My rise and fall as an AT director

On 27 July on the motion of mayor Wayne Brown I was removed as a director of Auckland Transport (AT) and replaced with Cr Chris Darby. I can’t say the move was unexpected. 

I never actually asked to be on the board of AT. Frankly my attitude to AT was similar to Huckleberry Finn: ‘I been there before’. 

At the swearing-in ceremony of the new Governing Body of Auckland Council with Mayor Wayne Brown, October 2022. I never signed up to selling the public’s assets.

Back at the start of the ‘Super City’, in November 2010, along with Chris Fletcher, I was appointed by mayor Len Brown as one of the founding directors of AT. Len was to reappoint us for a second term in 2013. In 2016, his successor Phil Goff was opposed to appointing councillors to the AT board, claiming he’d a better plan for keeping AT accountable. That plan was never clear but Goff maintained his position throughout his two terms – during which time AT’s public reputation declined rather badly. Consequently, AT’s unpopularity became a key issue in last year’s local body election campaign. 

At the height of this (less than a year ago, though it seems a lot longer) I was asked by the Public Transport Users Association to make an introductory speech to the mayoral candidates’ transport debate. During the debate, candidate Wayne Brown announced he would appoint me to the board of AT (hearty applause from the audience). The other candidates present, Viv Beck and Craig Lord, said they would as well (more applause).  Once elected mayor, Wayne Brown kept his word. But pretty soon after appointing me to the AT Board, he became persuaded to sell the council’s airport shares. Despite our agreed positions on transport, my opposition to the sale of these shares became a sore point.

Ultimately this led to my dismissal. It’s a price I realised I’d probably have to pay, so the call from the mayor, when it came, was no surprise. ‘He’s a vindictive b—-‘ someone said to me when I was at Placemakers recently.  ‘It’s not vindictiveness,’ I replied – it’s just politics’. A major effort was made by the mayor to get the share sale over the line – even the partial sale he had to settle for in the end. It took a prolonged and intensive campaign; the finance bureaucrats’ drumbeat of ‘sell, sell, sell’ from almost the moment the newly-elected councillors walked in the door, was matched by expensive council spin masquerading as ‘public consultation’. Then there was the rather murky role pushing the sale played by Australian consultants ‘Flag Staff’ who have been paid more than $1.6m!

So, in order to secure key votes the mayor had to offer rewards. This he did, by trading for instance my AT director’s position, and that of Cr Wayne Walker, as a political reward to Cr Darby and Cr Shane Henderson. The move has not gone down well, especially with the mayor’s key supporters. Awkwardly, Cr Chris Darby has a somewhat different attitude to transport than myself, having a track record of supporting, heavily engineered cycleways and the woke-ish war on cars and car parks. As mayor Goff’s chair of planning, Darby led the push for the privatisation of the Downtown Car Park Building and the removal of its nearly 2000 car parks. The fate of this important public asset still hangs in the balance, with AT yet to sign off on the deal.

Former National cabinet minister Cr Maurice Williamson often remarks on the differences between accepted practice in central and local government. The fate of former senior cabinet Minister Michael Wood is instructive. Michael Wood owned shares in the airport company and indirectely via a family (JM Fairey) trust. It was considered, given the Minister’s transport portfolio, that owning shares in the airport company could pose a conflict of interest, so he was ordered by the cabinet office and the PM to dispose of them. That he didn’t, led to his dismissal. Though to be fair, Wood could not have had a role in the fate of the council’s airport share portfolio, unlike his wife Cr Julie Fairey who also owned shares in their family trust. In her case she was given the OK to participate in the council debate and to vote (which she did voting against amendments to keep the shares and abstaining on the final vote to sell). In a similar position was Cr Darby, whose wife was a shareholder in the airport company. Again, he not only participated in the council debate, but proposed a partial sale when it became clear a full sale would fail. But unlike Michael Wood, who was demoted and disgraced, Chris Darby was rewarded with promotion. Puzzled? Such things unfortunately are to be expected in ‘Super City’ politics nowadays. I wish to thank everyone for all the messages of support. For me it’s not the end of the world. I will continue to work constructively, including with the mayor, to do the job I was elected to by the people of Waitematā & Gulf.

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