A tale of two cities: Wellington's cafe controversy vs Auckland's overcrowding

by Bevan Rapson / 17 April, 2018

The infamous Hirschfeld-Curran cafe rendezvous has left the media picking through the pieces.

Fumbles in the capital threaten to overshadow the government’s big-ticket agenda.

You can’t beat Wellington on a good day.

The old cliche holds doubly true for fans of political intrigue, who couldn’t care less whether the sunlight is sparkling on a glassy Oriental Bay or if strolling civil servants can enjoy their lunchtimes under a cloudless sky.

For them, a good day might typically bring a cabinet minister in a bind, murky dealings involving a government department, questions in the House and, ideally, a splattering of metaphorical blood on the floor.

Even with an ice-cold southerly beating at the windows, that kind of indoor storm will warm the cockles of their hearts.

The recent ructions over Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran’s December coffee meeting with Radio New Zealand executive Carol Hirschfeld ticked all the boxes to provide a succession of “good days” for those who like that kind of thing.

It’s almost the quintessential Wellington row: at the nexus of politics and media, involving a valued national institution, and raising issues about ministerial engagement with the organisations they have responsibility for.

Along with the bumbling Curran and high-profile media figure Hirschfeld, the cast included the snowy-haired RNZ chairman Richard Griffin who, as a past political editor for the state broadcaster and former prime ministerial press secretary to Jim Bolger, is a vivid Wellington personality in his own right.

The blood – as this magazine went to press, at least – was all Hirschfeld’s. She resigned after admitting the meeting at the Astoria cafe on Lambton Quay was planned, having repeatedly told her bosses otherwise.

But the saga rolled on, with Griffin and RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson returning to a parliamentary select committee to correct the answers about the meeting they had given earlier, based on Hirschfeld’s assurances, and the focus shifting to a message Curran left on Griffin’s phone ahead of his second committee appearance.
At which point, some readers might find themselves wondering if there are any new cat videos to watch. The ins and outs revealed in various texts and timelines don’t make for light reading.

But we should be glad that news of that initial meeting seeped beyond the customers of the Astoria cafe, that previously undistinguished National MP Melissa Lee pursued it in Parliament, and that reporters have kept probing for answers.

Among the lingering questions are how on earth Curran became a minister without having schooled herself up on the basic protocols she had to observe, or whether she might have somehow lost her senses due to the wattage of Hirschfeld’s star power. Laughably, considering her ducking and diving over the cafe meeting, she also happens to be the minister responsible for open government. It all tends to reinforce the suspicion that Labour took office last year with a talent deficit.

Yes, questions over Curran’s actions are a “Wellington story”. But our system awards formidable power to the state; our ministers should be held to high standards of conduct. Though our capital is nowhere near the “swamp” Donald Trump and his supporters located in Washington, the elements of the RNZ revelations – minister, media, cosy cafe meeting – might to some noses carry just a whiff of degraded wetland.

Aucklanders are so sick of traffic and high housing costs, even the prospect of another tax to fix it doesn't faze them. Photo / Getty Images

Meanwhile, up the other end of the North Island, the government has shown signs of trying to get things happening. Most Aucklanders couldn’t care less about what goes on in select committees, or the niceties of ministerial behaviour. They’re much more likely to be bug-eyed with frustration over traffic congestion and dismayed by the city’s housing shortage.

In a region bearing the brunt of surging immigration, and nearly eight years after the supposedly streamlined super city devised by Act’s Rodney Hide was created, they have every right to feel aggrieved by the failure of local and central government to provide critical infrastructure.

Many will remain sceptical about the Ardern Government’s ability to succeed where National failed, but a couple of recent announcements raised the prospect of progress.

A draft 10-year transport plan confirmed that $4 billion will be allocated over the next five years for the beginning stages of light rail in Auckland, with petrol tax hikes – over and above the new regional fuel tax faced by Aucklanders – to pay for it. It’s a brave punt that a tipping point has been reached: that Aucklanders’ gridlock angst is these days severe enough to trump tax aversion and that public transport rather than more motorways is broadly accepted to be the solution.

Transport Minister Phil Twyford helped front that new strategy. The previous week, as housing minister, he announced that up to 4000 houses will be built on Unitec land in Mt Albert, putting a little meat on the bones of Labour’s ambitious housing promises. Will it yield more actual houses than Nick Smith’s infamous magical mystery tour of potential housing sites? Aucklanders will be watching that space.

Economic Development Minister David Parker also revealed a can-do spirit when brokering the deal for hosting the next America’s Cup on the Auckland waterfront. Closing more deals that count will earn respect in Auckland and elsewhere.

But the government can’t afford to have its programme overshadowed by political mismanagement in the capital, particularly when it leads to snowballing stories such as those sparked by the Curran-Hirschfeld meeting or Labour’s mishandling of allegations of sexual assault at a party youth camp.

Taking vicarious pleasure in a parliamentary pile-on remains a minority pursuit, even in Wellington, but serial cock-ups will take a toll well beyond Lambton Quay. 



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