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Mallard plays hardball in his Field of Dreams
John Armstrong
Saturday November 18, 2006

It is one thing to come up with the Big Idea. But what do you do if your audience digs its toes in and refuses to buy it?

If you are Trevor Mallard, you press on regardless, convinced your cause is right and that your critics will see the light - just as he did six years ago when he realised his nostalgia for Wellington's Athletic Park could not compete with the comforts of that city's new waterfront stadium.

While his colleagues might applaud him for boldly seeking to replicate the concept on Auckland's wharves in time for the 2011 Rugby World Cup, they could be excused for feeling somewhat queasy about the manner in which he is going about it.

Mallard's Field of Dreams has helped Labour grab back the political agenda. But it is now dominating that agenda to the exclusion of everything else.

That would be fine if Mallard was winning the argument. But he has failed to win over sufficient Aucklanders for his vision to be politically viable.

The evidence of that lies in his shifting the goalposts, so to speak, ahead of next week's deadline for Auckland to decide whether it wants a waterfront stadium or an upgraded Eden Park.

On Thursday, the Rugby World Cup minister deemed that backing from either the Auckland City Council or the Auckland Regional Council was now sufficient for him to proceed with the waterfront option. But only a week ago he was emphasising that both councils had to be on board.

Mallard seems to have adopted Henry Ford's sales strategy. Just as the pioneer of assembly line production decreed that customers could have their Model T in any colour they liked as long as it was black, Mallard is quite happy for Aucklanders to choose whichever stadium they want as long as it is the one he plans to build on the waterfront. His loosening of the requirement that there be unanimity is a typical piece of means-justify-the-ends political gamesmanship to be expected when a politician of his experience and guile finds himself in a corner.

He is anticipating the councils will not agree and rewriting the rules to take advantage of this division, rather than being defeated by it.

Trevor Mallard may yet get away with this political chicanery. One or other council - more likely Auckland City - could well swing in behind him.

That may be sufficient for Mallard to push the "go" button. But it is too thin a mandate for the wider Labour Party to feel comfortable.

The media polls may be unscientific, but they indicate that opposition to Mallard's proposal is both widespread and trenchant.

Mallard's response has been to criticise Aucklanders for lacking a sense of vision for their city. It was another example of his abysmal public relations. That is one reason why he has lost the argument. But the main reason lies in his own failure of imagination.

To have any hope of winning over Aucklanders to the waterfront option, the design needed to have the "wow factor". It needed to make an architectural statement in a uniquely New Zealand fashion. It needed to take people's breath away. It didn't. By mid-week, the project looked doomed.

The campaign for the waterfront option floundered for the simple reason that there has not really been one. No one in Auckland - not even Dick Hubbard - has really been prepared to drive the project with zeal and conviction. Lacking such leadership, Mallard's idea of a public relations strategy has been for him and Acting Prime Minister Michael Cullen to slag off the competition. But the negativity towards Eden Park has proved counterproductive. Exposing supposed flaws in the Eden Park Trust Board's plans has only drawn attention to bigger uncertainties surrounding the waterfront option.

Wednesday was a case in point. The day began with Mallard talking about the risks of building on the volcanic rock under Eden Park. It ended with revelations that Fletcher Building had warned him about how long it might take to complete pile-driving on the waterfront.

To date, the project has enjoyed barely a day's worth of favourable publicity - that being the day it was unveiled. It is understandable that Labour is reticent about using public money for a promotional blitz - especially in the wake of the pledge card furore. But the public's comprehension of what is still a pretty rudimentary proposal is limited.

Myth and misinformation has filled the vacuum. People are confused about how it will be funded and assume they will have to pay for it. Detractors talk of the stadium being used only two or three times a year, even though Wellington's Cake-tin is now hosting more than 40 major events a year.

The project's biggest handicap is the lack of credibility surrounding its cost. Even Mallard is not willing to guarantee the stadium will be built within the $497 million estimate.

Meanwhile, the consensus Mallard had been relying on at a national level has dissolved. National has read the political winds and is only willing to back fast-tracking legislation for Eden Park, not the waterfront option.

However, anyone who thinks the latter is now a dead duck are seriously underestimating Mallard's tenacity.

And even if both councils opt for the Eden Park upgrade, National is getting strong signals that Mallard will try to keep his project alive for as long as possible, possibly by arguing that preliminary work should continue as insurance against things going wrong with the Eden Park redevelopment.

Mallard will be punting that opposition to the waterfront option has peaked - and that there is a silent majority in favour which will start to be heard in the lead-up to next Friday's deadline.

He claims that the plethora of phone-in and email polls have a socio-economic bias. It is true that many South Auckland and West Auckland Labour voters probably do not object to the idea of a waterfront stadium. But neither are they passionate about having one.

Mallard's opponents, on the other hand, are passionate about not having one. That opposition is not confined to the well-off. It cuts deeply into the middle classes, many of whose members vote Labour. They will take a dim view of Mallard's refusal to accept defeat.

Even if the councils support Mallard, there will be a spirited campaign to kill the waterfront stadium.

Mallard's colleagues have to ask themselves whether his dream is worth the middle-class backlash Labour will cop in the country's biggest political marketplace.