Enemy’s enemy is my friend

In a sign of the potential electoral volatility in Auckland right now, the centre-right C&R group is backing a legendary left-winger in his fight to win back a council seat from his centre-left opponent

Politics creates strange allies.

The alter ego of the National Party, Communities & Residents, is backing former Alliance party member and “strong leftie” Mike Lee in a tactical bid to unseat one of the left’s most vigorous councillors, Pippa Coom.

Things are getting personal – and politically hot – in the Waitematā and Gulf ward election as postal voting continues for the October 8 election day.

It is one of the 20 seats on the council. At the last election in 2019, C&R’s Sarah Trotman won around 3000 votes, with Lee and Coom thousands ahead, but the margin of victory for Coom was just 320.

In some ways the fight for the seat could be seen as a symbolic battleground over Auckland’s biggest issues – transport and congestion, climate measures, housing intensification and the city’s finances.

Lee says the rare circumstances that have seen C&R not stand in the seat this time and also give him its backing are a result of the state of Auckland Council politics that people like Coom have created. “C&R stood against me last time and I think they rued the day they did that, given what’s happened. Labor Party people are supporting me as well, but C&R as a team are supporting me. It would go back forever in Auckland that they’ ve stood in this particular ward.”

Coom says she previously admired Lee as a “progressive champion” and finds it sad he has now aligned himself not only with C&R but, she claims, the Taxpayers’ Union and Hobson’s Pledge, the right-wing group lobbying over Treaty of Waitangi and one -law-for-all and race issues.

Lee tells Newsroom he has no connection or backing from Hobson’s Pledge and “it sounds like Councilor Coom is getting desperate and is now running a smear campaign… One shouldn’t be surprised political smear tactics are part of Coom’s modus operandi.”

He adds: “Of course the Taxpayers’ Alliance has long supported my stand on council rates and spending. I actually take a harder line on rates than the Taxpayers’ Union.”

(Update: Josh Van Veen, campaigns manager for the Taxpayers’ Union/Auckland Ratepayers’ Alliance, has emailed Newsroom to say Lee has no involvement with the organizations “other than signing our Ratepayer Protection Pledge, which he also did in 2016 as a City vision candidate.”)

The unusual sight of C&R pushing Lee is no accident. The group is looking to push back at these elections against a majority on the council, including Coom, who gave the centre-left and Goff a solid bloc of votes through this term.

Incumbent Waitematā & Gulf councilor Pippa Coom. Photo: Pippa Coom official website

Coom, a former local board chair and strong proponent of cycling and active and public transport and housing intensification, is seen by some as a symbol of progressive urban politics, and by others as the embodiment of ratepayers’ frustrations and complaints about city development.

Lee worries that the low voter turnout so far indicates people’s disenchantment with how Auckland Council has performed. “The public are responding in their own way to the non-performance of Auckland Council and local democracy.

“You vote this and vote that, and you still get directed by Auckland Transport, you still get your carparks taken away. Whatever you write submissions on, the original plan goes through.

“People are internalizing it by saying ‘Bugger it, I’m not going to play their game’. I picked up a genuine turning off by ordinary people of politics. That’s a tragedy.

“It’s the council’s own fault, it’s their own arrogance, the pre-selecting of positions, their own holding back of information the public needs to know.”

Possibly smarting from his defeat in 2019, he is personally critical of Coom as well. “I find it absolutely bemusing that a center left, liberal, greenie, cycling person would have made so many enemies.”

Coom, backed again by City Vision, has been a strong backer of Goff and balks on social media at claims of a “toxic culture” made by what she says is a small group of councillors.

She has been sharply critical of mayoral candidate Wayne Brown, who is in a race with Labor and the Greens-backed councilor Efeso Collins to succeed Goff.

She tells Newsroom she campaigned for Lee over three elections when he was endorsed by City Vision and that “he achieved a lot, including stopping the sale of Ports of Auckland”.

“He has now aligned himself with interests who were once the antithesis of his principles.”

Lee argues that Auckland Council is in a serious financial crisis. Coom says he is making statements he must know are untrue, such as that council debt and spending are out of control.

“There is so much in his campaign newsletter that is not true …. There are no plans to hand over control of the Hauraki Gulf … there are also no ‘related plans to break up regional parks’.”

Lee alleges Coom was behind a move to place regional parks under a Hauraki Gulf Forum co-governance model.

The ward includes downtown Auckland, some inner suburbs and the Gulf islands of Waiheke and Aotea/Great Barrier

Lee says the Waitematā ward feels particularly threatened by housing intensification plans that could change special character areas. “There’s a determination to defend their neighborhoods at all costs.”

Auckland Council, with Coom voting in favour, has proposed to protect areas with about 25,000 homes mainly across inner Auckland suburbs like Ponsonby, Gray Lynn, Parnell and Remuera, from Government mandated planning changes allowing multiple dwellings up to four storeys high on large parts of the country’s main centres. Final decisions on the attempt to protect those zones are due after planning commissioners examine the council plan and public submissions.

While Coom is critical of the mayoral candidate Brown and is a centre-left colleague of Efeso Collins, Lee says he could work with either of the two leading contenders. “I consider Efeso a friend and I agree with most, not all, of Wayne Brown’s programme.”

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