October 15, 2004

After The Laughter

Ben Thomas writes...

I’m drenched when I arrive at the Citizens and Ratepayers Now ticket’s somewhat optimistically titled 'Victory Party' at the Playhouse tavern on Queen Street. It’s fitting: a substitute English pub with hunting lodge-styled wooden tables and chairs. And no young people causing havoc nearby – incumbent Mayor John Banks, a C&R ally, has seen to that over the last three years. The crowd is old, traditional. By their looks, some are kept alive solely by the oxygen of political power, a power the faction has wielded in Auckland local governemnt for almost 70 years without interruption.

It is 1 pm, and with 95% of votes counted, the scrutineers scurry in clutching the spreadsheets of vote counts for the expectant crowd.

As the results are read out, it becomes clear all is not well. The knockout blow comes early: Banks has been thumped by cereal maker Dick Hubbard by a margin of 12,000. The mood in the Playhouse is pulled up off the canvas momentarily as the Raffills dynasty is reconfirmed in Mt Roskill. That’s the end of the comeback. The “bellweather” ward Eden-Albert is a whitewash for the left. Then reeling; there are sick sounds and groans, and finally, as the results keep coming, silence.

Citizens and Ratepayers Now, an amalgam of ACT- and National-aligned local body activists, has been worse than decimated. Going from a majority (13 councillors out of twenty) to merely seven, it has ceded control to City Vision, the Labour and Alliance ticket. The community boards offer no solace – even Aaron Bhatnagar, the closest thing to a community board rock star, has been dumped from Hobson in favour of the also-right, but anti-motorway Action Hobson.

National Party MP Maurice Williamson is performing the autopsy like a skilled surgeon. And a practiced one – it’s 2002 all over again inside the Playhouse as he holds forth on the “swing to the left, away from the right – it’s a swing whose time had come.”

The major problem here was that C&R failed to distinguish themselves sufficiently from Banks. “People were telling our team in Eden-Albert, ‘we’re not going to vote for anyone who is on Banks’ ticket’, and there was no way to get across that we were different from Banks.”

Unsurprisingly, perhaps. Williams, who read out the results, is actually Banks’ scrutineer today. Nick Albrecht, the C&R campaign manager, works in Williamson’s electorate office.

Albrecht looks shattered, and Williamson is trying to console him.

“Auckland University did a study, and they found that a great candidate will be worth 500 votes, and a great campaign might be worth another 500, but any loss by more than 1,000 was unavoidable.” Probably not the best advice where community board routs may attract 5000 votes in total. Another well-wisher comes up to Albrecht.

“But did you enjoy it? I mean, do you think it’s something you’d do again?”

Silence, as the question sinks in.

I tell every candidate I meet that I have voted for them, no matter from which ward or region they hail. My story is that I have moved several times since the general election and have failed to update my details on the electoral role. Which is true. So, I had to cast a special vote, and the address I nominated was in exactly the part of the city they happened to be standing in. Which is not true.

In fact, like almost 52% of eligible voters, I didn’t cast a ballot at all. It was not a cry in the wilderness against the party system that now dominates local body politics. I simply couldn’t get out of work long enough to get to the registrar of electors and cast a special vote. Still, as the saying goes, if you didn’t vote, you can’t complain. And it feels as if it would be a terrible social faux pas not to join in the complaining around me. Somehow churlish. So I lie.

One unsuccessful candidate in the Eden-Albert ward is lamenting the liberal bias of the media.

“It’s funny how Cathy Casey managed to get in Sideswipe (in the Herald) twice in the last week of campaigning, with her car being stolen”, his emphasis falls just short of sarcasm “and then returned the next day. You know, her husband is Matt McCarten, and he knows a little bit about campaigning.”

General murmurs of agreement.

“I mean, even if she didn’t know about it, it could have been a City Vision supporter who did it.”

Time to join in, I suppose: “Hell, even if the person who took the car didn’t know who it belonged to, they would have been a City Vision voter.”

Laughter.

Jamie Lee, an 18 year old Young National, was successful in his election as an independent to Council in Howick. After the People’s Choice (C&R for community boards in some areas) recognised his zeal, they offered him a clear run for the Community Board on their ticket. He refused. After between three and six months of door-knocking, he has scraped in. He’s elated, on the other end of the phone with various Young Nats at the C&R wake. Jubilant, and in their early twenties, they tell him they will take him into town and get him drunk.

Local body politics has become little more than a theatre of conflict for the national game, like the third world during the Cold War, in Auckland at least. As soon as the results are digested, they are seen not as a tragedy in their own terms, but as portents for the 2005 general election.

“It was raining like this in 2002,” one ACT supporter says, grimly pointing to the Aotea Square drizzle.

The day before, a One Network News poll showed public support for the National Party continuing to fall, and there is a general recognition that Williamson’s “swing” has been going strong for around five years now, and shows no signs of abating.

I stand around picking at the platters of snacks – spring rolls, chicken nibbles, potato wedges – laid out in anticipation of celebration. C&R has paid for food but no alcohol. Very few are drinking at all, even for solace. Every great civilisation’s decline is heralded by a slide into decadence except, apparently, Citizens and Ratepayers Now.

The crowd of supporters thins as it shuffles towards the doors, a greying throng that dissolves into the overcast outdoors. They are somber, stoic, until the end.



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