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Ministers give away stadium game plan well before kick-off
John Armstrong
Wednesday November 8, 2006

Wait for the announcement. If that is the official line on whether a national stadium on the Auckland waterfront is a goer, then someone forgot to tell Cabinet ministers.

From the Prime Minister down, they could barely contain themselves yesterday, all but confirming the project will get the green light.

The loosening of lips was not just a case of employing the time-honoured tactic of dropping sufficient hints so everyone gets attuned to the idea well ahead of the actual announcement.

From Labour's viewpoint, the politics surrounding the stadium look good - both short term and long term.

Short term, the promise of bold action on climate change has been quickly followed by another ambitious plan, this time to build a "national" or "New Zealand" stadium of world-class proportions and architectural quality.

Suddenly Labour has grabbed back control of the political agenda, further dispelling the notion it is a tired Government that has run out of ideas.

Longer term, the stadium project carries obvious and massive political risk - principally through failure to meet deadlines and cost blow-outs.

But Labour is no longer in a position where it can exercise its usual caution. It needs to be bold and visionary.

One thing it has never been shy about is tapping patriotic sentiment in the hope that people's pride in their country will rub off in its favour electorally.

In that vein, one of the Government's stated priorities is finding ways of "enhancing national identity" - and there is nothing quite as intertwined as rugby and patriotic fervour, especially a Rugby World Cup held in New Zealand.

It was a political opportunity too good to miss. Better still, having come up with a radical idea, Labour cannot now be outflanked. It now "owns" the World Cup in political terms through to and beyond the next election.

It has to be careful not to be too blatant about how it expresses that. But Labour is getting good at this. Witness the restraint it displayed with the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.

All this is reason for National to think about backing the stadium so Labour cannot claim all the kudos.

However, the stadium could also turn out to be a useful adjunct for Labour's economic policy.

It was no coincidence that Trevor Mallard yesterday briefed journalists on Labour's "economic transformation" strategy in his capacity of Economic Development Minister, even though the briefing ostensibly had nothing to do with the stadium.

Ever since it unveiled the concept last year, Labour has had real difficulty promoting "economic transformation". The concept is too much of a mouthful. It sounds like bureaucratic jargon - a turn-off.

However, one of the themes of the strategy is making Auckland "an internationally competitive city". The reasoning, according to a Cabinet paper released by Mr Mallard, is that New Zealand needs "at least one outward-facing, global city to lead a nation's economic development".

The paper further describes the Rugby World Cup as an opportunity to begin transformation of the Auckland economy, leveraging off the event and "creating a positive legacy" for the region. Like a stadium, perhaps?

Asked whether a waterfront stadium would be more "transformational" than upgrading Eden Park, Mr Mallard replied: "You could possibly say that, I won't comment."

So be it. But there seemed little doubt that yesterday's public relations exercise had as much to do with providing an economic rationale for a stadium as with selling the concept of economic transformation.

Mr Mallard needs something tangible to illustrate that concept is more than jargon; what better than the sight of construction cranes springing up on the Auckland waterfront.