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Photos: RNZ/Supplied; Design: Tina Tiller
Photos: RNZ/Supplied; Design: Tina Tiller

OPINIONPoliticsOctober 20, 2022

Wayne Brown has found a unicorn issue that unites Auckland

Photos: RNZ/Supplied; Design: Tina Tiller
Photos: RNZ/Supplied; Design: Tina Tiller

Auckland’s deeply weird new mayor has made few friends since taking office – but moving the port is one thing the whole city seems to agree on.

In 2022 there are few issues that can pull together a divided electorate – we live in an era of intense algorithmically driven polarisation, a choose-your-own-reality which makes consensus building extremely difficult. Even within relatively aligned blocs there are deep fissures, such as the right’s inability to pass meaningful resource management act reform, or the divide between Labour and the Greens on taxation. 

Newly minted Auckland mayor Wayne Brown does not present as the man to unite us. His first days in office have been marked by an almost comical degree of hostility and rancour, from his refusal to speak to media to his cheerful pronouncement that he would work part-time hours due to his pitiful salary – not even $300,000! One council appointed chairperson resigned immediately upon hearing of his victory, the rest have been sent the kind of letters which might more normally be expected from ordinary constituents with too much time on their hands.

Yet it is Wayne Brown – yep, right-leaning, bloodyminded, pin-a-pic-of-Simon-Wilson-to-a-urinal Wayne Brown – who has already managed to alight upon an issue which has drawn hugely enthusiastic endorsement from both Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick and Tāmaki Makaurau mana whenua at Ngāti Whātua Orākei. That issue is Auckland’s port, the mighty 55 hectare colossus that sprawls across so much of our main central city access to the Waitematā that you’d be forgiven for being unaware there even was a body of water adjacent to our downtown.

Brown has written a letter to the port’s chair, Jan Dawson, asking that Bledisloe Wharf, the world’s most spectacularly located carpark, be vacated and returned to accessibility to the public as soon as possible. Swarbrick, MP for Auckland Central and neighbour to Brown on Karangahape Road, has enthusiastically endorsed the idea, telling RNZ’s Morning Report that “the mayor and I strongly agree on the need to return this land to Aucklanders”. Ngarimu Blair, Deputy Chair of Ngāti Whātua Orākei Trust has too, telling the NZ Herald “We welcome the opportunity to work directly with the Ports of Auckland and the mayor on how we can quickly unlock access to the Waitematā for all Aucklanders.”

One issue, with the three most crucial stakeholders aligned, collectively representing central government, local government and mana whenua, along with both the left and right of our politics. It doesn’t seem plausible that such an issue could exist. Yet while Brown might seem to have plucked it out of the air, this is in fact one strange issue which already has a near universal approval rating. 

Moving the port unites former PMs from both National and Labour in John Key and Helen Clark. NZ First made it a bottom line at the last election. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in 2019 that the current location is “not viable”. The Maritime union wants the port moved to Northland. It even brings together noted antagonists in Herald columnists Matthew Hooton and Simon Wilson, who agree on almost nothing else. 

Perhaps most pertinently it has overwhelming support from the people of Auckland, the land’s owners. According to a June 2019 Ministry of Transport poll conducted by Kantar, almost twice as many Aucklanders favoured a move versus the status quo. When asked specifically whether a move would be good for Auckland that ration became 4:1 in favour of the move. More than half favoured its development into either or both of an entertainment precinct and public spaces, and the most popular time frame for a move was “within 10 years”.

Truly, this is a unicorn of an issue that unites whole chapters of our society who agree on literally nothing else of any consequence. 

And yet the port abides

So why hasn’t it happened? Because deciding to move it is easy, but where to is far more vexed. There are fierce proponents of Northport, of the Manukau Harbour, of a location near Thames too. Some want its functions split, others want the whole piece moved. The fact Ports of Auckland is nominally a business, albeit one owned by Council and which returns a risible dividend compared to other ports, is somewhat of an issue too. Most of all, whatever plan is picked, it’s going to cost a lot of money and the triumphant unveiling will be on another mayor’s watch, when many arguing about it currently are retired or in the ground.

Still, the prize glitters. As Brown pointed out to me during a pre-election interview, Sydney had a downtown port which was moved to Botany Bay in the 60s, a process which began when the 76-year-old Brown was a schoolboy. On a recent visit I walked along its waterfront, a beguiling mix of parkland, public facilities, accomodation and entertainment with that iconic Opera House – a vision of what nearly all involved agree Auckland’s might become.

The space is equivalent to 18% of the central city, an extraordinary thing to be locked away, an even greater gift to be returned to its residents and to mana whenua. That moving it is hard is not disputed, and it’s inevitable that not all will be happy with the proposed outcome. But the ludicrously broad coalition in favour of it is evidence enough that it has to move. Despite many in positions of power supporting it, nothing ever seems to happen. Maybe it needs a gnarly old shitkicker like Brown to start the process of scraping this very stubborn barnacle off the waterfront.

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