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Secretive Mallard out of line
Monday November 6, 2006

An unhealthy official silence surrounds the investigation into building a waterfront stadium, instead of redeveloping Eden Park, to host the rugby World Cup final in 2011. As details seep out of a 60,000-seat facility on part of the Bledisloe Terminal land, the man agitating for its consideration, Sports Minister Trevor Mallard, is mute. His Government promises consistently to listen to the will of Aucklanders, but in this case has left them in a vacuum. And a go-ahead for a $500 million-plus stadium at the foot of the central business district could be given, without consultation, as early as Wednesday by a Cabinet committee.

The Herald has presented whatever detail it has been possible to gather, so readers know what the Government is considering. It is unacceptable that Mr Mallard will not fill in the gaps. He claims to be waiting for a report from his ministry, but all indications are that that report will rapidly be considered and decided upon by his Cabinet colleagues, and Auckland could face a fait accompli. At the same time, the chairman of the Auckland Regional Council and the Mayor of Auckland are also holding their tongues, plainly watchful of political fallout should they opt the wrong way. Which is all very puzzling.

If the Government hopes to win Aucklanders' support for the waterfront option, it is going about it the wrong way. The likelihood is that many citizens would be open to a new structure ahead of spending $320 million on the cramped suburban Eden Park. Many would welcome something substantive and world-class as a centrepiece of the city waterfront, and a spur to opening the remaining westwards wharf space to public use. Most would probably accept the public transport hub at Britomart would be a sensible neighbour for a major facility.

But the manner in which politicians are manoeuvring on this vital regional decision does not impress. Mr Mallard's first announcement on the prospect of an alternative to Eden Park was made before he left the country on a private holiday. No further comment was forthcoming. What is apparent is that vested interests such as the Eden Park Trust Board and various lobbyists for rugby, the Ports of Auckland and local bodies are attempting to turn public opinion away from the downtown stadium even before Mr Mallard has presented its case. Many Aucklanders have affection for Eden Park, but that would not necessarily stand in the way of a progressive view for the future. The ground of London football club Arsenal, Highbury, has been abandoned for a sparkling new stadium and nostalgia has abated rapidly in the face of state-of-the-art comfort and viewing. Who really foresees Eden Park being adequate in 20 or 30 years?

What we know of the waterfront proposal suggests it might be possible to site the stadium adjacent to Quay St and with minimal impact on the port operations; that with special legislation and the extended working hours available at the port the construction time might be compressed; and that it might be a national stadium worthy of that name, with predominantly national rather than Auckland City funding. It would be much more than a rugby venue, with other sports and entertainment events on its calendar.

But Mr Mallard and the city fathers risk a potentially popular idea becoming stillborn because of public reaction against their absurd secrecy. Fears have arisen about its scale, aesthetics and cost without a word being heard in its defence.

The Cabinet should decide today to let the people of Auckland into their secret, or lose momentum on what has the portents of a visionary addition to the city.