John Key and Rodney Hide were like awkward guests at someone else’s party at last night’s inauguration of Mayor Len Brown and the new Auckland Council. The Town Hall was packed with Len’s mob who had come to hear the ‘it’s our time’ message so it is not surprising Key and Hide were given only a polite reception. Key delivered a wooden written-by-officials speech suprisingly lacking in heart for such a big occasion.
It wasn’t meant to end this way. John Key had all but endorsed John Banks for mayor. The Nats set out to remake Auckland in their own image. But Len Brown’s campaign was driven along by deep public unease with Hide’s over-centralised and corporatised super city. In the end Aucklanders gave a thumping mandate to Brown’s inclusive vision, his pledge to protect communities and save our assets, and his promise to build a modern rail network.
This puts Key in an interesting spot. Any public goodwill for having unified Auckland was long ago corroded away by Hide’s handling of the process. The Nats must be furious with Hide for having stuffed their Auckland agenda and lost the mayoralty for Banks. That alone must be reason enough for pulling the plug on Epsom.
Aucklanders’ expectations however have now been raised. The mayoral election made one thing clear. If the super city is to mean one thing it has to mean action on public transport. Len Brown has staked his political career on this. He has invoked the memory of Robbie’s Rapid Rail. But he cannot deliver the level of investment needed on his own. Only central government can do it.
The Mayor dropped several references to rail into his inaugural speech. John Key didn’t take up the challenge, and noted that on some things ‘we will disagree’. National-ACT don’t get it. Auckland cannot go on building motorways, and now must invest in rail the equivalent treasure it has sunk into motorways over the past few decades. Steven Joyce is wedded to his Holiday Highway but won’t commit to the central city rail loop.
So what is Key to do: Embrace a left-leaning mayor and council who ran against his plan for Auckland? Wean his party off its historic dependence on the roads lobby by cranking up a big investment in rail? If he doesn’t, and National are seen to be white-anting the popular mandate of the new Mayor for all of Auckland, I predict Aucklanders will make National pay at the polls next year.