Urban Legend: Sir Dove-Myer Robinson - review

by Len Brown / 11 August, 2012
Len Brown admires the vision and actions of his forerunner Dove-Myer Robinson.
Book review - Urban Legend by John EdgarJohn Edgar’s well-crafted book is a balanced portrait of Dove-Myer Robinson, the politician and the private man. But it is also an all-too-vivid illustration of the “Auckland disease”. For decades, Auckland has been victim to parochialism and infighting. Robbie saw the challenges and pitfalls of a city governed by 32 territorial and special-purpose bodies. It was virtually impossible to make progress on regional decisions or infrastructure, and that must have been a source of immense frustration for him, a visionary ahead of his time. As well as being a man of vision, Robbie was a man of action. In the 1960s, he commissioned an integrated transport plan for Auckland that would accommodate widespread and efficient public transport as well as private vehicles. It included finishing the city’s motorway network, an additional harbour crossing and an electrified rapid transit line that would reach the downtown terminus by subway and the North Shore via tunnel. But he faced not only the divisiveness and parochialism of local bodies and reluctance from the government, but also the internal petty mindedness, factionalism and lack of collaboration that dominated his own council for decades.

If I ever want to elicit winces of pain and nods of recognition from Aucklanders of all ages, I just have to mention Robbie’s stymied public transport plans. Through the pages of this book, it comes through loud and clear that we cannot afford to back away from a rapid transit solution again. Edgar dramatically details the frustrations and challenges Robbie faced, the forces that were brought against him, the types of arguments that were raised for and against rail, the factionalism, the infighting and the lack of integrity and informed debate, elements of which are troublingly familiar to me. Urban Legend is testament to Auckland and New Zealand having missed an extraordinary opportunity.

Edgar leaves us in no doubt, however, that Robbie used the parochialism to his own advantage. He brought the full weight of his ego and persuasion to bear in the creation of the Auckland Regional Authority – a precursor to the amalgamated Auckland we now enjoy – playing Wellington’s plans for Auckland against the fears of the region’s myriad local politicians. Robbie was one hell of a communicator and ultimately gained a compromise that recognised Auckland’s need for regional planning. Auckland showed a more cohesive spirit and Wellington recognised that change. His work as an environmentalist is indicative of his determination to succeed and his commitment to schooling himself on every aspect of an issue. The wastewater solution he visited on South Auckland was flawed, but it was better than what was proposed – dumping human effluent into the Waitemata Harbour. It was innovative for the time, as was his municipal composting scheme.

Robbie was a great man of the people. He loved talking to Aucklanders from all walks of life. He was a successful businessman who had a lifetime commitment to the vulnerable in the community. Edgar delves more deeply into Robinson’s private life than anything I have read before. Politics can be lonely, and a challenge for the families of political leaders. Robbie’s four marriages suggest he found it difficult to reconcile his public and private lives. This biography obviously benefits from Edgar’s interviews with Robbie before his death in 1989. Robbie was a man of his time, politically and privately. The book is a comprehensive portrait of a key fi gure in our history, not just for Auckland but for New Zealand. I would love to have met Robbie on the stump and had a good debate with him. He is a true legend – he would have loved being called that, too – and his reputation and vision have survived for generations. When we open the City Rail Link tunnel in Auckland, it will be in his memory.

URBAN LEGEND: SIR DOVE-MYER ROBINSON, by John Edgar (Hodder Moa, $39.99).

Len Brown is Mayor of Auckland.

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