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29 November 2006

Eden Park's selection as the venue of the Rugby World Cup final ends one debate but opens others, writes The Press in an editorial.

The stadium's funding is undecided and contentious, Auckland's inadequate governance is again under the reform spotlight, and political reputations have been damaged.

The debate certainly has focused minds on issues critical to Auckland opening its waterfront, improving its decision-making structures, and addressing its infrastructure problems. It is too much to expect the cup project to solve these, but at least the event's main stadium will not suck up vast sums of money that should be spent on basic things like transport.

The debate has had less positive outcomes. Trevor Mallard, the minister in charge of the cup, and Dick Hubbard, Auckland's Mayor, have emerged from the row about the waterfront site with the label of blow-hard firmly tied to them. They breathlessly sponsored the ramming through of a hugely expensive project without consideration for planning or public opinion. Their failure leaves them looking foolish.

Hubbard is subject to a city council fractured by the row and as a result less likely to go along with his agenda. As well, the Auckland Regional Council must be even firmer in its determination to maintain its bailiwick against the city council.

The damage to Mallard is similarly significant. He personified the rushed campaign for a waterfront venue and in the process was seen as cavalier towards planning, people's right to be consulted, and the spending of public funds. Mallard's threats to move the final to Jade Stadium an impractical proposition added to his image as a man of bluster and hollow words.

Mallard should, as a consequence, not be left in charge of the World Cup project, which threatens to degenerate into a fiasco under his control. The ninth floor of the Beehive seems alive to that prospect and to the damage the Government has suffered in the waterfront debate. Wiser and calmer heads in the Cabinet seem to have hobbled Mallard and insisted on the confirmation of Eden Park as the venue.

This is welcome. It means a less risky and less expensive venue will be provided for the final, but one able to host mass-attendance events for a long time. It can also be built to schedule without requiring special legislation exempting it from planning processes and without the helter-skelter timetable that the waterfront site would have required.

But Eden Park has its problems. It is situated in a high density suburb, many of whose residents object to the noise, light and crowds associated with the park's activities. Enlarged and more frequently used, the park would likely attract even more objections from neighbours.

Also, the fact that funding remains a problem means that the project's progress will not be smooth from now on. Mallard is already talking of searching for any gold-plating and has not settled the Government's contribution. He wants the regional council to contribute but risks coming a cropper on that. The regional council is the only protagonist to emerge with its reputation unscathed, having correctly read public opinion and seen to be a prudent guardian of ratepayers' money. It is unlikely to budge on funding when it can point to the contribution it is already making to the cup by improving Auckland infrastructure in readiness for the influx of visitors.

Whatever the outcome of the funding spat between the city's local bodies, a taxpayer contribution is inevitable. The reality of the cup final as an event of national importance is too compelling to ignore. New Zealanders, on the whole, will accept that but will be resistant to pleas that a national stadium requiring de luxe fitting-out is being built. Eden Park needs to be improved to host cup games and the final, and it will continue as a test venue. That does not make it a single focus for national celebrations now or in the future.

What the nation must be just about united in saying to the Government and Auckland local bodies is, stop bickering and get on with the job.