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Bill Ralston: We're in for fireworks if John Banks runs for mayor

John Banks. Photo/Getty Images

If John Banks joins Auckland’s mayoral race, there's a chance he could rise from the political dead.

The Auckland mayoral race is adding a little entertainment to politics, with potential candidate John Banks comparing Phil Goff’s reign as mayor to “grandma’s cabbage”, claiming it “never gets better by the day”.

Banks, it should be remembered, has a long-standing obsession with cabbage. One of his favourite defensive lines used to be that he hadn’t “come down the river in a cabbage boat”. Or, if he was insulting someone, he would charge that they had just come down the river in the aforementioned brassica-laden vessel.

He has certainly spent a bit of cabbage on whizz-kid political advisers to try to work out whether he can win the October election if he chooses to run. I could have saved him the money. In the race as it is currently configured, he stands a very good prospect, because the centre left is likely to cannibalise its own vote.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Goff and the other high-profile candidate, John Tamihere, are both from the Labour stable, although Tamihere had, when I last saw him, a confusing campaign team that includes National Party activist Michelle Boag and long-time union organiser Matt McCarten. He also has former National minister and one-time mayor Christine Fletcher as a running mate. Presumably, he is reaching out to try to snaffle some National Party votes in much the same way Goff did at the last election when he had his election billboards done in Tory blue.

However, with a genuine centre-right candidate in Banks, Goff and Tamihere could reasonably be expected to confine themselves to chomping on the city’s centre-left vote while Banks picks up many on the right. A three-way contest opens the door for Banks to rise from the political dead into “super city” mayoralty or, at least, come close.

The trouble is, regardless of who is mayor, the Auckland Council will remain a bit of a basket case. Each council member is a warlord individually ensconced in their own ward. There are few distinct party lines among councillors, and alliances shift and change regularly on the issue. To date, Goff has generally maintained a one-vote lead around the council table on the big matters, but it’s never guaranteed.

A couple of months ago, I caught up with Goff in a roadside reserve in Panmure where he was launching a $275 million busway with the words, “This city needs to be a world-class city and it can only be one if it has the infrastructure.” Paying for that infrastructure is the problem. The council’s debt levels are so high that it cannot afford to borrow much more because it would face an expensive credit downgrade.

A day or two later, I visited a golf course where Tamihere was talking to a small, curious crowd and a few others who were heading for the first tee. He was launching his policies on parks, green spaces and stadiums. He got an appreciative response. However, his campaign might already be in trouble following his announcement earlier this month that he was suing broadcaster Mike Hosking and NZME for defamation. NZME publishes the NZ Herald and owns Newstalk ZB, two of the city’s biggest news sources. Suing the media is not an ideal way for a candidate to ensure he gets glowing coverage during a mayoral campaign.

Still, if Banksie jumps into the ring, there would be some hugely enjoyable fireworks by October, as the three of them square off for a donnybrook.

This article was first published in the July 27, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.