Heather Roy's Diary

Published: Sat 25 Nov 2006 01:39 PM
Heather Roy's Diary
Without the prospect of being remembered for their greatness, some people are happy to simply be remembered. This sentiment among politicians gives rise to 'white elephants' or political monuments like the 'Parliamentary Palace' and the proposed stadium on Auckland's waterfront.
Having won the rights to host the Rugby World Cup in 2011, New Zealand can't escape the contractual requirement to provide a 60,000 seat stadium where the final can be played. A year after winning the hosting rights, however, the public has suddenly been presented with two options - an upgraded Eden Park, and what Rodney Hide refers to as 'a great white whale' on a yet-to-be-finalised waterfront site.
The waterfront stadium is, from the designer's estimates, an ugly blot on Auckland's seascape. It's also massive in size, and people who enjoy harbour views today will instead be looking at a wall the equivalent of 15 shipping containers in height.
Stadiums are a risky investment. The renovation of England's Wembley stadium is running years behind schedule, and -L-285 million over the original budget. In a stroke of bad timing, Telstra Stadium, which was built to house the 2000 Sydney Olympics, was bought by ANZ last week for just $10 million, after falling $200 million in debt.
Delays and blowouts are a sure source of public scandal. Concerns are already being voiced by thousands of Kiwis - including those living in Mt Eden and near the waterfront. Auckland City and Regional councils have been given just two weeks to make a decision about which stadium option they prefer, and the anticipated bypassing of the Resource Management Act if the waterfront is chosen means that the public might not get any real chance to have their say about what is constructed, or how it will be paid for.
Strangely enough, the government's insistence on a rushed decision raises the possibility of breaching Part 6 of the Local Government Act, which Labour themselves passed in 2002. Section 6 sets out the principles and procedure of public consultation that councils must undertake, and although a group of Aucklanders failed to get an injunction against the councils making their choice on Thursday, the judge indicated that public consultation would have to occur if the final decision was to be legitimate.
As well as the attempted injunction, it's also possible that the Auditor-General could review the government's decision-making process. Laws such as the Public Finance Act require decisions about how taxpayer money is spent to be based on all the facts - when the real financial implications of the waterfront stadium are far from fixed.
For Auckland, the costs of either the waterfront stadium or Eden Park are huge. The plan being discussed for upgrading Eden Park weighs in at $385 million, while the waterfront stadium will cost a minimum $500 million.
The $500 million price tag is, however, merely a 'guesstimate' of what an entirely new stadium would finally cost ratepayers and taxpayers. Michael Cullen has admitted the half-billion-dollar figure is likely to increase, and in a similar way to Rob Muldoon's 'Think Big' projects of the early 80s, the real cost of the waterfront stadium will be a great deal more than the public is being told. By rushing into construction without finishing the proper financial groundwork, we could easily find costs blowing out to more than a billion dollars.
So where is this money coming from? Some will undoubtedly come from ratepayers, a little from the organisers of the Rugby World Cup, and more from charitable trusts (including the Lotteries Commission). To help fund the waterfront option, the government has offered to raise a new 'bed tax' on hotels and motels, which in turn has raised considerable ire amongst tourist operators.
Tourism operators are right to be afraid - a new 'bed tax', a suggested fee of $10 per night, would discourage people from coming to New Zealand - especially the backpackers which make up a considerable portion of our tourist market, and Kiwis from holidaying in Auckland and travelling to Auckland for work. An airport departure tax is also being suggested for both domestic and international flights.
But there is an even cheaper option for Eden Park which is being conveniently forgotten. Original redevelopment plans came in at less than $320 million - the more expensive upgrade was only pushed when the waterfront stadium plans proved to be even costlier.
To try and give the 'waterfront whale' greater mana, and justify dipping so deeply into the pockets of taxpayers, Trevor Mallard has begun referring to it as a 'national stadium'. If this were the case, consultation has been doubly poor, as all New Zealanders should have been given the chance to have their say.
What Trevor Mallard seems to have forgotten is that a real 'national stadium' requires something more than taxpayer cash. It needs an injection of passion, pride and history - all of which we've seen played out at Eden Park, especially when the All Blacks beat France 29-9 in the 1987 World Cup Final. Building the waterfront stadium marks Eden Park - one of the world's hallowed rugby grounds - for destruction.
But at the end of the day, these may all be moot points, with the Auckland Regional Council unanimously voting in favour of Eden Park today. In contradiction to Auckland City Council's preference for the waterfront last night, the Regional Council have showed that the public opposition is matched by political scepticism. Trevor Mallard has now referred the final decision to Cabinet on Monday, where blame for the stadium fiasco will be shouldered collectively, instead of all falling on the Member for Hutt Valley.
In my view, the preferred option should have always been the less expensive option for redeveloping Eden Park. With better financial analysis, a shorter construction timeframe and an important part of Auckland's sporting heritage at stake, it is simple common sense. However, for politicians keen to be remembered with a monument in our largest city, common sense may not be so common, after all.

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