John Tamihere’s rates freeze proposal was criticised from all sides yesterday, but does it have any political support? We contacted Auckland’s councillors to find out.
On the bright side for John Tamihere, his latest announcement wasn’t boring. The mayoral contender’s promise to freeze rates for three years drew dozens of headlines, as journalists and commentators clawed at their brains trying to make his figures work. Many felt unmoored from the tethers of fiscal reality. Stuff’s Todd Niall and Nick Truebridge spent 10 hours churning out roughly 45 stories on the topic. Niall, usually a bastion of calm, started by asking if Tamihere’s figures were out by $72 million, then capped his day with a column saying Tamihere could be accused of trying to make “over-simplistic slogans look like carefully crafted policy”. It was a maddened rant when adjusted for Niall’s usual unassailable zen, and its plaintive header – “has John Tamihere shaken it up too much?” – was in all likelihood written through a veil of tears.
It wasn’t just Niall. Few could work out how Tamihere would pay for his freeze, which will cost about $180 million in lost revenue and $477 million in lost borrowing power. His opponent Phil Goff said it was “fundamentally reckless, dishonest and unbelievable”. Tamihere disagreed, but there was some doubt as to his costings. He said he was going to make up for the revenue loss with a 1% efficiency gain across council. There are too many council staff earning over $200,000, he said. While that may be true, it’s uncertain what he can do about it, on account of employment law and people having “rights”. There was also the issue of the savings having to come on top of the $62 million in efficiency gains already budgeted by council over the next three years.
Tamihere suggested infrastructure spending cuts were on the table as well, telling the Herald he could mothball a section of the City Rail Link between Karangahape Rd and Grafton. But that suggestion also seemed dubious, given the CRL is now fully contracted and work is under way.
Thankfully the Tamihere campaign had left a trail of breadcrumbs to people who could fully explain his finances. “To ask councillors if this saving is possible, check with Ross Clow, chairman of the Finance and Performance Committee or Desley Simpson, Deputy Chair,” its press release said.
I called Ross Clow. He didn’t seem to have a clear idea how the saving would be possible. Council was already trying to make efficiency gains, and it’s not easy to cut staff, he said. “Effectively just about all John’s policies are predicated on greater government contribution. If you look at many of the policies, that’s what’s underpinning them.”
What if the government didn’t agree to contribute? “There is no guarantee of that and at present we’re trying extremely hard all the time to get greater government contributions. But it’s not easy. It’s difficult,” he said.
Desley Simpson didn’t have a clear idea either. “I don’t know enough about his financial policy to fully comment. It’s a good headline but rates are only one part of a larger financial plan to support one of the largest investment programmes this region has planned,” she said.
Maybe there was another councillor who could see the pathway to funding a rates freeze. No major political moves can take place at council without the majority support of councillors, and incumbents are usually returned to their seats. I contacted councillors running for re-election.
Howick’s Paul Young didn’t reply.
Albany councillor John Watson said he was interested in the freeze if Tamihere could prove it’s possible. “I think it would be a bit of a stretch, but I appreciate that someone’s trying to keep the rates as low as possible given people are also paying a fuel tax,” he said. Tamihere also wants to cut the fuel tax, though. “Ah yes,” Watson said. He hoped savings could be made from cuts to Council-Controlled Organisations (CCOs) rather than frontline services or community facilities.
Rodney councillor Greg Sayers had a similar take. “If he could demonstrate to me that he could make this saving without affecting frontline services then I’d be interested.”
Waitamatā’s Mike Lee said a freeze was “mathematically feasible” but would require politically unpalatable moves. “Rather than undertaking the major cost-cutting that would require I suspect it would be predicated on the fire sale of what’s left of the assets,” he said. “It would be a major.”
They were the most positive about the proposal.
Conservative councillor Daniel Newman, one of Goff’s strongest opponents, replied by text message: “It’s unworkable.”
Albany’s Wayne Walker said he saw some merit in lowering rates but couldn’t see how a freeze was possible. “I would say it would be very very difficult, and the reasoning for that is as long as we’ve got rapid growth in Auckland, we’ve got a debt problem, and what follows from the debt problem and the infrastructure problem is depreciation and interest costs that have to be met.”
Manukau’s Efeso Collins said he hadn’t seen enough detail to support the proposal.
Howick’s Sharon Stewart said she needed more time to think about the idea, hung up, then didn’t ring back.
Albert-Eden’s Cathy Casey pointed to her Facebook status about the proposal. “Finance Committee chair Ross Clow says he would not vote for Tamihere’s proposal to freeze rates for three years. Neither would I,” it read.
Waitākere’s Linda Cooper said the rates freeze would leave Auckland at a “standstill”. “No. Can’t be done,” she said. “A large portion of rate increase is debt interest. We could pay the mortgage but not build any new infrastructure.”
Manukau councillor Alf Filipaina said the proposal wasn’t evidence-based “It’s about the projects. How many projects around our communities will we, as a result of not having any money for three years, how many will end up stopping? How many will we have to say ‘sorry, you’ll have to wait another six years or longer’.”
North Shore councillor Richard Hills responded with this GIF.
“We are building a city – our city – and our residents deserve better than this carry on. It’s getting ridiculous,” he said.
His North Shore colleague Chris Darby was equally scathing. “If people sign up to that, they will see Auckland locked in a cage for the duration of John’s tenure. But it wouldn’t just be just the duration of his tenure if he is successful. It always takes a long time to recover if you put a choke chain on a city like that and that would be a massive choke chain on the city that would take a decade to come back from.”
The following is a full and final response from Maungakiekie-Tāmaki Ward councillor Josephine Bartley.
Albert-Eden councillor Christine Fletcher, Tamihere’s running mate, is travelling overseas and didn’t return calls. We can assume she’d back his plan, but the record does show she voted for the council’s current long-term plan which requires 3.5% increases.
Deputy Mayor Bill Cashmore said he didn’t know how the plan would be feasible when Tamihere is also promising what he estimates to be $10 billion of infrastructure. “I think JT’s wandering around town like the sheriff, firing off his six-guns, but they’re only firing blanks.”
Maybe firing off his six-shooter is all Tamihere wants to do though. His policies and ideas often seem to be more emotionally than physically possible. When pressed on something that seems particularly unrealistic or poorly thought out, he will often say he’s “starting a conversation” or assert that his is an “ideas” campaign. It sometimes seems like he wants to be taken seriously, but not literally.
Where have we heard that before?