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Shifting the goal posts is water off duck's back
Saturday February 24, 2007
By Bernard Orsman

If Trevor Mallard is battered and bruised from inflicting the stadium debacle on Auckland, it is not showing. It's three days since he rolled up to Eden Park with pared-back plans for the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and he is back in town.

The Sports Minister is at the PriceWaterhouseCoopers Tower, overlooking the waterfront, where he launched his Big Idea last November - but on this occasion he is at a growth and innovation meeting, smartly dressed in a blue-striped shirt and tie.

Most weeks, the Labour cabinet minister with aspirations for the finance portfolio spends a day in Auckland going round the traps as Minister for Economic Development and State-Owned Enterprises.

But it is Mallard's role as Minister for Sport and Minister for the Rugby World Cup that has brought him notoriety in Auckland with plans for a $500 million-plus "national" stadium on the waterfront that sunk under a wave of widespread opposition.

Now Auckland is digesting Mallard's latest plan for Eden Park, involving "clip-on" temporary seats and a new south stand tentatively costed at between $175 million and $190 million.

The latest plans are politically more viable but there are big questions over who will pay, how fans will get to and from Cup matches, disquiet about temporary seats, and whether Eden Park will revert back to a mishmash of buildings once the tournament is over.

"I'm not going to apologise for having or promoting ideas," says the politician with a straightforward approach to politics.

Whatever Auckland thinks of Mallard, his waterfront plan was audacious and visionary for a Government short of spark and bogged down at the time in the Phillip Field and pledge-card fiascos.

Eden Park's plan to permanently expand capacity at more than double the cost of using temporary seating was the catalyst for Mallard to investigate alternative locations.

Mallard also linked the idea of a "national" stadium on the waterfront to economic transformation and Auckland's development as an international city.

But the argument that an upgraded Eden Park, located in suburban Sandringham, was simply a "regional" stadium and not worthy of significant taxpayer money was a case of shifting the goal posts. In September, Mallard wrote a flattering submission supporting a resource consent application for the $320 million upgrade of Eden Park, saying it would provide a world-class stadium in line with the Government's economic transformation goals.

The goalposts shifted again when Mallard said that backing from either the Auckland City Council or Auckland Regional Council was sufficient for him to proceed with the waterfront stadium.

A week earlier he had emphasised that both councils had to be on board.

Mallard is alarmingly frank - but selective - about where things went wrong. There was a mistaken view that an early building start had to be made on a stadium and that led to a hurried debate without enough thought going into alternative locations and things like design, he says.

"If I knew then what I know now about timing issues then I think there would have been time for a much better discussion on location and alternatives."

A big handicap - not mentioned by Mallard - was the lack of credibility concerning the cost of the waterfront stadium.

It took Finance Minister Michael Cullen to admit that the $497 million price tag was on the light side.

Opponents put the price at $1 billion or more.

Mallard says that by the time he launched the waterfront proposal to a packed press conference in the PriceWaterhouseCoopers Tower on November 10 it "wasn't going to fly".

The first sinking feeling came from "quite adverse reactions" leading up to the Herald publishing an image of the waterfront stadium which, Mallard says, looked nothing like what was being proposed.

"At that point it was sort of faeces uphill with a rake."

Instead of staying at home and fighting for his corner, Mallard threw in the towel and hopped on a plane for an anti-doping meeting in Canada while the debate raged at home: "If I thought being here would have made a difference and get it through I wouldn't have gone."

Another reason he lost the argument was his clanger on radio that Aucklanders lacked vision, a worrying comment by a would-be finance minister, one he deeply regrets, and the reason "I will never be appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs. Diplomacy is not my strong suit".

The comment did not go down well with a couple of colleagues and Helen Clark who "indicated to me in no uncertain terms it was wrong and inappropriate".

Since entering Parliament in 1984 - he found himself voted out in 1990 for three years - Mallard says the waterfront debate is up there with about a dozen scraps he won't forget.

But like all hard political operators he says it took all of three days to get over the loss of his dream: "Shit happens, and you go on to the next day."

The next day being the predicable outcome for Eden Park, with a new south stand and temporary seats that will fold down after the Cup and leave the historic sports ground with an extra 4000 seats, or about 51,000 seats in total.

At $175 million to $190 million it is half the $385 million cost sought by the Eden Park Trust Board for a fully covered upgrade.

The $320 million option, for which the board has resource consent, provides new three-tier stands to replace the south stand, Panasonic stand and eastern terraces, but leaves the west stand as is.

Mallard admits the Government's latest plan is not the Big Dream the trust board wanted but it is better than the temporary and permanent proposal put to the International Rugby Board as part of New Zealand's bid to host the Cup and leaves a legacy in the form of a $120 million new south stand with improved seats for the fans, and player and media facilities.

This week's announcement was greeted with gritted teeth by trust board bosses John Alexander and Rob Fisher - and with typical stoicism by New Zealand Rugby Union chairman Jock Hobbs, who also chairs the tournament organising committee Rugby New Zealand 2011.

Hobbs, who said in November that a cheaper upgrade of Eden Park would affect the global spectacle, did not want to discuss Mallard's role in the stadium debacle.

Hobbs' focus has been on delivering the tournament under the terms of the hosting rights agreement and he has tried to steer clear of the argy-bargy outside that.

Trust board chief executive John Alexander and Eden Park development committee chairman Rob Fisher also declined the opportunity to discuss Mallard. This is not surprising, given the bad blood that developed during the waterfront debate, when Alexander and Fisher, assisted by public relations firm Sweeney Vesty and one of their then top dogs Linda Clark, ran a vigorous campaign discrediting Mallard's dream.

Being largely partisan on the Rugby World Cup has not stopped National's sport and recreation spokesman, Murray McCully, pointing the finger at Mallard for bagging Fisher and co and now having to pretend they are good friends with an excellent working relationship.

"There is some ground to be made up there," McCully says. "None of these people can speak up.

"It's fair to say there have been some things done that have rankled with key stakeholders and now those stakeholders are going to have to work in a co-operative relationship with someone who has given little cause to feel a sense of goodwill."

Former All Blacks John Drake and Andy Haden were prepared to talk. As far as Haden is concerned the waterfront option falls into the category of a wasted opportunity and led to a "frosty" relationship between Mallard and the trust board.

"He was right to present the big idea concept, but I think what he did was short on enough detail to make it fly.

"These things often come down to personalities and I don't know whether he would feel he had a good personal relationship with some of the people he needed support from in the Eden Park Trust Board.

"It looks to me like when Mallard failed to sell his waterfront idea to the people of Auckland I can imagine him thinking that the Eden Park Trust Board people who hadn't helped achieve that end result can paddle their own canoe," Haden said.

Drake said Mallard was perfectly entitled, as a politician, to go with his idea but had not come out smelling of roses.

In his view, the bigger villains were the local politicians who "fell on their sword" by not going with the waterfront option in front of them.

Auckland City Mayor Dick Hubbard says Aucklanders ought to be grateful to Mallard for thinking outside the square and coming up with a bold and innovative concept that the Government was prepared to bankroll.

"I think Auckland is better off for having had the debate.

"It opened a lot of Auckland eyes to the restricted access to the waterfront area and as a result of the debate there is a lot more interest in having access to that waterfront area."

Hubbard - pictured last July leaping for joy beneath Eden Park's goalposts in support of the $320 million upgrade plans - was quick to switch horses to the waterfront.

Like the Government, he did not like what he was seeing.

Subsequent plans for the full upgrade costing $385 million could have ended up to the tune of $450 million, he says.

What's more, some of the 91 conditions attached to the resource consent issued last month for the $320 million upgrade seriously limited the operations of the park and raised fresh questions about overcapitalising on Eden Park in a residential neighbourhood.

"There was the possibility of the council having liability for the operational costs associated with a very expensive structure once the Rugby World Cup was finished and over."

Hubbard, who has strong ties with the Labour Party, is now backing the new Eden Park upgrade as opposed to the "full bells and whistles" upgrade.

The message from a Herald online poll of 1420 people showing 33 per cent believed the new upgrade was too expensive, 31 per cent about right and 36 per cent too cheap, indicated the Government had got it about right, Hubbard says.

The other politician at the sharp end of Mallard's sales strategy, Auckland Regional Council chairman Mike Lee, says the waterfront did not stack up in the end but he believes Mallard had the best interests of Auckland at heart. "At a personal level he comes with something of a reputation as being aggressive, but I found him reasonable at all times.

"The one criticism that could be made - and that is not just aimed at Trevor, but the whole looking at an alternative to Eden Park - came too late in the day and almost a year after the World Cup deal was signed up for. Had there been more time and the net cast more widely we may have come up with a better option.

"In some respects he could look at Auckland afresh but I think he underestimated the commercial impact of trying to set up a stadium in the middle of a working port," says Lee, whose council believes the Eden Park "economy model" is the only sensible option.

Heart of the City chief executive Alex Swney - one of the few prepared to push for the waterfront with any zeal - says Mallard shortcircuited Auckland and left everyone dissatisfied. "Nation-building requires Trevor's type of bold action, but if he is going to break through the morass he needs to be standing on thicker ice with better political and public buy-in," Swney says. "Nowhere is this more important than in Auckland, where we have seven scrapping local authorities and an impotent regional council."

Where does the stadium debate leave Mallard on the political stage? His abysmal public relations and inability to garner support from key stakeholders like Ports of Auckland and the architectural community failed to win Auckland over. Then there is the negative message to Auckland business - never the easiest audience for a Labour Minister of Finance to please.

In Wellington, the stadium has not put the brakes on Mallard's ambition to one day replace Cullen, but there will be a weariness in Labour ranks about this and other brain explosions.

As Mallard says himself, as Finance Minister "you fly kites in slightly different ways".

"I don't think you would describe [the stadium debate] as career-enhancing but as one of my more public areas that hasn't been that flash.

"I don't say I regularly disgrace myself but every now and then I have things that don't fly.

"That is part of the deal of someone who is prepared to be frank and fly a few kites. I have done that for a long time in my political career and I'm not going to back off."