Let’s get the trams across to Britomart

Trams are back in the news of late.  Auckland Transport planners theorise that Light Rail is the best option for future rail to the airport.  I disagree with that (which you might find surprising coming from such an avowed tram advocate), but putting it simply, Light Rail, or trams, cannot provide a rapid, single-seat journey from Auckland International Airport to the city centre.  On the other hand, electric trains – Onehunga Station is only 9km from the airport – certainly could.

Trams in reality – not in theory – are now back in the Wynyard Quarter, after a break of 19 months while major road works took place.   These are Waterfront Auckland’s heritage ‘Dockline’ trams – and they will be running on weekends from 10am til 4pm and Friday’s 4pm – 7pm until Christmas.  Then, on Boxing Day until the end of January, it will be seven-days-a-week. After that there will be another break as the last section of road works gets underway for a few more months.  There are also new, cheaper fares: family $5, adult $2 and child $1.  Up until their enforced layoff in May 2013, despite the unfortunate over-pricing of the tickets at the start, the heritage trams, painted in traditional Auckland carnation-red livery, (with serial numbers 256 and 257, continuing on from the last Auckland trams), proved to be popular with the public. Despite the carping critics, more than 93,800 Wynyard Quarter visitors took the opportunity to take a ride on them.

Wynard trams - ready to roll. (photo Albert Chan)

Wynard trams – ready to roll. (photo Albert Chan)

It was the first time trams had run in downtown Auckland streets since 1956.  This was the fateful year that the city fathers, despite public opposition, ended tram services, dismantled the overhead wires, and destroyed most of the trams, selling the rest off as batches or sheds. Not content with that, and at huge cost for that time, they ripped out the 72km of tracks that reached most of the Auckland isthmus –obviously with the intention of making damned sure they could never be brought back.

This was an Auckland tragedy.  Up until that time, trams alone carried over 80 million of 100 million public transport passenger trips per year. Given that Auckland’s population was then only around 300,000 people and that now, 58 years later, with a population around 1.5 million, we carry only 74 million passenger trips a year – gives us some idea just how popular trams were.   Indeed, allegedly car-obsessed Aucklanders up until 1956 were proportionately some of the most diligent public transport users in the world.

The waterfront trams were an ARC legacy project that I pushed very hard for in 2009/10.  Though they have an important role as a ‘point of difference’, and ‘place-making’, bustling around the developing Wynyard Quarter, they were never meant to be confined there.  The whole objective, modest enough I thought at the time, was to get the line to the Britomart Transport Centre, where with state-of-the-art new trams, with super capacitors that don’t need overhead wires, they could be transformed from a visitor novelty to a serious public transport mode, running up Queen Street, where there are major pollution and noise issues from buses – and even along Tamaki Drive.  Though perhaps we should have been looking at Ponsonby.

But, extending the trams to Britomart was one of the most popular aspects of the 2011 Waterfront Plan. When the public was asked about this, 43% of submitters responded with ‘Do Now’, 30 % said ‘Do Soon’ and 13% said ‘Do Later’ and only 13% said ‘Don’t Support’.  Three years on, despite this 73% or even 86% mandate, due to budget cut-backs and squabbling between Waterfront Auckland, Auckland Transport and Auckland Council, nothing has been done to get the tramway across to Quay Street and past the cruise ship wharves to Britomart.  While some half a billion dollars is being spent by the Council on a questionable IT system which is meant to be ‘transformational’, no-one seems to be willing to spend the $30m to get the tramway across to Te Wero and on to Britomart. Now that would be transformational.  Happy Christmas everyone.

This article published in the Ponsonby News December-Jan issue.


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‘Super City’ four years on – not so super

The 1st November will be the 4th anniversary of the beginning of Auckland’s new ‘super city’ council.

Much was promised when the seven former territorial local authorities and the Auckland Regional Council were disbanded/amalgamated by the National government – so how is it all working out?  Well, I am disappointed to say, not so good.

The idea of one, unified council for Auckland was not an unreasonable one – in theory.  Economies-of-scale, critical mass to enable cost savings, regional unity etc., etc., made the idea plausible and attractive on the face of it.   But as it often happens, practical reality and human frailty – in other words politics – can confound the best theories. It certainly happened in this case.  Practical reality has shown that economies-of-scale doesn’t necessarily mean the-greater-the-size, the-greater-the-efficiency.  Practical reality has shown that the Auckland Council bureaucracy, and that of its huge and semi-independent CCO offspring, Auckland Transport, are bigger than optimal size and growing every year.  Then there is the politics.

As the leader of the former Auckland Regional Council – the one Auckland council that operated region-wide before 2010, I can say it was understood and accepted by the ARC that, for the greater good of Auckland the ARC would have to be disbanded to make way for the new ‘super city’.  What we didn’t understand, (because it only became clear when it was much too late), was that abolishing the ARC was not just a means to an end but actually a prime objective of the super city amalgamation.  

 Business lobbyists in Auckland, people in the local authorities, senior bureaucrats in Wellington and, it appears, the National Party caucus, had long resented the checks and balances the ARC represented in terms of planning and the environment, and they wanted it gone.

So the government charged Rodney Hide (though in reality the man pulling the strings was Steven Joyce) with the task of pushing through this enormous amalgamation as quickly as possible and without any vote or consent from the ratepayers.   In the rush to get the job done, insufficient consideration was given to the real costs of amalgamation – and these were swept under the carpet.

Even before its formal establishment the Super City blew any serious chance it had to achieve cost efficiencies.   It seems that so bent were the powers-that-be on airbrushing out the regional legacy, going back to Dove-Myer Robinson’s ARA, that in the week before the new Auckland Council was sworn-in, management took the decision to pay to get out the lease of the purpose-built ARC regional house.  This decision, plus a blow out in staff numbers was to create a staff accommodation shortage.   This management ‘solved’ by the acquisition of the flash ASB bank head on Albert Street at an eventual cost of $157.4m.   Then there is the huge and growing cost of IT – on which and incredible $431m has been spent – nearly three times as that on the flash building. These decisions plus the increase of staff of the council and its CCOs, from 9,300 in 2010 to 11,134 this year, has helped bring on a budget crisis that will means cut backs to services to the public and cuts and deferrals of agreed local board commitments to their communities.  There is more of course.  Most worrying is a culture of secrecy and a tendency to ram decisions through the governing body, with minimal time for reflection and debate – and with minimal information – indeed in some cases eg ‘cultural impact assessments’ and the Hunua dam shut-down, the deliberate withholding of information from the councillors.

So four years on, despite the best intentions and good of will of many of us to see the new Auckland Council succeed, any opportunity it might have had to be a powerful and efficient force for good in Auckland – and an inspirational example for the rest of the country, has been squandered.


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Labour’s trouncing by John Key raises searching questions

Now that the dust is settling on the rather tumultuous events of the 2014 General Election – Labour’s worst performance in 92 years – and with the resignation – well sort of – of David Cunliffe, the Labour Party is now going through an official review.

But how fundamental this will be is very much open to question. What is really needed is a fundamental reappraisal of just what ‘Labour’ means and what the party stands for. Also needing serious thought is the relationship between Labour and its proposed coalition partner – the Greens. If it wasn’t clear earlier, the two parties are now actually rivals. At least two key electorate seats were lost to Labour eg Nikki Kaye’s Auckland Central and Peter Dunne’s Ohariu because of vote-splitting with the Greens (albeit Labour’s triumph in Napier was due to vote splitting between Conservatives and National – a rare tactical error by the right). The Greens despite their usual upbeat pronouncements can take no comfort from this election either. They need a fundamental reappraisal themselves. Ironically MMP is not working for the centre-left.   The National propaganda theme of the hapless red and green characters floundering around in a rowboat – all at sea – was not too far off the truth.

But of even more fundamental concern should be the remarkable, indeed shocking, phenomenon of voters in traditional Labour seats giving their party vote to National.

In my opinion there were two main reasons for this – and both reasons reflect profoundly on what is the present-day Labour Party. While Labour long ago dropped any reference to the politically radical goal of socialism and indeed since 1984 has become a party of neo-liberal capitalism, (albeit of a somewhat softened version in recent years), interestingly it is openly radical on questions of social liberalism – radical but always within the bounds of and never challenging capitalism. It would be a mistake to identify this social liberal zealotry as being ‘left’. Issues raised by Gay marriage, ‘man bans’, third genders on passports, and gay adoption, etc., while apparently of passionate interest to the party insiders, do not sit well with the working people that Labour professes to represent, nor with the ethnic immigrant communities Labour fondly imagined (until the election anyway) were permanently loyal to it. Some defection to NZ First would be expected in these circumstances – but to National?

Another reason why core Labour voters voted National, in my opinion is so obvious that I fear it probably doesn’t even register with Labour’s policy makers. Labour’s policy of retrenching national superannuation entitlements from age 65 to 67, was a direct attack on the social entitlement of working people – what used to be called social security.   Labour’s leaders in promoting this policy obviously hoped to score ‘brownie-points’ with Treasury and the business-financial establishment. A signal that Labour was still ‘sound’ and could be still relied on to take the ‘tough’ economic decisions (at the expense of its own people, just like its Rogernome predecessors).  How the trade union leadership allowed this policy to get through is bewildering.   But then again, it asks searching questions about  present-day trade union officialdom as well.   There are notable exceptions of course but it seems that much of the politicised trade union leadership is dominated by the same sort of people as the party officials – sedentary ‘middle class’ tertiary graduates.  There is an impression from ordinary workers that many of their trade union officials are more interested in a career in parliament than working for the members.   That for many ambitious and politically correct university graduates with connections, an office job in the union is just a step along the way to a parliamentary office and then the party list. Plainly, most Labour MPs and officials, have very little meaningful contact with manual workers. The people who work on the roads in all weathers, on building sites, cleaning offices and factories at night and driving heavy trucks. These people tend to be physically worn out by the time they reach the age of 65.  Work for them is bloody hard. Labour’s policy makers obviously don’t understand that fact. For them in contrast ‘work’ (the constant round of meetings, the office, travel, conferences) is stimulating if not addictive.

Though many workers may not have university degrees they are not mugs. John Key to his credit held out against all sort of pressure from the usual interests (and no doubt his own caucus) to roll back superannuation.  Key’s determination was not only vindicated – but proved to be a political masterstroke.   It is the thousands of party votes netted  from Labour voters that will enable National to govern in its own right. This is unprecedented under MMP and a personal triumph for Key.

Meanwhile life is not getting easier for the average person in the street – national and world conditions (economic, social and environmental) over the past thirty years appear to be deteriorating.  There is growing wealth disparity.   As the historian Frank McLynn observed:

‘It is a perennial peculiarity…to object to inequalities of race, sex, title, distinction, and even intellect but remaining blithely untroubled about the most important form of inequality; the economic.’

There is not a great deal of optimism that things can change – and underneath a great deal of fear and frustration.   Given this situation there are plenty of things the Labour Party can do to renew itself and make itself relevant to the  New Zealand people.  But, unless the current party review is more thoroughgoing than one would imagine – I don’t hold out great hope.

The difference between 1922 and 2014 is back then Labour was a party of outsiders on the way up, motivated by a transcendent vision of a bold new world, authentic and with deep roots within the community and the labour movement.  Labour may not have had the best result in 1922 but it was poised to overtake the previous reforming party, the Liberals.  Unless there is a fundamental change, sadly I fear, the Labour Party in the 21st century will continue its slow decline, much as the Liberals did in the 1920s.


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Dirty politics – how deep is the rot?

I find it an intriguing aspect of modern democratic societies – where power is contested by two major rival parties – that the closer their policies get, the more bitter and rancorous their political differences.

The classic example is the United States, the home of neo-liberalism, where the policies of Democrats and Republicans are indistinguishable, but where the political divisions are so deep and toxic, that they lead to periodic shutdowns of the government.   The same goes in Australia where, for year after year, on Sky TV News on any given night, one could see the then opposition leader Tony Abbott tearing into the prime minister Julia Gillard in the most brutal fashion.

In New Zealand, despite a blurring of policy differences between National and Labour parties, both accept the post-Rogernomics consensus, we have seen much the same thing.   Its in local politics also, where I have been intrigued about the level of vitriol the Mayor Len Brown has attracted from the right – given how ‘business friendly’ and pro-development, indeed how right-wing, his policies are.  I am not sure whether this seeming paradox, ‘similar policies-bitter politics’, is a matter of cause and effect, or if it is an expression of another underlying factor.

This general election had already become very much focussed on personalities, especially that of the prime minister, John Key, rather than on policies, long before Nicky Hager released his latest book Dirty Politics.  One reason for this is that National had decided to heavily promote John Key’s personality and capitalise on his ‘relaxed, nice guy’ image as its main campaign theme.  It was also because a bitter personal feud between the German multi-millionaire Kim Dotcom and Mr Key had escalated into the political arena with the start-up of Internet Mana – whose campaign rallies feature crowds of young people chanting ‘expletive-deleted John Key!’

But the revelations of Hager’s book based on hacked emails indicating secret and unsavoury dealings, principally around the Whale Oil blog-site have taken things to a new level.  Even the most hardened follower of politics after reading this book could not put it down without a sense of deep unease.   As Duncan Garner said, ‘this is about a group of bloggers and political operatives dealing to opponents with brutal tactics and blackmail.’  Even worse the group has links to the prime minister’s office and to the minister of justice who, if the book’s claims are true, have secretly manipulated information to damage political opponents.

That John Key has stuck to a script attacking Hager as ‘ a left-wing conspiracy theorist’ does him no credit.  As the normally National-leaning political commentator John Armstrong has pointed out, Key’s personal attacks on Hager seem like something straight out of the Hager book.

Clearly Key needs to take steps to quickly and surgically disassociate himself and the office of prime minister from the Dirty Politics scandal.  I am puzzled why he hasn’t.  That he refuses to, (so far), might also be revealing.   Whatever, the fallout from the Dirty Politics affair is likely to end up damaging John Key’s ‘relaxed, nice guy’ image – and cost National a bunch of votes into the bargain.  Where those votes go is another matter.  Swinging voters in particular will be eyeing the opposition to see what sort of government a Labour-led coalition might form.

The credibility of such a coalition in this Auckland Central electorate would certainly be enhanced if Labour and the Greens could persuade Green supporters in particular, not to split the electorate vote as they have in the last two elections.

This article was published in the September issue of Ponsonby News.





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The Great War 100 years on: have we not learned anything?

Sergeant John Lee SN 23/808 5th (Wellington) Regiment

This month we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War of 1914-18.  I have been aware of this approaching anniversary for time now and helped set up a special committee of the Auckland Council to oversee remembrance activities over the next four years.

The First World War is a subject I have long been interested in – like many other New Zealanders my grandfather served in it, (Samoa, Egypt and the Western Front). Sergeant John.J.Lee, (not to be confused with the famous politician Sergeant John.A.Lee), was shot and severely wounded in a place called Ploegsteert (‘Plug Street’), in Flanders, in May 1917.

Britain declared war on Imperial Germany on 4 August 1914, the next day the Governor-General of New Zealand, issued the war proclamation from the steps of parliament.  Being a dominion of the British Empire, neither the government nor the New Zealand people were given any say in the matter – nevertheless the country loyally supported the declaration and thousands rushed to enlist.

Over 102,000 New Zealanders went off to war, some 10% of the population – over 18,500 were killed.  Many more were wounded and came back maimed and suffering psychological disorders.  The war dragged on for more than four years with some 17 million people killed and 20 million wounded. The First World War was to cause profound social dislocation and suffering and was to lead, only 20 years later, to the Second World War with even greater death, destruction and human misery.

One of the interesting aspects of the centennial has been a flood of books and articles, especially by British authors, sparking a debate between those historians who believe that Britain had no choice but to go to war, and those who argue that Britain (and her empire) would have been better off staying out.  This presupposes the war’s outcome being a German dominated Europe, with Germany at the centre of a sort of European Union – which as the historians remind us, is rather like what we have now.

The debate between British scholars is entirely relevant to New Zealand because we were committed to it automatically by Britain.

It is a fascinating debate – and yet somehow I feel a major point is being missed.  The Great War was triggered on the 28th June 1914 by a tubercular 19-year-old Serbian nationalist who shot and killed the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his wife.  A callous act, in an obscure place, for an abstruse cause. But the killings lit the fuse, inexorably leading on to ultimatums, the activation of alliances, mobilisations of troops and the ultimate catastrophe. It was as if a giant diabolic machine had been set in motion and once in motion could not be stopped.   But the statesmen, the diplomats, the generals, on all sides, did nothing to stop it.  In fact one has the impression they wanted it to happen.

Having watched in recent months the unfolding of a political conflict in Eastern Europe, which, week after week, is steadily escalating –  a conflict that could have incalculable ultimate consequences.  And now all over our television screens we see the pitiable agony of Gaza and the Middle East.  Despite the worthy utterances of the politicians, and statesmen and diplomats – there is a growing impression, that just like in 1914, the people with the power to stop it, do not want to stop it.   One is left to wonder, what has the human race really learned in the last 100 years?

(A version of this article is published in the August issue of Ponsonby News and Verve Magazine.)

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What next? – a $.15m ‘state house’ for Queens Wharf

Last month, we learned from Bernard Orsman of the NZ Herald of leaked proposals to build two, three-storey office and car park buildings at the Quay Street end of Queens Wharf. This month the news is that Auckland Council art bureaucrats, with the support of the Mayor, are trying to impose a $1.5m artwork at Queens Wharf’s northern, seaward end.

The work by Michael Parekowhai is a two-thirds sized sculpture of a state house.   A state house?  People of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations would be intrigued to learn that this ‘state house’ will cost over $1.5m.  $1m will come as a gift from Barfoot and Thomson, as a birthday present to celebrate the real estate agent’s 90th birthday.   The balance, it appears, will be coming out of your rates.   For the life of me, I just don’t get the logic of an oversized sculpture of a state house being plonked at the end of Queens Wharf.   The artist himself seems to have in mind an entirely new role for his ‘state house’, ‘signalling a safe harbour, welcoming to all.’  But why not then sculpt a lighthouse?  It gets even more bizarre.  To provide lighting for this ‘state house’, there will be a 45-tonne, Venetian, hand-blown, crystal chandelier costing $750,000.   Such extravagance may be artistic but it’s rather insensitive given real state house tenants find it hard to pay their light bills, and many currently are under threat of eviction.  This is also completely out of keeping with the maritime environment and history of Queens Wharf.

The view of the Waitemata Local Board is that it was a case of ‘good art but in the wrong place.’  To be fair, I can’t comment on its artistic merits because I have never seen it.  But it is certainly in the wrong place.   Public art should be relevant and in harmony with its setting.  Most of all it should be democratic and have the support of the people who will be paying for it.  Obviously the executives of Barfoot and Thompson who presumably know more about location, location, location than public art, are happy to take this prime spot on Queens Wharf, though the idea of the location apparently came from council bureaucrats.  But what about the other funders, the people of Auckland, who are once again to be shut out of the process?

Queens Wharf was purchased by the former Auckland Regional Council and the government for all Aucklanders.  Maximising views out over the harbour from the city and leaving space for future generations for their ideas and their needs was a key consideration at the time.  We should resist Queens Wharf being cluttered and privatised by present day opportunists with more money than taste.

Queens Wharf is also for future generations, which we hope and pray might regain the civic-mindedness and good taste of Auckland’s earlier generations.

PM and ARC Chairman announce the purchase of Queens Wharf, public open day, September 2009. (Photo John Hong)

Versions of this article have been published in the July issue of Ponsonby News, Verve Magazine and 10 July issue of Gulf News.

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On Guard Aucklanders – your waterfront is under threat

The National government has announced the end of its assets sales programme, which on the face of it should bring to a close New Zealand’s shameful era of privatization – of country selling.  While most of the government’s trading assets have now been completely or partially sold off, it’s probably too much to hope that privatisation will really come to an end.   In fact I have long suspected local public assets will be the next to come under pressure.   And in fact this seems to be happening with the first target being public open space.  Prime waterfront open space, judging by the revelations that Auckland Council and Council Controlled Organisation (CCO) bureaucrats have been secretly discussing the sell-off of Queens Wharf to a mysterious Cayman Islands-based corporation.

Persistent rumours suggest that behind this is Australian mining billionaire, Gina Rinehart, but this has been adamantly denied by the project frontman, businessman and Mayor Len Brown backer, Sir Noel Robinson.  But he won’t say who it is.  Why not?

Following closely on the heels of this unhappy news came the Auckland Council Governing Body’s decision, on the basis of an officers’ report emailed through the previous day, to agree ‘ in principle’ to the sell off Queen Elizabeth ll Square to the Abu Dhabi controlled Precinct Properties, as part of an expanded shopping mall – office tower development.

Like Queens Wharf, Queen Elizabeth ll Square is high value, strategically located public open space.  It is also prime blue-chip real estate, potentially the most valuable in New Zealand – though judging from the Council officers’ report it is considered neither.


That's it Prime Minister. BUY public assets, don't sell them. Queens Wharf, public open day, September 2009. (Photo John Hong)

Queens Wharf was purchased by the former Auckland Regional Council and the Government in 2009 and opened to the public for the first time in nearly 100 years on Anzac Day 2010.  It has proven to be enormously popular with Aucklanders.

With its purpose-built, temporary ‘Cloud’, Queens Wharf did sterling service during the Rugby World Cup as ‘Party Central’.    Its companion, historic Shed 10 has been handsomely renovated by Waterfront Auckland to become Auckland’s premier cruise ship terminal (just as the ARC recommended in mid 2010).   Apart from hosting tens of thousands of cruise ship visitors, Shed 10 has become a sentimental favourite of Aucklanders (they do after all own it).   It is used for a wide range of public events, memorably hosting thousands of supporters, morning after morning, who came to Shed 10 to cheer on Team NZ during last year’s America’s Cup series.

With its purpose-built, temporary ‘Cloud’, Queens Wharf did sterling service during the Rugby World Cup as ‘Party Central’.    Its companion, historic Shed 10 has been handsomely renovated by Waterfront Auckland to become Auckland’s premier cruise ship terminal – just as the ARC recommended in mid 2010.   Apart from hosting tens of thousands of cruise ship visitors, Shed 10, as the last America’s Cup showed, has become a sentimental favourite of Aucklanders (they do after all own it).

From the time – as chairman of the ARC-, I announced our intention to buy Queens Wharf, I always believed one of the greatest advantages of opening Queens Wharf are the views out over the harbour which link the city to the sea.  Hopefully the Cloud will soon be removed to enhance these views.   The secret plans to privatise the Quay Street end of the Wharf and block those views with crass office and car-park buildings are unacceptable.

Across Quay Street, the loss of Queen Elizabeth ll Square will be a major loss of amenity for Downtown Auckland.  Precinct Properties’ new development could have been an opportunity to redress the planning mistakes of the 1970s and 80s.    But from what I have seen so far, and given the forelock-tugging attitude of Council bureaucrats towards big business and their unwillingness to stand up for the public interest, I am not holding my breath. Neither should you.

On guard Aucklanders.  Our beautiful waterfront is under threat from the country sellers.

A version of this article has been published in the Ponsonby News (June edition).

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Nikita goes to Hollywood

Nikita goes to Hollywood – Movie Reviews (Hollywood adds new meaning to the term Theatres of War) 
by Mike Lee

I first wrote this article in early 2002 in the NZ Political Review.  Its a review of two movies which were playing at around the same time – about historical events involving the USA  (the Cuban Missile Crisis) and the Soviet Union (the Battle of Stalingrad) – which occurred 20 years apart.  I argued that the two events were very much linked.  The article was picked up by the American website Ratical which gave it a lot of coverage on the internet.  Two years later the headline ‘Nikita goes to Hollywood’ was used in the Guardian and in 2009 by the Smithsonian Institute.  Given events in the Ukraine and the bizarre but potentially grave crisis between the USA and Russia , I thought it timely to republish it.)

Nikita Krushchev – terrifying for any 12 year old seeing this on a magazine rack.

September 19 1959 
”Lunch at Fox was very interesting. I’ve never seen such a large turnout of capitalistic movie luminaries as for Krushchev, chief of the Soviet proletariat This luncheon was Hollywood’s political event of the year. I was not an admirer of Premier Krushchev but I was convulsed by Spiro Skouras’ (the head of Twentieth Century Fox) attempt to engage him in debate. Skouras stood up after the toasts were exchanged and launched into a speech describing how his life demonstrated the virtues of the capitalist system. “I was poor boy from Greece”, he said, “I came to America with nothing. Now I am head of Twentieth Century Fox” Krushchev listened to the translation, stood up and replied. “I was poor boy from Ukraine. I came to Moscow with nothing. Now I am Premier of Soviet Socialist Republic.” Charlton Heston The Actor’s Life — Journals 1956 — 1976.

In the last two or three years (prior to September 11) Hollywood had become increasingly interested in events of the middle 20th century.

Steven Spielberg’s war movie Saving Private Ryan seemed to touch a chord, building on an end-of-century mood of nostalgia. Such was the impact of Private Ryan it inspired something of a fashion for realistic/heroic World War 2-era books and movies. Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers on the World War 2 exploits of the 101st Airborne became last year’s block-buster television series. Why the popular culture would have become so interested in historic events like World War 2 is an interesting question.

In this country, this same mood is expressed in increasingly large turn-outs for Anzac Day ceremonies. (Commentators remark on the large numbers of school children now turning up for the dawn services, missing the point that the kids were being taken there by their former peacenik parents).

This same mood is why baby boomer Americans began to refer to their parents as the ‘Greatest Generation’. The term was coined by TV personality Tom Brokaw who wrote a World War 2 genre best-seller of the same name.

To be fair to Francis Fukuyama, history, after the Cold War, if not actually ending did seem to pause for a bit – as if in a lull between waves. At this point in time, it is difficult to assess the ultimate significance of the September 11 attacks, but up until then there was a noticeable public interest in an era when history did seem very much alive, was much more easy to make sense of, and was played out on a stage of heroic scale – by a cast of millions.

Last year three major movies dealt with political events of the middle 20th century and the doings of the `Greatest Generation': Pearl Harbour, Thirteen Days, and The Enemy at the Gates.

The over-hyped, big budget Pearl Harbour was basically standard American-boy-meets-girl fare against a standard interpretation of the events that brought the U.S. into the Second World War.  Despite the movies’ technical excellence (especially the depiction of the Japanese bombing raid), the predictable story line and wooden acting meant that Pearl Harbour was . . . well, a `bomb’.

Thirteen Days

If the Greatest Generation lived in heroic times, we their kids, growing up in the Cold War lived through pretty exciting times ourselves. No more so than October 1962 when the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles, secretly installed in Cuba and aimed at the United States, brought the world to the very brink of a Third World War. Few old enough to remember the time can forget the feeling of impending doom that accompanied the reports of a looming nuclear war between the world’s two super-powers.

The movie Thirteen Days covers those dramatic days more or less in the formula of a TV docudrama. Apart from a few dramatic flourishes and the exaggerated role of ‘special aide to the President’ Kenneth P. O’Donnell, it is pretty much a faithful record of events – of course from the American point-of-view.

Thirteen Days has a New Zealand connection in Director Roger Donaldson who though an Australian made his name directing successful Kiwi films like Smash Palace and who lives here when not in Hollywood.

Donaldson and screen writer David Self chose Kenny O’Donnell, one of President Kennedy’s most trusted advisers, as the character to take the audience ‘into the room’, as sort of silent witness to the dramatic events and the marathon policy debates in the Kennedy White House. And in a movie with no sex, they sensibly chose proven box-office draw card Kevin Costner to be O’Donnell. Costner with a crew cut and Boston accent plays his usual engaging role as All-American Everyman.

Unknown, Bruce Greenwood received critical acclaim for an elegant performance as JFK, along with good support from baby-faced Stephen Culp as the President’s brother, Robert, and a compelling role by Kevin Conway as General Curtis Le May. Robert Kennedy was to play a key role in the crisis and the movie’s title Thirteen Days comes from a memoir he wrote shortly before his death in 1968.

The film itself was generally well received by critics and historians in the U.S. President George W. Bush even invited Senator Ted Kennedy along to the White House for a special viewing.

The opening credits role over a nightmare vision of fusillades of launching missile, and thermonuclear mushroom clouds – to reinforce, I guess, the movie’s subtitle – “You’ll never believe how close we came”.

The story begins on October 16th 1962, when National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy presented President Kennedy with a series of U-2 spy plane photos revealing that the Soviets had installed medium-range ballistic missiles on the island of Cuba. These were unmistakably identified as offensive nuclear weapons capable of hitting major U.S. cities including Washington DC some five minutes after launch.

Kennedy and his advisers were stunned. Prior to detection, the Soviet leadership had consistently denied any intention of placing offensive weapons in Cuba, let alone nuclear weapons. The discovery of the missile sites set off the biggest world crisis since World War 2.

When President Kennedy announced the situation to the nation in a dramatic TV address on October 22, the impact was instantaneous. Within hours, supermarkets in the U.S. ran out of supplies, churches were filled, and everywhere especially in Europe and America, people prepared for the worst. Here in New Zealand the NZ Broadcasting Corporation was jolted out of its 1950s somnolence to start putting out radio news bulletins every hour (and it was to find that there was plenty more news over the next few years to keep that routine going).

Thirteen Days closely follows the debates that went on in at the highest levels of the American state. ExComm (short for Executive Committee of the National Security Council) was the body that met virtually in continuous session throughout the crisis. Kennedy had apparently decided after the Bay of Pigs disaster (an enterprise undertaken solely on the advice of the heads of the CIA and the military Joint Chiefs) to take counsel from the widest possible range of opinion.

The movie portrays Kennedy, and his brother, the Attorney-General, and allies such as Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defence, grasping for a solution while resisting intense pressure from the military, and senior establishment figures, notably Dean Acheson, (a former Secretary of State for President Truman) for pre-emptive airstrikes, followed by a full-scale invasion of Cuba. As it happened, Kennedy had just that summer read Barbara Tuchman’s classic The Guns of August – a study of the events and decisions that led to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.

With the memory of general mobilisations, that once set in motion were impossible to call back, obviously still in his mind, Kennedy believed the belligerent measures his generals were advocating would inevitably draw a response from the Russians which would progressively escalate into a full nuclear exchange. Kennedy was more right than he realised – we now know what the Americans did not know, that the Russians had tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba and would have used them had they been attacked by invading American forces.

The movie spends much time in the White House cabinet room and oval office but time to time it escapes from these rather claustrophic confines, for instance to take a spectacular, 450 mile per hour tree-top surveillance flight over Cuba (I found myself gripping the arm-rests of my seat).

Other times we are out on the on the blue Caribbean as the U.S. Navy attempts to enforce Kennedy’s ‘quarantine’. In one dramatic encounter with a Soviet tanker `Grozny’ a US destroyer ‘clears its guns’ over the Russian in violation of the President’s no shooting orders – leading to a remarkable screaming match between Defence Secretary Robert McNamara and chief of Naval staff Admiral Anderson in the Pentagon situation room. The movie reaches its dramatic climax in the celebrated debate of the United Nations Security Council.

Some bits of the movie are pure fiction, again this comes down to O’Donnell’s role, particularly the conspiratorial conversation between O’Donnell and an airforce pilot Commander William B. Ecker (convincingly portrayed by Kennedy’s real-life nephew Christopher Lawford) prior to his Cuban surveillance flight.

Donaldson and screenwriter Self demonstrate that while Kennedy convened Ex-Comm to advise him, he sensibly manipulated the consensus to an outcome he wanted, a ‘quarantine’ of Cuba rather than military action.

An important and controversial sub-theme of this movie is the tension between Kennedy and the military. This has been criticised by some establishment historians as mythology – however Donaldson and Self based much of the dialogue on transcripts of White House tape recordings. Long before Nixon, Kennedy had installed a taping system in the White House.

Transcripts of the tapes were recently released and published in 1997 in a book by Ernest May and Philip Zelikov, The Kennedy tapes – inside the White house during the Cuban Missile Crisis. These transcripts do reveal real and quite deep-seated tensions between Kennedy and his senior military advisers.

In a famous meeting early in the crisis on October 19 when Kennedy met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff there was this exchange between the president and Airforce General Curtis Le May. The ferocious Le May who organised the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo, who had offered to ‘delete’ Chinese cities with nuclear weapons during the Korean War and most infamously ‘to bomb Vietnam back to the stone-age’, was pressing the President hard for authorisation for airstrikes.

Le May: “So I see no other solution. This blockade and political action, I see leading into war. I don’t see any other solution. It will lead right into war. This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich” (pause) . . . (This is clearly a jibe at Kennedy’s father Joseph P. Kennedy the pro-appeasement World War 2 U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain).

Le May: “I think that a blockade, and a political talk, would be considered by a lot of our friends and neutrals as being a pretty weak response to this. And – I’m sure a lot of our citizens would feel that way, too. You’re in a pretty bad fix, Mr President.”

Kennedy: “What did you say?”

Le May: “You’re in a pretty bad fix”

The transcript indicates that here Kennedy made “an unclear, joking reply”. Self interprets Kennedy as saying “Well if I am, you’re in there with me General Le May.” After he left the room, unbeknown to the Generals, Kennedy left the tape running. The following revealing remarks were picked up as the Chiefs discussed the meeting.

Shoup: (Marine General) “You pulled the rug right out from under him Goddamn.”

Le May: (With a chuckle) “Jesus Christ. What the hell do you mean?” (unclear)

Shoup: ” I agree with that answer, agree a hundred percent, a hundred percent. He (President Kennedy) finally got around to the word “escalation”. That’s the only the only goddam thing that’s in the whole trick. Go in and out and get every goddamn one. Escalation that’s it”.

Le May: “That’s right”.

Shoup: “You’re screwed, screwed. Some goddamn thing, some way that they either do the son of a bitch and do it right, and quit friggin’ around . . .”

Despite the revealing disclosures of the mad-headed belligerence of the U.S. military, the crisis is purely seen from the American side. And perhaps a reason for its widespread appeal in America was its popular theme of ‘America as Innocent Victim’ (a deeply held sentiment amongst Americans). There is no mention of the American provocations against Cuba such as notorious Operation Mongoose (which was presided over by Robert Kennedy in his earlier cold warrior incarnation). These certainly would have provided good reason for the Soviets to believe that the U.S. was building up for another invasion. Though we get glimpses of sweating Soviet expeditionary force officers and hairy Cuban comrades frantically bull-dozing missiles sites out of the jungle – we don’t get to see Kennedy’s opposite number, the man who ordered the missiles into Cuba, Nikita Krushchev.

In many ways Kennedy’s dialectical opposite, Krushchev, like the society he represents is an enigmatic, mysterious presence looming menacingly in the background, as Kennedy and the members of ‘Excom’ struggle to divine his motives and his intentions.

For Krushchev was living up to his reputation as number one bogey-man of the Cold War – apparently in spite of (or perhaps because of) the Hollywood lunch. It was a reputation Krushchev seemed to relish and deliberately cultivate.

On one unforgettable occasion in 1960 he took larikinism in politics to a new height by hammering his shoe on the table at the UN. Bristling with nuclear rockets, and shouting “we will bury you” Krushchev was the ultimate 1950’s nightmare. Who can forget the terrifying Time Magazine cover during the Missile Crisis, with what appeared to be a furious Krushchev, finger jabbing out of the magazine rack and behind him the orange boiling mushroom cloud of a hydrogen bomb.

Enemy at the Gates

And it is Krushchev or rather a brilliant cameo portrayal of Krushchev by British actor Bob Hoskins who steals the show in another historical movie, Enemy at the Gates. Set exactly 20 years before the Missile Crisis, Enemy at the Gates, based on William Craig’s 1973 book of the same name, depicts the titanic struggle between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia which in the end was decided in the streets of Stalingrad. Here the Second World War, many would say the future of civilisation itself, was decided.

The story-line is based on the true-life exploits of a Russian `Noble Sniper’ Vassili Zaisev, a former shepherd boy from the Urals, whose lethal art made him a propaganda star of the Red Army. Zaisev was credited with at least 149 Kills at Stalingrad.

The storyline culminates in the famous duel between Zaisev, played by British actor Jude Law, and the man the Germans sent to kill him `Major Koenig’, played by American star Ed Harris. The duel is reportedly based on a true-life episode in which a SS marksman Colonel Heinz Thorwald was dispatched to Stalingrad from the sniper school in Berlin, to eliminate the top Soviet snipers, especially Zaitsev. The Soviets were tipped-off to Thorwald mission by a prisoner. The movie reaches its dramatic climax as each man stalks the other through the ruined city.

However, as usual in historical movies, there is some debate about how ‘true life’ this famous duel really was. The episode is recounted in Allan Clark’s Barbarossa but later researchers such as Antony Beevor (author of the 1998 best-seller Stalingrad) have cast doubt on it, suggesting that the legendary duel was a creation of Soviet propaganda.

Of Zaitsev and the rest of his lethal exploits there is no argument, and neither is there argument about the key role in the battle for Stalingrad played by the other former peasant boy Nikita Krushchev.

Krushchev was ordered to Stalingrad by Stalin himself and as commissar to the military command was tasked with the political management of the battle. Up until Stalingrad, the Red Army had been on the strategic defensive, losing (with the exception of the brief mid-winter offensive in front off Moscow) virtually every major encounter with the Germans. At Stalingrad the Second World War struggle between the totalitarian powers reached its violent climax. In the rubble of the model city of cubist architecture, so new and attractive Stalin named it for himself, savage fighting went on for four months, street by street, and building by building. Men fought hand-to-hand in cellars and in attics in a pitiless struggle where the front line often ran between two burnt-out rooms.

Probably because of its name, the city became something of an emotional fixation with both Hitler and Stalin. As the Germans poured more and more troops in (believing mistakenly that the Soviets had no more reserves), the Soviets fed just enough men across the Volga to hold on, while all the while building up forces on the flanks of the massive German salient.

Perhaps the most riveting scene in the movie was at the beginning when Red Army reinforcements debark from trains on the opposite side of the Volga. As the doors of the wagons slide open the troops see with horror their destination – a true vision of hell – the city of Stalingrad in flames across the river. As one German officer wrote at the time. “Stalingrad is no longer a town. By day it is an enormous cloud of burning, blinding smoke; it is a vast furnace lit by the reflection of the flames. And when night arrives, one of those scorching, howling, bleeding nights, the dogs plunge into the Volga and swim desperately to gain the other bank. The nights of Stalingrad are a terror for them. Animals flee this hell, the hardest stones cannot bear it for long; only men endure”.

Nikita Sergeevich Krushchev was born in to a peasant family 1894 in Russian Ukraine. He was apprenticed as a metal fitter — working in factories and mines before becoming a Bolshevik in 1919, soon after which he joined the Red Army and fought in the civil war against the Whites. In 1921 his wife died in the famine caused by the civil war. After this, Krushchev rose through the bureaucracy, successfully negotiating the murderous political minefield that was Stalin’s Russia.

Early in the War Krushchev was credited with the remarkable logistical achievement of relocating Soviet industry behind the Urals. But it was at Stalingrad that Krushchev was to gain the national fame that eventually launched him to the top. Stalingrad must have been a searing personal experience for anyone involved in it. Krushchev himself suffered what must have been a bitter personal loss, his oldest son was killed in the fighting.

When the Russians finally trapped the whole German 6th Army (nearly 300,000 men) in Stalingrad it was the turning point of the War and indeed world history. For the Russians, the long and bloody road from Stalingrad ended in Berlin. The commander in Stalingrad, General Chuikov, a street-fighting expert, was the man who captured Berlin and took the German surrender. From then on, it appears, those two binary opposites Stalingrad and Berlin were inextricably linked in the Russian mind.

The terrible experience of Nazi invasion and what a close-run thing it had been, gave rise to an almost obsessive dread amongst the Russians that Germany must never be allowed to rise again. This was the over-riding tenet of Soviet Cold War policy.

Which is why Berlin was the flash-point of tension for much of the Cold War – particularly during the fifties and early sixties. At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Berlin was set deep within the Soviet occupied zone and was itself divided between the Soviet and the Allied occupying powers.

As Premier of the Soviet Union, Krushchev wanted an agreement with the Allied powers which would have enabled him to conclude a peace treaty with the communist Soviet-satellite East German state – with Berlin as its capital (thus formally ending World War 2). This would have effectively permanently divided Germany thus preventing it from ever becoming a threat again (something the French tried to do after the Great War).

In the summit meeting between Krushchev and Kennedy in Vienna in 1961, Krushchev threatened the American president over Berlin. Krushchev would not have been alone in his obsession about a revanchist Germany. At the time of the Missile Crisis, along with Krushchev, virtually the whole of the Soviet High Command had been involved in the fighting at Stalingrad. This included Krushchev’s Minister of Defence, Marshall Malinovsky, the Commander of Ground Forces, Marshal Chuikov, the Minister in Charge of Strategic Missiles Marshall Biryuzov, the head of the airforce and even the head of the Soviet navy (who had organised the Volga flotillas).

Krushchev, was a remarkable character who, though he was aware of and indeed participated in the excesses of Stalin, whom he later denounced, apparently maintained a genuine idealistic belief in socialism as the ultimate saviour of humanity.

But always at heart a Bolshevik, he was contemptuous of what he called ‘bourgeois democracy’ and was once quoted memorably as saying “We have a monolithic society, why therefore found another party? That would be like putting a flea inside your shirt”. Ironically had he lived in a democratic society, he might have easily have become a successful populist politician. In one famous incident during an arty garden party in Moscow Krushchev verbally laid into modern artists, reportedly causing poetess Margarita Aliger to swoon.

Though to have risen to the top he clearly had the paysan rusé or peasants cunning, he was also by all accounts something of a gambler who worked on gut instinct. Two of his aides agreed that the word Russian word azartnyi meaning “reckless” or “hot-headed” best described him. What has become subsequently clear is that at the time of the Missile Crisis Krushchev alone had control of the Soviet government.

Scholars to this day debate why Krushchev put the missiles in (the Soviets called the operation `Operation Anadyr’) – and puzzle why he did it secretly. There are three reasons thought most likely. To redress the strategic superiority of American nuclear weapons, to head-off a possible American invasion of Cuba and to exert leverage over Berlin. It appears that there was a method to Krushchev’s madness. Apparently Krushchev’s plan was to unveil the existence of the missiles in November (after the congressional elections which he hoped Kennedy’s Democrats would win) and publicly sign a treaty with Castro. He also planned, probably during a UN speech planned at the same time, to renew his ultimatum over Berlin. With the missiles poised in Cuba, Krushchev was confident he could face down the Americans and carry through to success his German policy and lay the German demon, once and for all.

Krushchev’s high-risk gambit failed, chiefly because American technology in the form of U2 surveillance uncovered his plan before it was ready. But not completely, in return for withdrawing the missiles Krushchev extracted an assurance from the Americans that they would not invade Cuba, and an off-the-record pledge made through Robert Kennedy that U.S. Jupiter missiles would be withdrawn from Turkey after a reasonable interval.

On October 27 when Krushchev made his broadcast about withdrawing the missiles the century’s third major conflagration had been averted — with only one casualty, an American U2 pilot, Major Rudolph Anderson, whose plane was shot down by a Russian commander in violation of Kruschev’s orders.

After that having pulled back from the very brink the two Super Power leaders began to move towards peace. Kennedy’s commencement address to the American University six months after the Missile Crisis was a significant US policy departure designed to end the Cold War.

Kennedy pointed out that Russia and America “almost uniquely among the major powers” had never been at war with each other. Seeming to have grasped the deep motives and hidden fears driving the Soviet leadership he went on to say:

“No country in the history of battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union suffered in the course of the Second World War. At least twenty million lost their lives. Countless millions of homes and farms were burned or sacked. A third of the nation’s territory, including nearly two-thirds of its industrial base, was turned into a wasteland — a loss equivalent to the devastation of this country east of Chicago.”

Soon after a nuclear peace ban treaty between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was signed, a ‘hot line’ was set up between the two leaders and it seemed the 17 years of bitter Cold War began to thaw (which may not have been greeted with universal approval for those with a vested interest in its continuance). In the western press the previously feared and hated Kruschev began to be referred to in a genial, almost affectionate manner as ‘Mr K’.

But it was unlikely that such a monumental crisis could pass so lightly. The Gods of War would need to be appeased with other sacrifices. Those other sacrifices turned out to be the protagonists themselves.

Just over a year later, (according interestingly enough, to both the official Warren Report account and the unofficial conspiracy theory), President Kennedy was murdered by a gunman (or gunmen) obsessed with Cuba.

As for Krushchev, one years later his turn came when he was ousted in disgrace by his presidium rivals “You insisted that we deploy missiles in Cuba”, one of his accusers rounded on him, “This provoked the deepest crisis, carried the world to the brink of nuclear war”, (adding rather woundingly) “and even frightened terribly the organiser of this very danger!”.

Kruschev lived out a peaceful retirement and died in 1971.

Thirteen Days, Rated PG-13. 
Runtime: 145 minutes. Starring: Kevin Costner, (Kenny O’Donnell) Bruce Greenwood (JFK), Dylan Baker (Robert McNamara), Steven Culp (Robert Kennedy), Frank Wood (McGeorge Bundy), Michael Fairman (Adlai Stevenson), Kevin Conway (General Le May). Director Roger Donaldson. Screenwriter David Self. Available on Video/DVD.

The Enemy at the Gates, 
MPAA Rating: R (for strong graphic war violence and some sexuality). 
Running Time: 131 minutes. Cast: Jude Law (Vassili Zaitsev), Ed Harris (Major Konig), Rachel Weisz (Tania Chernova), Joseph Fiennes (Danilov), Bob Hoskins (Kruschev), Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud (Seven Years in Tibet, The Name of the Rose). Screenwriters: Jean-Jacques Annaud, Alain Godard (co-writer The Name of the Rose). Available on Video/DVD.



Nikita goes to Hollywood

by Mike Lee, New Zealand Political Review, Vol XI No.1, Autumn 2002

© 2002 New Zealand Political Review

Reprinted for Fair Use Only.



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Electric Trains in Auckland – here at last!

It’s been a long time coming, and believe me, it wasn’t easy getting there, but Auckland’s new electric trains have now entered service – opening a new era in Auckland’s history.   While Wellington’s rail electrification began in the late 1930s and Melbourne’s even earlier in the 1920s, electrifying Auckland rail proved to be much more difficult.  It was first proposed in the late 1940s, and then again in the early 1970s (Mayor Robinson’s ‘rapid rail’) but both these projects foundered for lack of government support.

It turned out to be 3rd time lucky.  Auckland’s third push for electrification began in the early 2000s.  As the chairman of the Auckland Regional Council from 2004-2010 I was involved in a long campaign to persuade first the Labour-led government to grant its support and then, after National came to power in late 2008, starting all over again to persuade them. This was a challenging, sometimes frustrating experience that certainly confirmed Arthur Schopenhauer’s words.

“All truth passes through three stages. First it is ridiculed.  Second it is violently opposed.  Third it is accepted as being self-evident.”

New EMUs at Britomart Station. A long time coming - but worth the struggle.

But we got there. Now looking to the future, Auckland’s new fleet of 57 EMUs (electric multiple units) will be a quantum leap forward for rail commuters, both in performance but also in comfort and design.  Built by the Spanish rail company Construcciones Y auxillar de Ferrocarriles (if that’s hard to say, call it ‘CAF”) after a world-wide tender, these trains are more powerful and much faster (maximum speed 110km per hour) than our present diesel fleet – allowing services to run more often and get travellers to their destinations quicker. Each 3-car unit (two motor cars and one trailer car) can carry 375 passengers. The new trains are also more environmentally friendly: energy-efficient, quieter, and produce no air pollution.  The central car has level boarding for pushchairs and wheelchairs and room for bikes. Regenerative braking will enable them to recover 20% of the electricity used.

These trains are going to be popular with Aucklanders.  As an indication five thousand people got a free ride after the official launch today, Sunday 27 April. The tickets were snapped up in a few hours after they became available early in April.

The first electric trains are now in service on the Onehunga Line (which is also a buzz given the long battle I had to get that line re-opened) and will be progressively put into service after completing their checks at Auckland Transport’s vast new high-tech depot at Wiri. Towards the end of this year they will be in service on the Eastern Line, running from Britomart via Orakei, Glen Innes and Panmure etc., to Manukau. Early next year it will be the turn of the Southern Line: Britomart to Papakura via Newmarket etc., followed by the Western Line, Britomart to Henderson, Swanson and all stations in between.  The project is a credit to Auckland Transport who bought the trains and to KiwiRail supported by the government who erected 80kms of wiring, masts, new signalling and a major amount of civil engineering to make it all happen. But many people played a critical role in this historic achievement. As I often said during the long campaign to secure central government support, new electric trains for Auckland will not only change Aucklanders’ attitudes to rail and public transport but also the way we think about our city.

Published in the May issue of Ponsonby News.


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Saving the Hunua kokako – speech at the 20th anniversary celebrations

It is an honour to be with you today, 20 years after the establishment of the Kokako Management Area in the Hunua Ranges, to share in the celebration of your great achievement.

As we know, about thirty years ago it became evident that the North Island kokako was critically endangered.  At that time a cohort of older birds – long-lived males – some of which had ‘paired’ amongst themselves – died off, thereby unmasking that the numbers of breeding birds were actually very low. So low that populations were nearly unsustainable.  Many of them were unsustainable and some disappeared almost overnight.

My personal role in this long difficult project was actually quite easy because the decision to actively protect the Hunua kokako was (rather unusually) a political initiative.

I was elected to the former Auckland Regional Council (ARC) in a by-election in early 1992 – the most junior member in the 28-member body that was in effect still the old Auckland Regional Authority.  As a result of the local government reforms of that year – a new 13 member ARC was elected at the elections in October and in a few months I went from being the most junior member of the Council to being chairman of the Regional Parks Committee.  The Auckland Regional Parks Service was one of the most prestigious in New Zealand local government at that time – built up over many years by the famous Phil Jew, its General Manager.

As an active Forest & Bird member, I was aware of the plight of the kokako and I was also mindful of the special conservation values of the Hunua Ranges.  As Sir Charles Fleming once put it, one of those ‘skylines of native forest, that represents the mystery and adventure of the unknown to every youngster on farm or suburban homes.’

I was also aware of the recent breakthrough success achieved at Mapara State Forest by Department of Conservation (DOC) field scientists Phil Bradfield, Phil Thomson and Hazel Speed and John Innes of Landcare Research.  Together they pioneered by ‘research by management’ the ‘mainland island’ concept, protecting kokako nests (and everything else) from possums, rats and stoats, with grids of bait stations and traps.

At my first meeting with Phil Jew late in 1992, I raised the question of the Hunua kokako and asked for a report on their status. I followed this up with a letter (there being no such things as emails in those days).  As it happened a kokako survey took place in the Ranges a few weeks later, the participants a combination of ARC rangers, DOC people, OSNZ members and volunteers.

A report on the survey was written up by Parks scientist Brenda Green in time for the March 1993 Parks Committee agenda.  The report confirmed the serious decline in kokako numbers (very accurately as it turned out) to less than 30 birds.  The report concluded in the standard way ‘a.) that the report be received.’ At my meeting with the General Manager to go over the agenda, I decided to add a ‘b.) that the Regional Parks Service intervenes to actively protect the kokako’.   This drew raised eyebrows from Phil Jew who explained that protecting endangered species was DOC’s responsibility – not the ARC’s.  But he accepted it in good grace – being the great public servant that he was

The recommendation was duly passed at the meeting of the Parks Committee.  I said my role was easy.  To be honest, given its far-reaching implications this was one of the easiest decisions I have achieved in politics. There was no serious opposition, no heart-stopping, knife-edge votes that I was to experience for instance with the regional parks acquisitions of that era. I just pushed on the door and it swung wide open. To this day, any local government being actively involved in endangered species management is very unusual.  In fact I believe the role of the ARC – now Auckland Council – in this field is quite unique.

Armed with this political decision Brenda Green was able to gain the support of DOC for the project – a successful relationship that has lasted to this day.   So far, so easy.  But to put the concept into effect was quite another matter.  There were major problems to overcome which required an enormous amount of hard, physical work. The remaining kokako were located in the highest part of the Hunua Ranges around Mount Kohukohunui – one of the highest parts of the upper North Island.  It was a 2 hour walk up from the nearest dirt road to even get to the area.

The environment was difficult, especially in winter when freezing mist can hamper visibility (it is very easy to get lost in the Hunuas). The logistics were challenging to say the least – much more difficult than for instance at Mapara State Forest.  Worse the scientists were to find there was only one breeding pair of kokako left.  We had stepped in, just in the nick of time.

In order to create the necessary grid of hundreds of bait stations and traps, a network of tracks had to be cut, the main track up had to be progressively rebuilt, in parts to the stage of a boardwalk, with benching and wooden risers.

But fortunately there were people willing, indeed passionate about doing this work.  Here I want to thank the ARC park rangers, especially Hugh Downham, who dedicated himself to this mission for years. It was Hugh who carried out much of the back-breaking task of lugging up the wood to rebuild the track and camp sites.  Hugh had the full support of his bosses, the late Peter Rowberry, and Manager Southern parks, Tony Oliver. Also I want to thank the volunteers, especially Rosemary Gatland who was soon joined by Tony Woodroofe.  Together these two worked tirelessly with Hugh to create the Kokako Management Area.  Also I want to acknowledge Oliver Overdike from DOC. In 1995, Dr Tim Lovegrove came from Auckland University to head up the project working closely with Hazel Speed of DOC.

The story of how the project played out over these years is referred to in a section (written by Tim), in Graeme Murdoch’s wonderful ‘Dreamers of the Day – a history of Auckland’s regional parks’. The details of the science, reintroductions to achieve critical mass, egg exchanges to enhance genetic diversity, experiments with sound-anchoring etc., are in the many unpublished reports written by Tim and Hazel for the Council and DOC.

Now 20 years on, over 100 kokako chicks have fledged and there are now over 30 breeding pairs. The project is well on target to achieve its objective of 50 breeding pairs by 2020.  But the KMA has also had much wider environmental benefits for the Hunua Ranges, restoring previously damaged ecological processes and enhancing a wide range of fauna and flora including bellbirds, North Island tomtits, long-tailed bats and Hotchstetters frog.

I am  glad to say the project is in the best of hands, with Su Sinclair taking over from Tim and Dave Bryden the new on-site manager.

The 20-year collaboration of Council and DOC has been an outstanding success – and it needs to go on.

Rather like the Hunua kokako, regional government in Auckland has been through rather challenging times. Similarly the Department of Conservation has had its own difficulties with budget cuts and major re-structuring.  We are not through these challenging times yet.

This should not be a reason to retreat into our shells.  We need to keep the vision alive and the programmes advancing.  Keep in mind that while official thinking has its phases and fashions – the public is always on our side when it comes to conservation.

We therefore need to think how we might extract best conservation value from the labour and money already invested in these projects.   That is why I welcome the proposed introduction of brown kiwi into the Hunuas. I think we also need to focus more on the future and what happens after we achieve our goals here.  Do we expand the Kokako Management Area from its present 1050 ha.  Or do we set up more secondary zones like the one we are in now. Or do we diversify and translocate to other areas, areas such as Motutapu-Rangitoto – or even Tawharanui.

I make a plea for the consideration of all of these options.  There are two good reasons to do so.   First we need to capitalise on the investment already made in creating existing pest free areas and, secondly, reintroductions of birds like the kokako capture the public imagination and public support for conservation is our greatest ally.

So, leaving you with those thoughts, let me thank you all again.  Everyone here today has made a contribution to this success.  You know and I know just how significant this achievement has been.  It is our great privilege to be involved in such a campaign that changed the course of history.   If anyone doubts this, we should remember that there were two populations of kokako in the Auckland region 20 years ago – not one. Apart from the Hunuas, there was a population of kokako in northern Great Barrier Island.  Monitoring throughout the 1960s and 1970s revealed broadly similar numbers of birds in both population and a similar rate of decline.    We should not be in any doubt, had we not taken a stand and intervened 20 years ago – what happened at Great Barrier would have happened here – local extinction.

So we have just cause for celebration – you know and I know that we made a difference here – and such achievements makes life fulfilling.

See: https://www.facebook.com/Hunua.kokako




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