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Wayne Brown, Auckland’s invisible mayor. (Image: Toby Morris)
Wayne Brown, Auckland’s invisible mayor. (Image: Toby Morris)

OPINIONPoliticsApril 13, 2023

And so we ask again: Where is Wayne Brown?

Wayne Brown, Auckland’s invisible mayor. (Image: Toby Morris)
Wayne Brown, Auckland’s invisible mayor. (Image: Toby Morris)

The mayor has accepted the findings of the Bush review into the flood response, including criticisms of his lack of visible leadership. And yet, once again, the mayor is invisible, writes Toby Manhire.

In the six months since he became the mayor of Auckland, Wayne Brown has generated enough colourful language to fill a small paperback of quotations – a feat all the more amazing given how very few interviews he’s undertaken. The one that sticks in the mind, however, above the drongos and cusses and threats to “go feral”, came in a strange, hastily put together press conference just before midnight on January 27, at a time when much of the city was coming to terms with the horrific flooding unleashed by an “atmospheric river” that had engulfed properties and already claimed at least one life. It was “not my job”, protested the mayor, “to rush out with buckets”. 

True, sure, yes. There is no line in the mayoral job description about rushing out with buckets. But it seemed just about the most unleaderly thing anyone could say at such a moment. A mayor rushing anywhere, buckets or not, would have been something. Visible, active, engaged – leading from the front. But until that press conference, he was essentially nowhere to be seen. As homes were flooded, as busses floated down streets, The Spinoff’s editor wrote that night: Where is Wayne Brown?

Wayne Brown signing the state of emergency declaration, in a photograph provided by the mayor’s office.

The next hours and days weren’t much better. In one of only a few interviews, with Kim Hill on RNZ the next morning, Brown defended his response and decided to say: “It will be interesting to see just how well prepared Wellington is when the earthquake strikes.” Had text alerts been sent to Auckland residents? He didn’t know. Was water safe to drink? Don’t know. I mean, be grumpy, by all means, but at least channel it to demand answers. He seemed so determinedly incurious. 

The next day, Brown appeared with Chris Hipkins at a press conference that would have been hilarious had it not been for the circumstances. After seething at the media in what amounted to an extended “not my fault” around the timing of an emergency declaration and the response as a whole, he was physically dragged away by Desley Simpson, who has looked consistently more mayoral than the man to whom she is deputy. 

The January 28 press conference

“Almost all respondents to this review felt that public messaging over the first 48 hours of the emergency was inadequate,” was the assessment of the Mike Bush led review into the flood response, published yesterday afternoon. “Multiple channels were not well deployed, timeliness was poor and communications content was light … Aucklanders expected and needed clear and regular messaging, delivered with empathy via multiple channels, to understand the seriousness of the event, to know where to go and how to get help, and to gain assurance that the crisis was being actively managed by their elected and professional leaders.”

(Empathy – or the lack of – is conspicuous in the report. The word appears five times. As another colleague put it, empathy is not so much a rare political superpower as “a necessary leadership skill”.)

In the most headmasterly manner imaginable, former police commissioner Bush (who rightly lauded the enormous, selfless efforts by so many involved in the response) laid out what added up to “system failure”. He said: “The issues of leadership exposed by this crisis must be addressed. Key leaders in Auckland City failed to appreciate the vital importance of visible leadership and frequent public communication during a time of crisis.” And: “Effective leadership in a crisis goes directly to public confidence in elected leaders, and thus to the overall health of our democratic institutions.”

It would be wrong and unfair to say this was all about Brown’s response. He was just the bit of the iceberg above the water line. The most serious findings of the Bush review describe a general underpreparedness – what is worse, a known underpreparedness – of the emergency management groups. There was a broad lack of coordination, with the overall emergency response in the immediate aftermath clearly much less than the sum of its parts. A few of those parts had a near farcical quality. Some processes were dysfunctional. The vast part of it pre-dates Brown, and – though it should be asked what his predecessor knew and did or didn’t do about it – Brown can’t be blamed for that. 

Brown is not being asked to take blame, however. He’s being asked to take responsibility. 

And isn’t that what we expect of our elected leaders? To take responsibility, to unite a team (rather than, say, denigrating them) and to hammer home that things must and will get, you know, fixed?

Wayne Brown inspects flood damage in Auckland (Photo: Lynn Grieveson/Getty Images)

It is to Brown’s credit, it is also true, that he commissioned the Bush review. And he did show contrition. In a statement that some unkindly joked appeared in the form of a hostage video, a week on from the deluge, Brown apologised, saying he “dropped the ball”. He reiterated that apology yesterday, accepting the recommendations of the Bush review, acknowledging he “should have been more assertive in demanding information, so that I could provide Aucklanders with public safety advice, practical support, and reassurance.” With an added flick of: “I assumed that the systems were better than they were.”

Brown said all that in a statement, however. While Bush fronted a press conference, there was no chance to ask questions of Brown, nor another who bears some responsibility, the departing CEO Jim Stabback. His statement appeared in the same release. Both should have fronted the press, but especially the elected mayor. Not for the sake of the media drongos themselves, to be clear, but because the public deserve to hear what their leaders say in response to questions about the systems over which they preside, and the decisions they took. After all, the Bush report did say that at such an important moment “senior leaders underestimated the importance of their visible leadership roles”. It pointedly noted the “vital importance of visible leadership”, and “the need to provide visible leadership front and centre”, and – well, you get the picture. 

With a heavy heart, then, we summon up the question once more. Where is Wayne Brown? We asked the mayor’s office whether the mayor would be giving interviews or fronting a press conference, but have yet to receive a reply.

Keep going!