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If the Government wants to throw a party, it can pay for the drinks
Wednesday October 17, 2007
By Brian Rudman

Auckland City mayor-apparent John Banks will be chuffed he hasn't lost his touch. Three years in the wilderness and he can still tickle Labour's Minister for Auckland Affairs, Judith Tizard, into rising to the bait and making a twit of herself. Back in 2001 when Mr Banks was first elected mayor, Ms Tizard graciously declared the jury was out on whether he was "mad".

That outburst earned her a public rebuke from Prime Minister Helen Clark, who was forced, through gritted teeth, to say what a nice chap she'd always found the new mayor to be.

On Monday, after victorious Mr Banks reiterated his campaign promise that under his rule, Auckland City ratepayers would not pay $30 million towards the $190 million upgrade of Eden Park, Ms Tizard muttered darkly that if Aucklanders didn't pay up, they risked losing the 2011 Rugby World Cup finals to Christchurch.

It was a silly thing to say. Rugby fans know it's an empty threat, if only because no other New Zealand city has sufficient accommodation to house the expected overseas crowds. As for the rest of us, it was more promise than threat. I, for one, can think of plenty of other facilities I'd rather the $30 million was spent on.

What Mr Banks is highlighting is the year-long bullying by the Government to try and squeeze as much money as possible out of Auckland City to help pay for promises made to the International Rugby Board by the Government and the New Zealand Rugby Union.

The just defeated Hubbard-City Vision council tried to get the Government off its back by offering to pay $50 million, of which $20 million would be for neighbourhood infrastructural improvements. The sting in the tail was to make this conditional on the Auckland Regional Council matching the contribution. That, of course, had the ARC spitting the dummy, saying it would stick to electrifying rail.

The Hubbard council tried to deal with its central government co-religionists with as little public rancour as possible on this issue. But instead of helping them out, the Government chose not to.

Now it faces a former National Party minister who enjoys nothing more than a populist scrap with his ideological rivals. Ms Tizard and her fellow ministers have no one to blame for this pickle but themselves. For starters, there's the inherent unfairness of stitching up a hosting deal for Auckland without consulting the hosts beforehand, and then presenting Aucklanders with the bill. More unfair, is expecting the ratepayers of just one of Auckland's seven cities and districts to pay it. The Government has announced a royal commission into Auckland governance and is backing the regional amenities funding bill, to help address such iniquities. It's at the very least, insensitive, to load another grievance on to the list Auckland City ratepayers have already drawn up.

Mr Banks' view is that grandstand upgrades at Eden Park are the responsibility of "the cash-rich Government and the rich and powerful Rugby Union." He must have been reading my columns during his exile. No one has shown that Auckland needs a stadium of Rugby World Cup grandeur, except for the Rugby World Cup.

The rugby union and the Government arranged this party, it seems only fair they provide the venue.

Only a year ago that was Sports Minister Trevor Mallard's tune too. He had a vision of a vast new stadium on Auckland's waterfront. Like some medieval bishop seeking brownie points in the hereafter, money was no object as far as this rugby cathedral was concerned. Estimates ranged from $500 million to more than $1 billion. Money was no object. But when the natives got restless and said, "No, thanks very much, just tart up Eden Park instead," Mr Mallard packed a sad and made good his threat to treat Eden Park as a piddling little local chapel, not the national cathedral, and as such only worthy of partial Government funding. A year on, that's where it still lies. The Government has approved a $190 million revamp of Eden Park and sits in Wellington trying to glean as much as possible as it can out of Aucklanders.