freeze, and wants to fire the board of the hated council-controlled organisation, Auckland Transport. But it was the last ratepayer debate of the campaign, and Tamihere looked gassed. Another candidate stepped up and stole the show.

Just three years ago, Craig Lord was posting sub-talkback radio level YouTube vlogs about how Māori are lazy and want handouts. The videos have recently been removed, and at the Ratepayers Alliance meeting in Jack Dickey Community Hall, Lord was reborn. He tap danced across the heartstrings of the rates-averse crowd. Cycleways? He’d can those “ridiculous” things. The crowd cheered. 

Buoyed by the popularity of that inane declaration, Lord thought he’d try some more ideas for reducing rates. What’s with all these roading contractors always digging up the same section of road over and over? he asked. That mirror they put up over O’Connell Street at a cost of $265,000? He’d had a look and could’ve done it for $5000. Finally he reached deep into the factless void and brought forth something incomprehensible about “cone charges” for road cones. It wasn’t clear how these things would make a dent in Auckland Council’s multi-billion dollar budgets. The crowd didn’t care. They either cheered or murmured in solemn agreement. 

Tamihere was often reduced to operating in Lord’s shadow. “Remember a vote for anyone else but me is a vote for Phil,” he said several times, desperately. 

The Ratepayers Alliance debate was held on the back of the organisation’s campaign to get candidates to sign a ‘Ratepayer Protection Pledge’ committing them to keeping total average rates increases at or below 2% per annum. Of the candidates on stage, only Goff had declined to sign because he’s committed to the council’s budgeted 3.5% rates rises. The Alliance wants to discourage that sort of largesse and promote a city where the council goes on a diet, keeping itself more to core services like rates and rubbish, while ratepayers keep more of their cash.

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We already know what that city looks like: it’s the one we have today. That kind of penny-pinching meanness was accepted political wisdom for decades. Councillors cowered in fear of being skewered in a John Roughan column; whimpered at the prospect of a bad headline in the Herald. Projects were commissioned to save ratepayers money. We built the Harbour Bridge with four lanes, only to have to clip on four more. Britomart was constructed as a dead-end, and now has to be linked to the rest of the rail network at a cost of more than $4 billion. The wastewater pipes in our central suburbs went so long without an upgrade that they overflow in even a light downpour. They’re being upgraded at a cost of $1.2 billion. Sir Dove Myer Robinson’s rapid rail scheme was shouted down in the 1970s, and now we’re spending billions to create something similar. Even recently, NZTA upgraded SH16 without a busway. It’ll be dug up again to add one.

The history of Auckland is littered with examples of ratepayers and taxpayers saving money, only to shunt the bill down to younger generations with interest. Goff tried to point that out. “There’s nobody in this room that does not acknowledge that our problems as a city lie in the fact that for 10 years, we’ve underinvested in our infrastructure,” he said. 

People weren’t in any mood to listen. They yelled and booed. Then the meeting ended, and they hopped in their nice cars, and drove away thinking about how mad they were over people on bicycles. They went home to their nice houses and glowered about the extra $50 in their next rates installment. Then maybe some of them got out their voting booklets and looked over the names. Who would deliver them from this injustice? Who would be the one to stop this spending? That’s when some of them would have looked back over their night at the Jack Dickey Community Hall, and landed on a name in the mayor column: Craig Lord.

The Spinoff local election coverage is entirely funded by The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism, click here.



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