Election of NZ mayors 'curious'

CHRIS TROTTER
Last updated 12:32 17/12/2013

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Chris Trotter

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OPINION: Is Auckland about to join Toronto?

A city with a mayor some would dearly like to be rid of but cannot sack?

Auckland's Len Brown may not have smoked crack cocaine or clean-bowled an elderly councillor in the council chamber, like the rampaging Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, but he is fast engendering a very similar sort of cringe factor.

Like Toronto, Auckland is its country's commercial heart. Politically, it plays a similarly pivotal role. Who leads a city like Toronto or Auckland matters.

Getting stuck with a laughing- stock mayor would be but a short step away from becoming a laughing-stock city.

That Auckland could find itself contemplating that possibility is due to a peculiar constitutional anomaly.

At the national and regional levels of government in New Zealand our leaders are chosen from representatives elected. The prime minister serves at the pleasure of a parliamentary majority. Regional chairs are similarly answerable to a majority of fellow councillors.

At the level of our districts, towns and cities, however, the position of mayor is filled by direct election. It is a very curious constitutional arrangement, because, with the exception of Auckland City, the people elected to lead our local bodies are vested with no special executive powers, do not control their council's budget and may not even enjoy the support of a majority of their fellow councillors.

Quite how New Zealand ended up with these popularly elected but essentially powerless mayors is a bit of a mystery. We certainly didn't inherit the practice from our colonial forebears. In the United Kingdom - and Australia - the mayoral chain goes around the neck of the council's majority leader.

Certainly, the British and Australian practice makes for a much more powerful and coherent style of local government. Mayors chosen in this fashion know, from the very beginning of their terms, that the numbers are there around the council table to carry forward the plans they announced during their election campaigns. Majority support also protects them from having the council's budget wrested from their control.

Most importantly, if they suddenly start behaving bizarrely or embark on an orgy of unauthorised spending, then their fellow councillors can simply bust them back to the ranks and elect a new mayor.

The new Auckland "super city" was intended to be something else entirely. Its principal political architect, former local government minister Rodney Hide, wanted a city that could get things done swiftly and efficiently. That ruled out the parliamentary model of the UK and Australia which, being dominated by local political parties, was prone to pork- barrelling and horse-trading. Not being a conspicuous fan of either pork-barrelling or horse-trading, Hide opted instead for a lean, mean governance machine presided over by a mayor equipped with unprecedented executive powers.

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No doubt the sort of figure Hide had in mind as the first mayor of his new super-city was a charismatic business tycoon; someone who could transform the Office of the Mayor into the workplace of a tough-minded, no- nonsense political CEO.

But that was not what he got.

Auckland's first "super mayor" turned out to be a rather daffy family lawyer from South Auckland. A great emoter and prone to random outbursts of song, in my view Mayor Len Brown did not, at first sight, appear to be either tough-minded or no- nonsense. However, possessed of a keen legal mind, he quickly appreciated the possibilities inherent in the "executive mayoralty" Hide bequeathed him.

Using the super mayor's budgetary independence and patronage powers, Brown very rapidly constructed what I believe was a well-nigh impregnable political position within the governance structures of Auckland City. So much so that he could, without the slightest trace of irony, instruct his councillors to "leave their politics at the [council chamber] door".

One of the greatest dangers confronting politicians who, like Brown, have been successful in protecting themselves from just about every kind of political attack, is to mistake impregnability for invulnerability. Those who believe themselves safe from their enemies' attacks are all- too-often undone by their own personal weaknesses.

So it proved with Toronto's Ford, and I believe in a very different way Brown has suffered the same fate.

In both cases, the council and the city are forced to pay the price.

So eager was Hide to set up his new and streamlined governance structure for the super-sized Auckland City that he neglected to include in its constitutional design any mechanisms for bringing a wayward super mayor to heel.

Even the United States president is subject to impeachment. But, short of being convicted of a serious crime, adjudged a bankrupt or declared insane, the mayors of Toronto and Auckland are effectively unsackable.

A bad mayor could do a lot of damage in three years. People in both cities deserve better systems to keep tabs on elected mayors.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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