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Democracy gains a new dimension
Wednesday November 15, 2006

Aucklanders in their thousands are taking the opportunity on our pages to declare themselves for or against the idea of a stadium on the downtown waterfront. This is not a poll in the limited sampling sense, it is a modern form of the public meeting in which everybody who wants to participate can stand up and be counted. Participatory democracy on this scale has become possible with the advent of email and its combination with the indelible power of names on paper.

This new dimension of democracy, ideally suited to an issue such as the waterfront stadium, seems to be unnerving some of those accustomed to making decisions in the name of us all. The Minister for Sport, Trevor Mallard, who has submitted his stadium proposal for the approval of Auckland's leading local bodies, claims the Herald has "asked the wrong question". Some local body members sound too eager to believe him.

We have focused the question, quite deliberately, on Mr Mallard's waterfront proposal. He would prefer to force people to choose between the waterfront and Eden Park for the 2011 Rugby World Cup, with the threat that the venue will be moved to Jade Stadium in Christchurch if Auckland cannot agree.

But there is no need to present the question in such a manipulative way. Aucklanders are aware that a vote against the waterfront idea is effectively a vote to upgrade Eden Park, and they can ignore the threat of Jade Stadium. That is designed to extract unanimity from the Regional Council and the Auckland City Council, the only two local bodies given the final say. They will be watching which way citizens go, and if most declare themselves opposed to the waterfront the councils will probably agree on Eden Park. Forget the threat.

The Government and those on Auckland councils who share its preference for a waterfront stadium are possibly panicking at the numbers who have declared opposition so far. The headcount is running heavily against the waterfront scheme but it is still early days. An initial negative reaction is only to be expected for a project as radical as a sporting stadium on a prime waterside site.

It takes a little time for people to get to grips with a proposition like that, and many, indeed, may not decide they want it until they realise they are on the verge of losing it. Quite possibly the negative tally will swell by the day until the whole idea seems doomed, at which point there could be an unexpected turn in the mood.

We have presented the question as a straightforward yes or no to the waterfront proposal because the waterfront is too important to Auckland to be compared with any alternative. If Eden Park is not worth upgrading in the Government's view, let ministers propose an alternative they want. But if their chosen alternative is the waterfront, they must accept that Aucklanders will want a more convincing case for a stadium there than the need to find a substitute for Eden Park.

The waterfront stadium needs to be promoted on its own merits, as a big and exciting idea for bringing the life of the city to the water's edge and beyond, and for presenting the city's finest face to international audiences. Mr Mallard's proposal can measure up on its own merits. It would open a port area that would otherwise remain a cargo dump at the city's doorstep. It would provide a public walk around its perimeter, provide a cruise ship terminal alongside and probably lead to more open wharves across the whole downtown waterfront.

It deserves more support than we are seeing yet, but proponents should keep their nerve. They wanted to know Auckland's view, and we are tapping it.