Members of the press being turned away from the door distracted from the announcement of asset sales and inflation-pegged rates in Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown’s final budget proposal
Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown didn’t mince words at a fiery press conference this morning where he confirmed he’d be calling for a full sale of airport shares in the new budget, and keeping rates pegged to inflation.
Journalists barred at the door, interjections from the audience and some unfiltered critical assessments of council staff all featured in the kick-off to the final steps of deciding Auckland’s financial future.
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Brown called out councillors by name who weren’t marching lockstep with him on asset sales – specifically councillors Mike Lee, Christine Fletcher, Wayne Walker and John Watson. It’s a group that has supported the tightening up of spending but bridled at selling the council’s shares.
Albany councillor Wayne Walker previously told the New Zealand Herald he’d prefer to keep the shares, and he was there in person today to personally receive his admonishment from the Mayor.
Brown asked why councillors like Walker and Watson signed the Ratepayer Protection Pledge if unwilling to back the moves he says will prevent rates creep.
“Watson, Walker, Lee, Fletcher – in case they’ve forgot, this is what they said,” Brown said. “And I refused to sign this pledge because I figured there was going to be problems with the council – I didn’t realise they’d be quite so bad financially – but I said I didn’t know what was going [to happen], I’m not stupid.”
The pledge specifically saw candidates promise last year to not vote for any new targeted rates nor any measure that would increase the total average burden of rates, levies and other council charges above the rate of inflation.
“If you’re signing that, I don’t know how you’re going to put your hand up and vote against selling the shares,” Brown said. “We know who you are – we’ve named you. I’m expecting you to honour your pledge.”
Brown’s all-out approach for asset sales highlights its importance as a bargaining chip and shifts focus from the use of other potential levers like more borrowing.
“We had to have something to trade with and this is where the airport comes in,” he said.
Over the past few weeks his focus has shifted to the airport as other options slowly lost favour, such as arts and social services cuts, which he softened on last month.
But with the promise of moderation in his cuts came an expectation that councillors would follow along with the airport sale. It was reported last week that he may not have the majority on side – and an appeal to councillors like Walker and Watson may be his attempt to shore up his voting bloc.
And while it must have been an uncomfortable moment for named councillors in attendance, there were a few uncomfortable moments at the door to match, as members of various media organisations were stopped from entering until partway into the Mayor’s speech.
Members of the press from Stuff, Newshub and TVNZ were prevented from entering, with Brown’s press secretary saying he wanted to “set boundaries” and prevent “ambush interviews”.
Reporters asked whether any questioning of the Mayor in a public setting was considered an ambush, and said the odd formal interview would prevent the need for public questioning.
It’s par for the course for a Mayor and team who have at times been less than keen to deal with the media. Council figures reported by The Spinoff showed the mayoral office rejected 90 percent of interview requests in the days following the January flooding.
And in concert with that, Brown finished his speech today with press secretary Josh Van Veen taking the microphone and saying the Mayor had places to be and things to do and would not be taking any questions.
It all points to on-the-spot questioning being the true bugbear – writers from Newsroom, The New Zealand Herald and RNZ were all invited, while the blacklisted journos were largely television reporters perhaps less likely to be mollified by a written statement due to their need for footage.
Whatever the reason, it created an awkward scene as Brown went to begin his speech with only select outlets present. Some members of the media temporarily left the room in protest, calling for free access to the rest of the press.
“If any media who are still here, if you’d like to report that I am here for the ratepayers of Auckland, not necessarily the scribes and troublemakers,” he said after calling some members of the press “nasty”.
It’s clear Brown felt strongly about getting his message across in his way – but it might be putting a lot of pressure on the operator of his Twitter account as they become nearly the sole conveyor of today’s crucial news to the million-plus people who live in the region.
The doors were opened to personas non grata some minutes into his speech, creating a disjointed beginning to the meeting.
Richard Sutherland, chair of the Media Freedom Committee, shortly thereafter penned an open letter to Brown’s office to express “deep concern” about the attempted exclusion of journalists, saying it compromised the public’s right to be informed.
“To be blunt, it’s unacceptable to cherry-pick journalists based on who you think will give you the easiest ride,” Sutherland wrote.
Speaking to Newsroom, he said organisations like councils and political parties were always going to try to shape the narrative in the way that’s most favourable to them, but today’s events were a particularly unusual example.
“I thought the way it was handled was cack-handed,” he said. “I’m really surprised they have allowed themselves into this situation where the shenanigans become the main story other than the meat and potatoes, which is the budget itself.”
So on to the meat and potatoes – how did this revised budget actually differ from Brown’s initial proposal?
Cuts to regional services are down from $20m to $7.8m, with the biggest loser there looking to be eco-lifestyle initiative Live Lightly. New funding agreements with Motat and Auckland War Memorial Museum look to shave $2m off the total, while $16m worth of local board funding is back on the table.
Social services like Citizens Advice Bureau have had a stay of execution, but Brown invited them to find other avenues of funding quickly.
Meanwhile, some council-controlled organisations are being pushed to cut costs even further.
The meeting took place in Auckland Transport’s “waterfront palace” (Brown’s words). He said that ratepayers can soon expect the transport agency to bunk up with the greater council group up by Aotea Square, where he said there was still plenty of room if everyone was prepared to make space.
In the new proposal, Auckland Transport is expected to find an extra $10m by increasing public transport fares this financial year by 6.5 percent.
Brown also took aim at business associations he deemed to have not spent enough on crime reduction. That comes days after it was decided that a central government injection of $2m into crime prevention was going to be half distributed via council-affiliated business associations.
“I’ve been critical of the pompously known Heart of the City which should just be called the Auckland CBD business association, they didn’t spend enough,” he said.
“I’d like a right of reply on that,” former mayoral candidate and Heart of the City CEO Viv Beck said from the crowd.
“Well, you’ve had your right of reply and nobody believed you unfortunately,” Brown said.
Speaking later to Newsroom, Beck said her association was under-resourced and had been lobbying central government to fund police to increase their CBD presence and also engage mental health services.
“We are doing what we can locally,” she said.
Beck said she didn’t support Brown’s calling her out from the pulpit, but did support other aspects of his budget proposal such as keeping a close eye on council costs.
Brown and Beck had previously clashed on this exact issue at a business association breakfast on the campaign trail last year, and it seems there is still no love lost there.
As always, Brown reached for the talismanic power of the 180,000 votes he received last October to justify his moves. It’s been the imprimatur that’s allowed him to cut straight to the point and eschew niceties in place of pragmatism.
It’s a kind of pragmatism that’s been nothing if not polarising, with some seeing his cuts as gutting and his media reticence as obscuring public information – while others are relishing the idea of Auckland Transport being sent packing to more humble offices.
This morning was a perfect encapsulation of those traits – an at-times raucous meeting in a hard-to-access room where enormous moves for the financial future of the city were finally put in ink.
We will find out whether the details will sit comfortably with Brown’s 20 councillors next Thursday when the governing body meets to hash out the final official budget.
Newsroom will be there to cover events – provided our reporters can make it past any hypothetical bouncers at the door.