A crucial day for the future of the city, and the mayor’s message to hundreds of thousands of Aucklanders: I don’t want to talk to you.
Wayne Brown was right. The media is awash with drongos. I personally have behaved drongoistically – to borrow a Winstonism – at least twice in the last week. The irksome, infuriating trouble of it all is that from the good to the bad, the indifferent to the assiduous, the dutiful to the drongo, journalists are a critical part of the cranky old machinery of democracy.
That the Auckland mayor picks and chooses to whom he gives interviews – even if those interviews are about as rare as a full hour of uncancelled Auckland buses – is disappointing and frustrating. But in truth, when he does deign to talk, it tends to emit more heat than light, and his deputy, Desley Simpson, is much, much better at it.
But when it comes to something that everyone from the mayor down agrees is crucial to a city of about 1.8 million people, how the mayor – arguably the most important directly elected politician in the country – wants to do to Aucklanders’ services, assets and rates bills, how he wants their money to be spent – it is petulant to the point of juvenile to bar about half of all media outlets from attending.
The Spinoff was not advised of, let alone invited to, the mayor’s presentation this morning. And, look, we’re not the biggest drongos in the media jungle, we get it. But also excluded were Stuff, TVNZ and Newshub. That’s a lot of readers, a lot of viewers, a lot of Aucklanders, who are in effect being told: the mayor doesn’t want to speak to you. And not through lack of trying. I messaged the mayor’s office yesterday asking about the budget presentation to councillors. No response. I followed up this morning. Crickets.
Someone did reply to Stuff, at least. Brown’s press secretary, Josh Van Veen, told them it was a speech to “Auckland business and residents”, and that “we invited a select few journalists from media outlets who we feel were best able to convey the mayor’s message, and Stuff isn’t one of them.”
That’s quite a thing to say. For such a senior elected politician to handpick “a select few journalists”, whom he considers “best able to convey [his] message”, and exclude the country’s biggest news organisation? It’s not a good slope to be on, put it that way.
The approach has the added effect of bewildering and alienating those who Brown should be rallying to his cause internally. Among the words senior council staffers and councillors have used this morning in privately sharing their view on the selective media lockout: “baffled”, “frustrating”, “disappointing”, “counterproductive”, “bizarre” and “shitshow”. As for the supposedly more amenable media, the report from one of those with a golden ticket to the Brown factory, the NZ Herald, headlined its story: “‘’Last to leave, turn the lights off,’ Auckland Mayor presents budget proposal at chaotic press conference”.
What is in the budget proposal? In the last few minutes a generic media release arrived from the mayor’s office. Included in the revised budget plan are a rates increase of 6.7%, reflecting inflation; the sale of airport shares; a reversal on earlier floated cuts to local board services, social services and arts and culture.
On the face of it, Brown appears to have taken on board much of the reaction and advocacy since his initial plan was revealed. It would have been great to hear him lay that out. Instead, for the third time – after his absence in the hours after the January flood, and his absence after the release of the damning report into the response to that disaster – we’re left again asking, pleading, howling like a pitiful, emaciated drongo into the eternal void: Where is Wayne Brown?