INDEPENDENT NEWS

Cablegate: Local Elections in Auckland - Little Ado About Nothing

Published: Fri 12 Oct 2007 02:02 AM
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TAGS: PGOV NZ
SUBJECT: LOCAL ELECTIONS IN AUCKLAND - LITTLE ADO ABOUT NOTHING
This message is sensitive but unclassified, please protect
accordingly.
1. (SBU) Summary. Towns and cities across New Zealand are
voting for new mayors and council members. The vote - even that
in New Zealand's biggest city - will have little impact on
national politics. The issues are pedestrian and the voters
apathetic. New Zealand's future leadership is not incubated in
local politics but in the major parties' youth organizations and
parliament's back benches. Local politics is dominated by
national figures who have stepped away from Wellington politics
and by local civic boosters who, while often passionate about
their home towns, have no national ambitions. End summary.
2. (SBU) New Zealand's commercial center and largest
metropolitan area (home to about 1.3 million of New Zealand's
4.2 million people) is an awkward amalgam of four cities and
portions of three neighboring districts plus an overarching
regional council headed by an indirectly elected chair.
Responsibilities overlap and officials compete; clashes are
common among the four mayors, one chairman, and eight councils.
3. (SBU) While polls show that the residents of Auckland City
(the largest of the four cities that makes up the metro area)
strongly support the consolidation of all the above entities
into a single city council, that is one issue that will not be
addressed at the polls. No significant candidate has come out
clearly in favor of the proposal (no surprise, as consolidation
would mean three of the four mayors lose their jobs), and there
are no plans for a referendum. Instead, Wellington has
appointed a royal commission to tackle the problem, effectively
postponing any changes until after next year's national
elections.
4. (SBU) With the future structure of Auckland governance off
the table, the campaigns have largely focused on the competence
of incumbents, property taxes, transportation, and the growing
cost of local government. In Auckland City, for example,
property taxes rose 21% over the last three years and are
expected to rise another 37% over the next three. The size of
the staff of Manukau City, one of the four cities in the
Auckland area, has grown 35% over six years. Widespread public
grumbling over these issues has not generated a voter revolt,
however. Two of the four incumbent mayors in the Auckland area
look likely to be reelected comfortably. A third has retired;
the race to replace him is too close to call. In general, local
officials countrywide are coasting to easy reelection.
5. (SBU) Only Auckland City Mayor Dick Hubbard, a breakfast
cereal maker in his first term in office, looks likely to be
ousted. Hubbard pressed hard for the construction of a
world-class stadium on the Auckland waterfront in time for the
2011 Rugby World Cup, but lost. He also was hurt by accusations
that he and the rest of the city council arranged a stealth tax
increase by raising the city-owned water company's rates and
steering the profits into the treasury. A controversial upgrade
of Auckland's main street did not help. Hubbard is expected to
be ousted by John Banks, his predecessor and a former National
Party MP and minister.
6. (SBU) There is strikingly little intersection between
national and local politics on the party level. Candidates for
local office do not run under the banner of national parties.
There are, strictly speaking, no Labour or National Party
candidates for local office. Rather, local candidates run under
banners loosely affiliated with national parties. (In Auckland,
Labour Party candidates run under the "City Vision" ticket,
while National Party affiliates run as "Citizens and Ratepayers"
candidates.) The national parties do not endorse candidates,
and local elections are generally not taken as a bellwether of
national politics. One veteran of local politics explained that
there is great resistance, not only in Auckland, but in cities
around the country, to the idea of Wellington politics
influencing local government. Local politicians are expected to
put local interests above all else, in a non-partisan way. Were
the prime minister, for example, to publicly endorse Dick
Hubbard, it would be detrimental to both. The PM would be
perceived as interfering in local issues while Hubbard would be
portrayed as accountable to the Labour Party rather than to
Auckland's voters.
7. (SBU) Comment. All of the above means that voters in local
elections cannot vote on the most important issue facing
Auckland (the structure of government) nor can they make a
statement about national politics in casting their local vote.
Thus local elections are limited to issues like property taxes
and public transport. Perhaps not surprisingly, voter interest
is low. Some candidate fora have been attended by more
candidates than voters. Turnout so far (balloting is by mail,
with a deadline of October 13), is much lower than elections at
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the national level and generally lower than during the last
local elections in 2004. National elections see close to 80%
turnout, while turnout in the various districts of the current
Auckland elections ranges from 24% to 37%. It would probably
take a substantial change in Auckland's structure of government
- the creation of a single "super city" - to get the area's
voters enthused about local elections.
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