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Attrition, Auckland style. Image: Archi Banal
Attrition, Auckland style. Image: Archi Banal

OPINIONPoliticsSeptember 16, 2022

Dear Auckland, there is an alternative to choosing your mayor via Hunger Games

Attrition, Auckland style. Image: Archi Banal
Attrition, Auckland style. Image: Archi Banal

Viv Beck has quit, making the Auckland mayoral contest in effect a head-to-head between Efeso Collins and Wayne Brown. Did it need to come to this? 

Five weeks ago, Leo Molloy rang the bell and exited the contest to be Auckland mayor. That was prompted by a bad poll result and to staunch the bleeding of cash, but his withdrawal was also in the nick of time: it was nomination deadline day, so Molloy’s name will not appear on the voting papers, which councils begin posting out today.

Viv Beck’s name will be there, but she’s asked you not to put a tick beside it. Her statement this morning was as succint as Molloy’s exit press conference was garrulous. It did not come as a massive surprise, given her equivocation in recent weeks when asked whether she was committed to go the distance. The last of a series of Curia polls for the Ratepayers Alliance is expected next week, and she was expecting bleak news – confirmation that Wayne Brown is the leading of the right-inclined contenders. “It is important to avoid splitting the centre-right vote,” she said. 

It brings an end to a strange sort of campaign. When I interviewed Beck five months ago her heart didn’t seem fully in it. Like Vic Crone before her, she seemed like someone who had been persuaded to take the centre-right mantle, as if arrived at by algorithm. It took a suspiciously long time for C&R, Auckland’s centre-right ticket, to formally back her. In the early debates, there was still not much spark. But by the time of the egg scramble debate at Auckland University, she had a fresh energy. She seemed to be enjoying herself.

That turned out to be the high point. Internal campaign unrest became public – there was a dispute over unpaid bills to one agency, a wrangle over social media accounts, then a lurch to a weird, reactionary approach from another. She was completely unpersuasive in defending an ad attacking her opponents on co-governance. The divisive message was required to respond to a divisive issue, she said.

The turbulence hasn’t settled since, and the writing was on the Facebook wall: not since this time last week has she run any ads on the platform that these days forms the lifeblood of electoral campaigns. She exits with a “heavy heart”, she said in a statement, but also with real anger. The most pointed line in her statement was this: “I am concerned about gross inaccuracies that have been said about me and my campaign and will be reflecting on the impact this type of behaviour has on democracy.”

The race now is essentially a head-to-head. A seasoned, left-leaning councillor, Efeso Collins is asking the world’s biggest Polynesian city to elect its first Pasifika mayor. Wayne Brown, former Far North man, is presenting, perhaps cultivating, the image of a grouch. A Mr Fixit, who can drive a bulldozer through a bloated council after two Labour-endorsed mayors, Len Brown and Phil Goff. It is likely to be close. In 22 days the Super City will either have its first brown mayor or its second Brown mayor. 

Regrettably, the man who has now been ceded the right ground by Molloy and Beck is denying us the first chance to see him go directly against Collins, having withdrawn from a NZ Herald debate because he doesn’t like the moderator, Simon Wilson. That’s a gift to the Collins camp, which swiftly issued a statement saying “Aucklanders deserve better than a candidate trying to run a campaign via a few flashy billboards in just a handful of suburbs while avoiding engaging with voters across our city by missing a key event run by one of Auckland’s main media outlets.”

Whatever Brown makes of Wilson, even if he reckons it would end up being two versus one, shouldn’t tough conversations with unsympathetic people be meat and drink to a Fixit Mayor?

Hopefully at the debates that do remain we’ll see some discussion of the electoral system that has given rise to the strange parade of hara-kiri in the Auckland mayoralty race. Those who liked the idea of a Mayor Molloy and a Mayor Beck may now choose to vote for someone else; they might not bother to vote at all. A reminder: the turnout at the last Auckland local election was 35.2%.

At the Spinoff Wellington mayoral debate last night I asked Paul Eagle, Andy Foster and Tory Whanau whether any of them might quit the race should they trail behind the other two in the first public poll on the race, to be revealed on Q&A this weekend. All said no, and that’s an easier thing to say given Wellington’s contest operates with single transferable vote. Concerns around splitting the vote dissolve in the face of a system in which voters are able to rank their preferences – instead of a vote splitting, it transfers. 

Wellington is one of a minority of councils that use STV – but the number is growing. There are now 15 that have seen the light, with four new participants this year: the Gisborne and Far North district councils as well as Hamilton and Nelson

Simply put, STV is fairer. It makes for a healthier contest. And it might just help avoid Auckland’s alternative: single-withdrawable-candidate; preference voting, Hunger Games style. 

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