Brown opens up a storm in a port

At the 11th hour, the potential for a sale of shares in the Auckland port company becomes an issue in the city’s mayoral election campaign

Leading Auckland mayoral candidate Wayne Brown has struggled to clarify if he would support selling any of the shares in the council-owned Ports of Auckland company.

In the final public debate of the campaign on Wednesday night, Brown said a sale was not his intention but he refused to rule out having to sell any of the city’s 100 percent holding if the council’s budget situation required it. “I might sell a bit,” he said, saying the port’s strategic circumstances could change.

The port company is a ‘strategic asset’, with the Auckland Airport shares, and was bought back by Auckland Council’s predecessor regional council from private shareholders after a previous part privatisation. A council document prepared in 2020 for its emergency Covid budget said while a port share sale was possible, Auckland might not get its best price until a North Island supply chain study was completed.

Both other candidates on stage, Efeso Collins and Craig Lord, ruled out such a sale.

But Brown explicitly told the moderator Tim Watkin at the Somervell Presbyterian debate in Remuera he had not said there would be no sale of port company shares. That was because it was possible central government could come up with a national port strategy “from above” over the next three years that could change everything.

“I’m not prepared to promise things that we don’t know. If the Government has a port strategy we might be clamoring to sell shares. We might have to sell a little.”

Asked again and again if selling port shares might form part of his economic strategy, Brown said: “At this stage, no,” to which his main opponent Collins interjected “Maybe on the 9th of October”.

The result of the postal vote election will be known on Saturday October 8.

But Brown left his options open.

“It’s not my plan to do it at all, but to rule things out is silly.

“Glib answers that people want … you can get from other people. Short, glib answers to complex questions are why the council is in the situation it is at the moment.”

The exchange was later jumped on by Collins’ campaign, issuing a late-night statement pleading not to sell the city’s strategic assets.

“It concerns me that only now – after some Aucklanders have voted – has he revealed that he is keen on selling off an asset that belongs to all Aucklanders,” Collins said, although “keen” would not be a word most in the audience would have used to define Brown’s stance.

During the debate, Collins said the port company shares were defined as a strategic asset and that required public consultation by the council under its Long Term Plan if any move was proposed to sell down.

Lord supported the port staying in downtown Auckland but believed it needed to be made more efficient while staying in public ownership.

Brown chaired a non-governmental working group on North Island ports that recommended the Auckland port operations be shifted to Northport at Whangarei, with improved rail investment bringing cargo down to the super city. It was largely ignored by the Government and council, leading to bitterness between Brown and outgoing mayor Phil Goff.

Brown said at the debate Goff had not even read the report. He added it could be that Auckland Council’s residual shareholding in Northport could end up being of more value to the city than its own port company if a national strategy pursued such changes.

On the eventual site of the port’s operations, Collins said he would rely on a report by consultants Sapere that they ought to be moved in the next 30 years, with a decision needed in 15 years. It had favored a site on the Firth of Thames, but that would need to be chosen after consultation with the Crown and iwi. He said Brown’s study had been “ridiculed”.

Brown said leading business figures such as Don Braid of Mainfreight, and the shipping federation, had been involved in his report’s preparation, and the major international shipping businesses would make their own calls on where was best to land and take freight.

The port issue was one of several spirited exchanges on the night.

Brown said the council had already, in effect, sold Watercare by agreeing to the Three Waters takeover by the new entities to be set up by central government and promised to work to “try and get it back”.

But Collins shot back that Brown did not understand that under the Three Waters proposal the council had already accepted $127 million in ‘Better Off Funding’ from Wellington that had been allocated to this year’s council budget.

Again, it was Brown who faced criticism from others on stage when he proposed what amounted to mass sackings at the council should he be elected.

Noting Brisbane’s council had about 8000 staff, Brown said that meant Auckland, with a total of 12,000 including council businesses’ staff, which was 50 percent overstaffed.

On his plan to cut executive salaries, Brown rejected complaints from Lord and Collins that the mayor could not legally just order reductions in people’s contracted pay.

“There’s always a gap in employment contracts,” he said. “We’ve taken some advice, and we’ve got some tricky rules in New Zealand. But that’s no reason not to do it. The law allows for restructuring. There are all sorts of ways and means of doing it. There’s too much being paid to too many at the top of that council.”

Collins said he supported a review of some salary bands, but the councillors employed just one person, the council CEO who was responsible for employing and managing all the other staff. The CEO’s pay had recently been lifted from $600,000 to $630,000 – which Collins had voted against – but was still well under the $715,000 identified as its comparable market rate.

He claimed the high bands of other salaries had partly been inherited from the various councils that came together in 2010 to form the super city. “I’ve only been on the council since 2016.”

But he cautioned: “You can’t just ring up the lawyers and say, ‘we are going to reduce everyone’s salaries’.”

Brown repeated his criticism of the council for not knowing, or telling the public what the increased cost estimate for the $4.4 billion City Rail Link project would be, predicting it could be a full $2 billion or almost 50 percent higher. He questioned its backers’ use of the Covid-19 lockdowns as a reason for a cost blowout, noting work continued for most of the pandemic as it was considered an essential service.

But Lord lashed out at him for having declined to attend a briefing and tour of one of the CRL tunnels during the campaign. “Efeso and I went. Mr ‘Do you know who I am’ decided he did not want to go. Talk about ego and arrogance. That’s not what we need as mayor.”

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