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Stadium will be Mallard's monument or mausoleum
John Armstrong
Saturday November 11, 2006

Why Trevor Mallard shrouded his audacious plan to build a stadium on the Auckland waterfront in such secrecy for so long has been a mystery to those variously annoyed, frustrated or just bemused by his keeping things so hush-hush.

Things have looked somewhat silly over the past week with Mallard point-blank refusing to discuss the project before yesterday's announcement. The official explanation - or excuse - was that the Cabinet had yet to reach a decision.

But it was crystal-clear to everyone that Labour was committed to going ahead with the waterfront option for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. A Cabinet committee had reportedly given the thumbs-up, and the Minister for Sport's colleagues had not only let the cat out of the bag but were walking it around the block.

Mallard's silence left a vacuum that was filled by a chorus of complaint from those kept outside his loop. That has been counter-productive to the Government building wider public support for the $497 million proposal.

The charade ended with yesterday's formal announcement that the waterfront stadium was the Government's "strong preference".

Labour's political management of the evaluation exercise prior to that has been deemed a public relations disaster by foe and friend alike. Yet some serious method can be discerned in Mallard's seeming madness.

One clue to the riddle was Michael Cullen's response to questions from Parliament's finance and expenditure committee on Wednesday.

The Finance Minister referred to Government-obtained costings to talk up the waterfront stadium and run down the upgrading of Eden Park - but without giving away detail of the raw figures and assumptions behind those costings.

Information is power. Without hard information about the proposal, those questioning its viability have been punching at air.

Given the tight construction timetable and Auckland's endemic infighting over such projects, it was essential that powerful Auckland lobbies were kept guessing until the Government had could unveil the waterfront proposal as a fait accompli.

The Government could have gone down two routes. It could have drawn up a preliminary proposal, released it and then watched it die as it got chewed over by rugby politics, Auckland local body politics and national politics.

Or it could do what it has done: ensure the crucial players in two of those political spheres - the Rugby Union and the Auckland City Council - were signed up to the project and it was not in their interests to pull out once the scheme was made public.

The Government has been able to do that because it holds the key card - the power to legislate regional bed and airport taxes to help fund the waterfront stadium. That was mana from heaven for Auckland's local authorities, who, already facing incipient rates revolts, would have had to pick up a big tab for the escalating cost of refurbishing Eden Park.

If that was not a big enough carrot, ministers waved some stick by mouthing "Christchurch" and "Jade Stadium" as a reminder it could shift its money elsewhere if Auckland councils started to argue the toss.

But why would they? The Rugby Union gets a "national" stadium of world-class quality for next to nothing. The regional tax means the Auckland City Council gets a landmark investment in the city's infrastructure and has to pay only a fraction of the all-up cost.

Aucklanders get a major downtown amenity which can host the rock concerts and Sunday night events which Eden Park cannot because of its suburban location.

At a national level, the Labour Party reaps the political kudos for building a stadium that will do the country proud when it is on show to the world.

The stadium will also serve as proof Labour is delivering on its promise to turn Auckland into a "world-class city" as part of the Government's broader "economic transformation" agenda.

Less obvious is what the National Party gets out of backing the necessary legislation to fast-track resource consents for the waterfront site and empower local authorities to implement a regional tax.

The minor parties can more easily remain aloof. The Greens are unenthusiastic and cite more pressing priorities, such as Auckland rail. United Future will study the legislation but is questioning the funding mechanism and highlighting alternative venues. NZ First sounds like it will come on board. Act hates the whole idea.

Withholding backing is much more difficult for National, which as a major party is obliged to take account of the national good rather than pitch to sectional interest.

National must also factor in the distinct possibility it might inherit the project if it wins the next election. It would have to see it through to completion.

To date, National has determined it has more to lose than gain from playing politics with the hosting rights to the World Cup. It will not want Labour claiming all the credit if the stadium is built on time and within cost. Neither does it want to share the blame if the project falls behind schedule and starts running over cost, the latter being almost inevitable.

National's inclination may see it support the broad thrust of the project and the enabling legislation while opposing and trying to amend aspects it does not like. That way National can be seen to be constructive while keeping its distance from potential flaws it might see in the project.

However, other politicians are mere bystanders compared to Mallard. While he may wish for buy-in from National to spread the political risk, the buck will stop with him. This is his baby rather than Helen Clark's.

He is taking a massive gamble. That is why he has kept things so tight. However, from here on he will be hostage to the likes of engineers, contractors and so forth, and, above all, to unforeseen hitches.

The major risk is that the project falls seriously behind schedule in its earlier stages coinciding with the run-up to the 2008 election.

If that happens, Mallard could kiss goodbye to becoming Minister of Finance afterwards. It would be resignation territory if, perchance, Mallard is already doing that job.

Even if the project comes in on time and under cost, the stadium is unlikely to win Labour many votes. But it could be a major factor in stemming an outflow from Labour in Auckland in 2008.

If so, it will have done its job. It will be Mallard's monument. But it could yet become Mallard's mausoleum.