03 Jun 2013

Money talks in race for mayoralty

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Written by: Brian Rudman
Published: The New Zealand Herald – 03 June 2013

Second term likely for Brown as cost of campaign makes removing the incumbent a rich person’s sport

Millionaire John Palino plans to run for mayor.

Millionaire John Palino plans to run for mayor.

Maurice Williamson’s brief flirtation with fame is officially over. Dithering cost him his chance to become an international gay icon and common sense has persuaded him, and more to the point his financial backers, to abandon any bid for the Auckland mayoralty.

On Friday, the Minister for Statistics, Building and Construction issued a statement saying “after much thought and in-depth analysis, including looking at personal, political, funding and other circumstances, I have decided not to contest the mayoralty.” He wanted to “remain focused on serving his Pakuranga constituents and fulfilling ministerial responsibilities.”

It was a wise decision, though I’m surprised it took him much thought or analysis at all. Particularly if he’d caught up with the polling conducted by UMR Research on May 13.

Using its experimental online panel, which is carefully balanced to reflect the demographics of the Auckland electorate, potential voters were asked, “While it is still early days, would you be more likely to vote for Len Brown or Maurice Williamson in an Auckland Mayoral election?”

Incumbent Mayor Brown stormed in with 43 per cent of the vote. Mr Williamson scored just 17 per cent, while 13 per cent said “neither” and another 26 per cent were “unsure”.

The pollsters’ rule of thumb is that this undecided vote tends, on polling day, to split along the same proportions as the main vote, suggesting Mayor Brown would romp home against Mr Williamson. While the sample of panellists was small, at 241, the same polling method was trialled in the run-up to the 2010 elections in Christchurch and Auckland and proved very accurate. In Auckland, it got the percentage of votes for Mr Brown and his main rival, John Banks, perfectly, and was one percentage off the vote for Colin Craig.

As a computer-savvy numbers expert, it will have been plain to Mr Williamson that he risked losing not just his cosy ministerial stipend, but a bucket-load of his backers’ cash as well. Hence his selfless decision “to remain focused on his electorate and ministerial responsibilities”.

Having seen off Mr Williamson without as much as a boo, Mr Brown seems set for an untroubled stroll into a second term as the Super City mayor. If the last election is any guide, already declared leftish gadflies like John Minto and Penny Bright will be struggling to stay afloat in a 22-strong field.

TV restaurateur and millionaire New York emigre John Palino is threatening to spend up to $1 million on a campaign centred on turning Manukau City into Auckland’s new, modern city centre. It’s a cheeky plunge into Mayor Brown’s home turf, but like rapid rail, canals across the isthmus and similar brainstorms from past mayoral hopefuls, seems a plan doomed to the footnotes of history.

On the fringes, the right wing collective of councillors, “Communities and Residents” – formerly known as Citrats – is warming up to fight against Mayor Brown’s Unitary Plan. After their poor showing in 2010, leader Christine Fletcher admitted her team had failed to connect with Aucklanders. She pledged “to address this”. But, without a mayoral candidate to coalesce behind, getting their message across, whatever that might be, will be tough.

Even if the polling for Mr Williamson had offered more hope, funding a campaign would have been a major hurdle. Mr Palino’s talk of needing a campaign fund of between $500,000 to $1 million is the reality of a Super City mayoral campaign.

Last September, Mayor Brown, who won the 2010 race with a $390,000 campaign chest, cheekily declared the $580,000 spending cap, set by law for Auckland mayoral candidates, was too high. He said it “could mean the election is … bought by a wealthy candidate”.

What he conveniently omitted was the enormous ratepayer-funded advantage he has as incumbent, with a staff of 23 and an annual budget of $3.2 million with which to promote his every word and deed.

Thanks to the presidential-style mayoralty imposed on Auckland by central government, removing the incumbent seems destined to be a rich person’s sport. A game for millionaires, or someone with millionaire backers. With the postage on a standard letter, 70 cents, a single letter alone to each potential voter will devour much of the permitted war chest.

The worry is that voter turn-out would plunge with a one-horse mayoral race.

In 2010, the novelty of the new city structure plus a keenly contested mayoralty had 51 per cent of eligible Aucklanders voting. Poor as that turn-out is, it was a great result compared with the 38 per cent average turn-out of the 2007 Auckland local government poll.


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