Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Dr Bryce Edwards: The Left split from Tory Whanau’s wayward Wellington City Council

Wellington Mayor Tory Whanau has gone from being the hero of the progressive left in Wellington to being seen as the cause of further dysfunction and chaos. And that’s just the view of people on her own political side.

The former Green Party Chief of Staff, who had turned into a corporate lobbyist, and then Mayor of Wellington, had a tough time during the first half of her term in power. But at least she was able to count on the support of the Green and Labour councillors, who pledged to vote for all her initiatives. This meant she had a working majority to get a limited number of things done.

Now, she is burning off that support, and it could have significant consequences for the city and for the shape of local government politics.

Why the Left has turned against Whanau

The three most leftwing Wellington City Councillors – Ben McNulty, Nureddin Abdurahman, and Nīkau Wi Neera – have announced that they have lost faith in the Mayor. As a result, they have pulled out of the Green-Labour bloc on the council, which has until now meant Whanau could pass anything she wanted. But now the three dissidents will vote on an issue-by-issue basis, essentially as “Independents”. However, they say they will still be guided by the Labour and Green platforms upon which they are elected.

It’s the local government equivalent of Jim Anderton leaving the Fourth Labour Government in 1989 over the party’s neoliberal economic reforms. And just as Anderton resigned from his party, saying that Labour left him rather than he left Labour, the dissident leftwing councillors claim that Whanau and her supporters have moved considerably to the right and have been captured by the agendas of unelected council officials.

As with Anderton’s 1989 split from Labour to form the NewLabour Party and then Alliance, the three councillors’ departure has been a long time coming. Until now, the two significant issues of contention have been Whanau’s push to put up to $329m into renovating the Town Hall and then pushing for the now-defeated deal with Reading Cinemas, which was labelled “corporate welfare”. Along the way, the mayor has embraced water meter charging and generally overseen a lack of work on the key issues that citizens want progress on.

Councillor Ben McNulty summed up his dissatisfaction with the Mayor with a post last week on X: “If you told me two years ago that the next mayor of Wellington would lead the charge on spending $320m for the Town Hall, bailing out a multinational and fully privatising our airport, I’d have asked you which right-wing candidate won.”

Airport privatisation has split the Wellington left

Just as the final issue that pushed Anderton out of the Labour Party was their decision to privatise the BNZ, the leftwing councillors say that the final straw was selling off the Council’s part-ownership of Wellington Airport.

The Council currently owns a 34 per cent stake in Wellington Airport. Previously, the central government owned the rest, and Prime Minister Jenny Shipley's decision to sell the rest in 1998 triggered NZ First's withdrawal from the first MMP coalition government.

Wellington Council officials have been arguing for years to sell off the remaining share of the airport, but they have only persuaded councillors now. Crucially, they persuaded Tory Whanau. Together, the officials and the new mayor managed to push this through two weeks ago.

They did this through a combination of strategies, including winning over the support of the two appointed mana whenua representatives, Holden Hohaia and Liz Kelly. This gave them a majority in the privatisation vote, which was held on a subcommittee of the Council.

The other tactic was to scare wavering councillors in favour of privatisation. This included providing late advice that without selling the shares, the Council would have to find $450m in cost savings elsewhere. The officials also said, behind closed doors, that they had legal advice that the individual councillors could face personal liability if the city went broke as a result, and they could face prosecution. For more on this, see Georgina Campbell’s Herald article, Wellington City Council struggles to get its story straight on finances (paywalled)

As a result of the last-moment news about the council finances and risks, several leftwing councillors decided to vote to sell the shares, breaking promises to keep the highly profitable asset partly in public hands. This included the Green Deputy Mayor, Laurie Foon, whose capitulation at the meeting allowed Whanau to win the vote – see Tom Hunt’s article for The Post: Deputy mayor’s broken pledge tips airport sale (paywalled)

Council staff used reports from three consultancies – KPMG, PwC and EY – to persuade councillors to sell the shares. In particular, the Mayor seized on a reported $450m gap in the budget that would be caused by not selling, arguing that if the council voted to keep part ownership of the airport, it would force the council to pursue “drastically cut back on public services to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars… These cuts to our core public services would be so deep the impact would be felt within communities for generations to come” – see Erin Gourley’s article in the Post: Opponents unhappy with late release of airport shares reports (paywalled)

However, the actual reports and information were kept from the councillors, and in reality, the Mayor’s communication of the reports has turned out to be inaccurate. Instead, Gourley writes, “The reports spell out that there would be no effect on rates, debt or level of service if the shares were not sold, as the status quo would continue.”

The Left councillors dubbed “The Airport Three”

The three councillors – recently dubbed “The Airport Three” – are now in revolt. Part of their discontent is about how officials and Whanau won the vote on the airport shares sale, which they allege was dishonest and an abuse of power.

Ben McNulty has now sought to get copies of legal advice that council officials obtained from their legal in-house lawyer and external law firms. He’s had to request the information under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA), as the information was denied to councillors. However, the Council has also refused this request, citing that “legal privilege” outweighs the public interest on the matter – see Tom Hunt’s Wellington City Council blocks councillors seeing airport legal advice (paywalled)

Related to this “information blockade”, council officials have been attempting to get councillors to agree not to ask for certain information from officials. The Post’s Andrea Vance reported on this on Saturday – see: New code restricting advice to councillors is “unlawful and unconstitutional” (paywalled)

Here’s the crucial part from her article: “Wellington City Council chief executive Barbara McKerrow has drafted a new code which councillors believe restricts the official advice they are allowed to see. The protocols, seen by The Post, mean the Capital’s elected representatives are only allowed to seek information from officials on upcoming decisions. It prevents them asking for advice on previous votes — such as the controversial Reading cinema deal or on reducing business rates — that they might want for background reading or research.”

This has raised questions about “who really runs Wellington?” Answering this, Abdurahman said last week: “The mayor is not leading, the bureaucracy is governing us”. And McNulty complained: “Council’s officers say: ‘Jump,’ and the response of the mayor’s office is to say ‘How high?’”

Wellington may not be able to pass its new city budget

Every three years, the Council needs to create a financial budget, its Long-Term Plan, and there is now some doubt that the Mayor will have the numbers to get this passed next week. This could potentially bring parts of the council's operations to a standstill, as from 1 July, the council’s authorisation to spend money would be limited.

Councillor Nureddin Abduraham has proposed a way forward for the council, which would result in the long-term plan being passed. Option one would be to have the council vote again on the airport shares sale. As The Post’s Tom Hunt explains, “That would likely pass as the two pouiwi Māori appointees, who both voted for the sale in committee, can’t vote on the full council” – see: Airport ultimatum could leave Wellington City Council without budget, plans paused (paywalled)

Whanau opposes this on the basis of the Treaty of Waitangi, saying “this will remove mana whenua representatives from being able to have their say on our long-term plan decisions”.

Abduraham’s second option, according to Hunt’s article, is that the council “could get two long-term plans done – one including the share sale and one without – and audited before the late June meeting, meaning councillors could vote on the one they wanted.”

If Whanau doesn’t take up either of these options, her Long-Term Plan will likely be put to councillors, with the Airport share sale as an intrinsic part. Such a high-stakes move then becomes something of a “vote of confidence” in the mayor. At this stage, the numbers are close.

If this is the case, Hunt reports: “It is understood seven of the 16 around the council table are considering voting against the full plan so two more votes would be needed to get a majority. Abduraham was optimistic he could get the numbers.”

Whanau’s allies are pushing back against the left dissidents, threatening that a vote against Whanau’s budget could bring down the council. Labour Party councillor Teri O’Neill has gone public with her belief that “a vote against the ten-year plan would trigger the Government sending in commissioners to replace the council” – see Erin Gourley’s Protest vote on council budget approaches ‘dangerous territory’ (paywalled)

Labour and Green parties at war on a dysfunctional council

The Airport Three have also gone public with how bad relations are within the Labour-Greens bloc on the council. Wi Neera has been reported saying that many of the politicians can’t be in the same room as each other. And McNulty says he’s no longer attending the caucus meetings for Labour and Green councillors because they are “not a healthy environment to have an opinion different from the majority” – see Erin Gourley’s article last week in The Post: Airport shares selloff splits mayor’s supporters (paywalled)

Yesterday, the Spinoff’s Joel MacManus followed that up with a focus on the personal bitterness amongst the warring leftwing faction of the council. He says the “feud is getting personal and nasty. There are some deep feelings of betrayal” – see: Inside the messy drama tearing apart Wellington City Council’s left wing

He explains that Whanau’s allies on council are accusing the three men of “grandstanding” and “misogyny,” an accusation that MacManus says is “a ridiculous thing to suggest.” Therefore, it now seems that the fiasco is descending into a culture war, which doesn’t normally serve the political left well, just creating more bitterness.

Consequences for Wellington and Labour and Green politicians

What might seem more akin to university student politics feuding is now threatening to impact Wellington and the council significantly. Mayor Whanau’s position is particularly troubled.

Dr Bryce Edwards is a politics lecturer at Victoria University and director of Critical Politics, a project focused on researching New Zealand politics and society. This article was first published HERE


Anonymous said...

Simeon. Where are the Commissioners? Get a spine. Wellington isn't just some insignificant bastion of Jacindanomics. It's supposed to be our capital city, but it's a national embarrassment.

Tom Logan said...

Yeah great Bryce , fantastic stuff.

But you're trying to rationalise madness.

Successfull teams generally have good leaders.

Ms Whanau as we have seen unfold throughout the last 12 months is wholly unsuited to being a leader or a manager of anythng complex. Away from the public service or government work she would have been dismissed long ago.

But this is New Zealand and personal responsibility or consequences for incompetence has never been one of our core values.

That our capital city can have a Mayor so wholly inept and unsuited to the job just beggars belief.

This country will just continue its slide down the hill to becoming a wholly second rate state as long as such performance is tolerated.

Zero02 said...

“ Away from the public service or government work she would have been dismissed long ago.”

The corporate world is stuffed full of incompetent directors, CEOs and executives who’ve held their jobs for years while their companies have performed poorly.

The myth of an incompetent public sector but brilliant private sector is just that, a myth.

Anonymous said...

Performance and competence are as much cultural as anything. NZ has a culture of complacency and mediocrity and spinelessness coupled with a complete inability to see/ recognise its own disintegration.So guess what it gets.

Ask Sir Bob Jones.

Anonymous said...

We always get the Govt (in this case the council) we deserve.

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