The battle for the Waitemata Harbour. ‘Hitherto shalt thou come – but no further’

The way the council has gone about backing down on its agreed September 2013 Unitary Plan policy of making reclamations of the Waitemata Harbour ‘non complying’ is deeply worrying.   The original policy was soundly-based, had strong political support and was in response to widespread public concern that it was time that 150 years of harbour reclamation was brought to an end. That the public have any idea at all about what has happened in regard to council decisions about the fate of this policy over the last month is largely due to unauthorised leaking of information.   First of all leaking of details of the secret committee meeting by a person or persons present at the meeting and secondly leaking to the media about a legal opinion, the existence of which was kept from councillors.

The details that appeared in the NZ Herald articles are substantially correct. As reports revealed, at the first behind-closed-doors meeting in February a senior council planner told the councillors that in the planner’s professional view the original policy could and would not be defended by that officer or any other council officers, and therefore if the councillors wished to retain the policy, outside experts would have to be hired to defend the policy before the Unitary Plan commissioners. But that in itself, the planner was careful to point out, would clearly signal to the commissioners that the council officers were not in support of their Council’s policy.   It was made clear that if the councillors wished to avoid that embarrassment, the policy would have to be weakened to make smaller harbour reclamation consents non-notified and the larger reclamation consents discretionary, and only notified subject to the usual officer ‘tests’ of notification (and we all know how that works).

But the day after that meeting I was stunned to learn in the NZ Herald of the existence of a legal report said to be in the possession of council officers that argued quite the contrary. In fact when the legal opinion was finally provided to a subsequent meeting of the council, we were to discover it was commissioned in 2013 in response to assertions by the Ports of Auckland legal counsel Mai Chen that the council’s ‘non-complying’ policy was ‘illegal’. This was absolute nonsense of course.

In fact the opinion by the very reputable RMA lawyer and coastal specialist, Ian Cowper pointed out that as well as there being no basis to the claim that the policy was illegal he went on to advise that all forms of reclamation should be ‘non complying’. It worries me deeply and it should worry everyone, that council officers would make a case to the councillors to back down on an agreed public policy position without telling us of the existence of this legal opinion, the advice of which was in fundamental conflict with their own.

Then, directly related to the proposed future harbour reclamation, we learned (again via the newspaper), that non-notified consents had been given for two new wharves extending nearly 100 metres long out into the harbour, off Bledisloe container terminal on either side of the planned reclamation.

Information is power and the full sharing of information is axiomatic to sound decision-making in a democratic society. The suppression of vital information in this affair, about a matter of the highest public interest – the future of the Waitemata Harbour – is a cause for grave concern.

 As public anger grows, not just at the u-turn in policy but at the very questionable way this was achieved, a protest organisation has been formed, ‘Stop Stealing our Harbour’. Its campaign was launched in the Herald with a full-page ad featuring the names of 110 prominent New Zealanders, followed by a big protest meeting on Queens Wharf. This is just the beginning.

 The Waitemata Harbour has been repeatedly reclaimed, hundreds and hundreds of hectares of it, since the 1860s. Now is the time to draw a line. The Waitemata Harbour must be saved for present and future generations. This is an enormously important issue for Aucklanders. The mayor and those councillors and council planners who continue to ignore their own legal advice to defy the public will must change their attitude. The message to Ports of Auckland and the Auckland Council comes from the Bible, the Book of Job. ‘Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.’


This article is dedicated to the late Darcy O’Brien, former Commissioner of Crown Lands, who first raised the alarm about Waitemata Harbour reclamation in the 1970s, and who campaigned against reclamation right up to his death at 96 in July 2014.

This article was published in the April 2015 issue of Ponsonby News

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Ports of Auckland and Auckland Council – ‘rogerpolitics alive and well

The last month has seen a series of unhappy incidents that remind us that the neo-liberal reforms of the 80s and 90s still have a baleful influence on our public life – even in our ‘most liveable’ super city.

 We rightly associate ‘rogernomics’, with the privatisation of publicly-owned assets. But there is much more to it than that. Neo-liberalism isn’t just about privatisation, it is about the wholesale colonisation of the public sector by the private.   At a basic level in the council this means work that was originally carried out by council works and parks staff is now invariably contracted out to private businesses.

 When the bright sparks in Wellington first brought in this policy they argued it would mean council costs would come down. That didn’t happen – after the laying-off of the council works staff, trucks and bulldozers and years of local knowledge and know-how, costs to ratepayers sky-rocketed and continue to do so. But there is also a mental colonisation where all too often ‘busy-friendly’ councils place the interests of big business and developers ahead of the public interest.

 There is yet another aspect to rogernomics – what Professor Richard Mulgan famously called ‘rogerpolitics’. By this Mulgan meant public bodies that were once governed by democratically elected people, harbour boards, power boards, water and wastewater utilities and the like being replaced by corporatized entities. The argument from the reformers in Wellington of the time was that as these entities were revenue earning they would be better off run by private business people, (and suites of high powered managers – and eventually privatised).  Auckland Transport was the brainchild of the architects of the Super City, Steven Joyce and Rodney Hide. They argued in 2009 that even though public transport is not revenue earning (in fact it costs ratepayers and taxpayers a lot of money), it needed to be corporatized – become a ‘council controlled organisation’, or CCO. However in response to widespread criticisms voiced in the select committee process, pointing out that over 50% of council rates go into public transport, the government gave ground. As a concession it made provision in the legislation for two elected councillors to be appointed to the board of Auckland Transport. Cr Chris Fletcher and myself were nominated by the mayor on the basis of our experience in public transport. This arrangement, a board comprising a mixture of commercial people and councillors has been in place since 2010. However early in February I learned via the media that the deputy mayor, Penny Hulse was recommending that councillors should be removed from the board of Auckland Transport. This on the alleged grounds that councillors (representing the ratepayers), have an innate ‘conflict of interest’. This is complete nonsense of course and the idea raised a media storm – it was postponed and remains to be resolved politically. Following hard on that ideological flatulence, came the shock disclosure that the council-owned CCO, Ports of Auckland acting like a rogue private company, had wangled non-notified consents from council bureaucrats to build two massive wharfs extending 100 metres into the harbour from the present Bledisloe reclamation. Then, as revealed in the Herald, (though it was meant to be a secret meeting) councillors were persuaded to back down on provisions in the Unitary Plan that would have made it tougher for Ports of Auckland to extend reclamations into the harbour. This, the Herald reported was on the advice of a senior council planning officer that the policy was legally un-defendable. However, I was shocked to learn from the same Herald article that legal advice commissioned by the council but never shown to the councillors states the opposite. That in fact the original policy, strongly supported by the public, was indeed legally sound. It appears that critical information was knowingly withheld from the councillors by council officers who appear to be putting the demands of the port company and its lawyers ahead of those of the wishes of the public. If this wasn’t bad enough a few days later, the port company revealed it had began to demolish the historic Marsden Wharf, obviously to up the ante on its demands for more cargo (car parking) space.

 However I can end my article on a happy note. I am proud to say the board of Auckland Transport rejected the advice of its management and the recommendation of the planning commissioner and voted to save the Great North Road pohutukawa trees. Congratulations to those concerned Aucklanders and the Waitemata Local Board who campaigned tirelessly to save these trees – and to my Auckland Transport director colleagues for their wise decision. Destroying six pohutukawa trees for another lane of roadway was an ill-conceived, foolish idea – but it pales compared to the plans now underway by Ports of Auckland to reclaim vast areas of the Waitemata Harbour to park more cars.


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Solidarity with ‘Charlie Hebdo’ and the people of France

I planned to write something entirely non-political this month – about the latest conservation news on the Gulf islands – but now feel compelled to offer a few words on the Charlie Hebdo massacre. While the tragedy is in many ways rather unique to the particular political and social circumstances in France, it certainly raises questions for everyone living in a modern, multi-cultural society – including ours. On that note, comments by Derek Fox of the Maori Party supporting the self-proclaimed ‘Jihadist’ killers were frankly rather sickening, but not entirely surprising.

What I found even more disappointing were the reactions of some liberals, thankfully a minority, whose response was along the lines of “I’m not trying to justify mass-murder…[well that’s nice to know], but…” and who then went on to criticise the dead journalists – in effect rationalising their murder.

While this ‘but’ argument was somewhat more delicately put than Derek Fox’s Fascist-like outburst, if such thinking is indicative of more than a few here in New Zealand then surely we have challenges ahead maintaining our hard-won secular, democratic political culture. A culture based on post-enlightenment rationalism – a cultural legacy, as a matter of fact, we very much owe France.

I personally don’t go in for purposely offending anyone but I salute the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and journalists as brave men and women taking on a brutal ‘Jihadist’ tyranny with their pens, despite the dangerous consequences. As the French say they had ‘cran’. In other words ‘guts’.

It is pertinent to point out that this outrage did not come out of nowhere; and must be viewed in the context of the current political state of the Middle-East and North Africa. The whole region is now a running sore as the result of hard-line Israeli expansionist policies on the one hand, and on the other, years of meddling by the US and NATO, particularly in the violent overthrow of secular regimes in Iraq, Libya and Syria. This has created absolute chaos and given free rein to the extremists. From time to time I recall the lead up to the fateful US-British invasion of Iraq in early 2003, and marching up Queen Street, with my wife and hundreds of other Aucklanders chanting, ‘No blood for oil’. Little good did that do but at least the Clark government kept us out of it. That no doubt took some courage, especially standing up the United States and its foolish ‘coalition of the willing’.

Speaking of courage, I have to say how much I admired the position taken by commentator Paul Thomas in his thought-provoking article in the NZ Herald on the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Thomas poured scorn on the ‘instant experts on satire’ and what Salman Rushdie called the ‘But Brigade’, those rather self-righteous liberal souls who in this case couldn’t wait to criticise the dead journalists, even before they had been laid to rest; their fashionable political correctness, I noted, laced with a dash of old-fashioned Francophobia.

 I agree with Thomas, there should be no ‘buts’ over murderous attacks on the freedom of expression. Like millions of other around the world I express my deep sympathy and solidarity with the families of the victims and the people of France.

 (This article was published in the February edition of Ponsonby News.)

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Update on Motu Kaikoura

Motu Kaikoura rat management programme –

progress report.


Michael Lee Trustee. December 2014.


Motu Kaikoura (535ha) is a crown-owned scenic reserve purchased in 2004 after a public campaign, by a combination of government (Nature Heritage Fund), ARC, city councils and ASB Community Trust funding. It is administered by the Motu Kaikoura Trust, which was established by the Minister of Conservation in 2005. The regenerating island was infested with exotic mammals, fallow deer (Dama dama), ship rat (Rattus rattus) and kiore (Rattus exulans). Fallow deer were eradicated from the island in 2008 but an attempt to eradicate rats in the same year by two aerial applications of brodifacoum failed

The Motu Kaikoura Biodiversity Management Plan (March 2012) states:

Animal pest control recommendations. Method of control.

Target all rodent species (ship rats, kiore) and aim to contain ≤5% relative abundance (as measured by rodent monitoring…) by establishing a 100 x 100m grid of bait stations.

A plan to achieve this objective was drawn up and presented to the trustees in January 2014. The operational work was to be largely carried out by Trust contractor Clint (and Jacinda) Stannard and by the island caretakers Robbie Smith and Moana Kake. The plan was approved by the Trust at its February 2014 meeting.



Additional to the 200 or so Philproof bait stations and rat ‘motels’ already on the island, 120 additional rat motels were built by trust volunteers in mid-2013 and installed along the new 15 km perimeter track. Operations began in late February, with brodifacoum bait (Pestoff 20 ppm), 4 blocks placed per station, along the perimeter track, divided between East and West Track components; as well as the Road Track, between Bradshaws Cove and the island settlement, (the former Lodge site); Pahangahou Track, from the airfield to Overlook; and Parihakoakoa Track which extends from the Road Track by the Airfield northwest towards Nelson Point.


The network was subsequently extended and expanded with 6 tracks, listed below in June, then another two tracks, the Badlands Track, 18 stations, blazed in mid-November, and the House Track, 12 stations, opened in late November (7 km in all). A Coastal Line of bait stations around the island’s 16.5 km coastline was progressively extended and completed in October. All bait stations have been checked and re-baited on a fortnightly basis. Brodifacoum bait, Pestoff (20 ppm) was replaced in July with Brigand (50 ppm). Then in November Pestoff was phased back in.


The island network presently comprises 502 stations (not counting the off-island control line). This is still somewhat less than the 535 needed to make up an optimal 100 x 100 grid, but bait stations have also been augmented by approximately 50 bait bags stapled to the bases of tree stems (eg in the Bradshaw Valley, Overlook and around the old farm house and old sheds). In December 2014, bait blocks were hand-cast down steep faces, impossible to access by other means.


The present list of bait station tracks and lines is as follows:

East Track 96 stations

Coastal Line 140 stations

Slip Track 26 stations

Barn Track 5 stations

Vodafone Track 8 stations

End of Airstrip Track 5 stations

West Link Track 4 stations

Fence Line Track 8 stations

Badlands Track 18 stations

House Track 12 stations

Stellin (control) Track on nearby mainland 10 stations

Total (managed by Clint & Jacinda Stannard) 332 stations


West Track 62 stations

Road Track 44 stations

Airfield Track 7 stations

Parihakoakoa 42 stations

Pahangahou 25 stations

Total (managed by Robbie Smith & Moana Kake) 180 stations


Total number of stations in the field (motels and Philproofs): 512 (including Stellin)

Total length of formed tracks and roads: 24.5km

Total length of coast line: 16.5 km


Results of baiting programme – February to December 2014.


Station by station data has been recorded by our on-island workers and reported on a fortnightly basis. Data inputted to excel sheets expressed in histograms illustrate the progress achieved.

The following histograms indicate actual bait taken, rather than percentages.

Here is a sample of the main tracks.


East Track (96 stations, 384 bait blocks)


West Track (62 stations, 248 bait blocks)




Parihakoakoa Track (42 stations, 168 bait blocks)



Road Track and Airfield Track (51 stations, 204 bait blocks)


Pahangahou Track (25 stations, 100 bait blocks)



Slip Track (26 stations, 104 bait blocks)


Coastal Line (140 stations, 560 bait blocks).




Index Monitoring results 2010 – 2014


It is assumed that the aerial bait operation in the winter of 2008 removed less than 100% of the target rats. After the aerial drop and the eradication of the last fallow deer, after a hiatus of 3 to 6 months, rats, identified as kiore and ship rats, assumed to be survivors, in a significantly improved habitat, boosted by rats swimming from the mainland (confirmed by DNA testing), and in the absence of natural predators, underwent what appears to have been a population irruption.


We can hindcast that from a very low population base after the aerial drop, rat levels increased to between 5 -10 % relative density by December 2009.


In December 2010 rat levels were monitored across the island by Auckland Council Biosecurity (former ARC) officers, who established the existing 5 x 10 tunnel monitoring lines and found the relative density to be 16%.


In February 2012 (just over one year later) rat levels again were monitored by the Council and were recorded at 28%.


In December 2012 rat monitoring by the Trust and Unitec (Mel Galbraith’s Natural Sciences student team) recorded a relative density of 43%.


In July 2013 monitoring by the Trust indicated a relative density of 77.6%. Two stations (West Track and Overlook) indicating 100%.


In December 2013 the monitored density levels were just over 59%. While this was a reduction of 16.6% on the figures of July 2013 – this was significantly higher (16%) than the figure for the previous December. The only positive to be taken from this was the information on just how high rat numbers could reach, without competitors and natural predators. Given the fall-off in numbers (with only cursory trapping and poisoning) from July to December, the December 2013 relative density level of 59% is likely to be at around the island’s natural rat carrying capacity


This year, a combination of circumstances and bad weather over a prolonged winter, limited opportunities for light plane visits and prevented planned winter monitoring. Nevertheless the baiting work proceeded methodically.


To calibrate significantly declining bait-take evident from August onward and to confirm this was not due to bait avoidance, an index monitoring exercise was thought useful, rather than waiting for December. The first practical opportunity for this was on 3 November when trustees flew to the island and activated four of the five monitoring lines (Bradshaws (10 stations), Lodge (4 stations), Overlook (East Track) 10 stations and Mangrove Valley (East Track), 6 stations. This produced a remarkably good result of only one set of rat prints detected out of 30 cards, therefore 3.3%. On the 12 November the writer revisited the island, during which time the West ridge monitoring line was activated and produced. This one set of footprints in one of the 10 tunnels. Combined the results, this works out at 5%. However it must be pointed out that this is not an ‘official’ result – the exercise was carried out with the principal purpose of confirming bait station trends.


We have not publicised these results until now because the Trust’s official monitoring exercise (and annual bird count) was scheduled to take place in mid-December. Unfortunately this expedition (by the Unitec Natural Sciences team) was cancelled due to severe weather and will now take place in mid-January. Also the November monitoring took place on two separate occasions, (albeit separated only by eight days) – which is not ideal. These results in the meantime provide a useful indicator and confirm that the recorded bait-take decline reflects a real decline in the rat population, and that bait avoidance is not a significant problem. These results are enormously encouraging – especially compared to the situation one year ago.



Index monitoring results past over the past 18 months


                                    July 2013                    Dec 2013                     Nov 2014


Lodge (RM1)                         3/7          (43%)         2/7   (29%)                     0/4           (0%)

Bradshaws (RM2)               7/10       (70%)           7/9   (78%)                     1/10        (10%)

Mangrove Valley (RM3)    9/12       (75%)             3/9   (33%)                    0/6          (0%)

West Ridge (RM4)              9/9        (100%)       10/10  (100%)                 1/10         (10%)

Overlook (RM5)                   10/10    (100%)         4/9    (45%)                   0/10          (0%)

79%                           59%                                        5%




Motu Kaikoura. Rat relative densities December 2008 – November 2014


Current Situation


A steady trend of declining bait take, confirmed by the tracking tunnel monitoring on 3-4 November and 11-12 November would indicate hundreds of hectares of the island – especially the interior – are now clear of rats.   This data is supported by natural cues, such as noticeably higher numbers of native birds visible across the island – especially native pigeons – and numerous weta prints in tracking tunnels. Also notable is the sight of untouched puriri (Vitex lucens) fruit and untouched windfall rewarewa (Knightia excelsa) flowers, lying on the East Track.


Workers have now been asked to activate the snap traps placed in the rat motels to pick up any possible bait-avoiding or poison-resistant rats. To broaden bait station attraction, Brigand bait has been augmented in each station with the more recently purchased and differently flavoured Pestoff.


While much of the interior of the island appears to have been cleared, an area of infestation still remains along the southwestern coast, especially from coastal station 120 to 138 (please see fig.1 and fig.8). This coincides with that section of the West Track where rats have been trapped.  That is to be expected as the Coastal Line stations are relatively new – the line was only completed in October. However the trend of bait-take on the Coastal Line, indicates the same decline as the other lines. Attention now focuses on trapping. Low numbers of rats (bait avoiders?) have been trapped. Trapping results will be collated and be made available along with the official index monitoring results in January.


Of the 502 bait stations in the field, only 24 now show signs of rat activity – (of those, 22 of these are in the Coastal Line) while 488 bait stations are now indicating no activity. Approximately 2560 bait blocks are available in stations, mostly a combination of Pestoff and Brigand baits, and approximately 50 blocks in bait bags, across the island. 180 kg of bait has been used since the programme began in February, with bait take declining to very low figures in recent weeks (see graphs).


It is important to note the programme is ongoing and that we have yet to deploy our full resources. There is 190 kg of brodifacoum bait in hand, (14 x 8 kg containers of Brigand and 8 x 10 containers of Pestoff), 40 x Philproof stations and 22 Albia snap-traps. These resources will be progressively deployed when new lines are opened, and elsewhere as necessary.


Next Steps


Hopefully remaining rat presence along the southwestern coastline will have been mopped-up by the end of January 2015. Checking of bait stations by field workers has now been reduced to once per month, with the exception of the Coastal Line, though traps will be serviced once per fortnight. Several new lines will be cut.


It is now feasible for the Trust to go on to try to achieve a zero rat relative density level across the island. The 17 December meeting of the Motu Kaikoura Trust, after reviewing progress of the programme over the last year, formally resolved as a policy to replace the previous 5% rat relative density objective, with the objective to use best endeavours to achieve and maintain the island at 0% rat relative density.


The results of the January monitoring will be reported to DOC. stakeholders and the public, as soon as it has been completed.



In summary I am pleased to report the Motu Kaikoura rat management programme has made successful headway – thanks in large part to the dedicated efforts of our contractors Clint and Jacinda Stannard and the island caretakers Robbie Smith and Moana Kake, and with the support of DOC and Auckland Council.


Motu Kaikoura at 535ha (Taylor 1989) or 564 ha (certificate of title) is the largest New Zealand island in which a serious attempt to reduce rats to zero-density levels using bait stations has been made. The second biggest island to successfully employ bait station techniques was Ulva Island (270 ha) off Stewart Island, declared rat-free by DOC in 1997. Ulva is approximately half the size of Motu Kaikoura. The largest island in the Hauraki Gulf to successfully eradicate rats using bait stations was Rakino Island (147ha) by the ARC in 2000. In each of these cases the rat species targeted was Norway rat (Rattus norvegicus). On Motu Kaikoura the target rodents have been ship rat and kiore.


The Motu Kaikoura Trust can be reasonably confident that by the end of first 12 months of operation (end of January 2015) our programme will have achieved its original objectives. Next year, hopefully after achieving a confirmed zero rodent relative density we will then modify our operation to a more defensive strategy to safeguard the island’s new status. We will also be extending operations – baiting and 6 monthly follow-up checks to the islands of the Grey Group and where possible working cooperatively with the private owner of Motuhaku and Nelson Islands and Glenfern Sanctuary to clear and keep rats off these islands. It is of course important to remember that as an inshore island, Kaikoura’s close proximity to the Great Barrier mainland will always be problematic for biosecurity. Reinvasion by ‘swimmers’ can be expected, especially in the Autumn, but there is now a comprehensive system in place to ensure any future rat incursion on the island is temporary and ecologically not significant.


The Motu Kaikoura Trust once having confirmed <5% rat relative density and ideally 0% relative density, and therefore ‘sanctuary’ status, can then turn some of its focus from the biosecurity of Motu Kaikoura to the island’s biodiversity and its amenity.



We wish to thank DOC Auckland Partnerships Manager Pieter Tuinder and Funds Adviser Anna-Mareia Hammond for their very helpful assistance and support in securing a funding grant of $18,250 (including GST) in two tranches. This on the basis of $9125.25 contribution from the Motu Kaikoura Trust.


The programme has also received welcome assistance from Auckland Council Biosecurity Manager Brett Butland who arranged a donation of 20 x 8kg containers of Brigand bait.


Assistance has been also given by Todd Bolton at Sealink whose barge delivered the bait stations and there has ben assistance from the DOC vessel Hauturu for delivering bait. Finally warm thanks also to Scott Sambell of Glenfern Sanctuary for inputting our GPS data into his ArcGIS computer programme enabling the production of a detailed map of the island, its tracks, bait stations and monitoring lines.




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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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