Len Brown: gone by Christmas?

by Simon Wilson / 19 December, 2013
Len Brown will soon resign. The governing body of the Auckland Council has been meeting since 10am, and it’s still not over, and it’s clear in the debate that the mayor has lost the support of most councillors. That will make it extremely difficult for him to do his job.

When he understands that – and how longer could that possibly take? – he will step down.

The council has two options in front of it. One is the much publicised proposal to pass a vote of no confidence in the mayor. That is destined to fail.

The other is a motion jointly proposed by deputy mayor Penny Hulse, formerly a Brown loyalist, and leading centre-right councillor Christine Fletcher. Their motion is the outcome of a five-hour informal meeting yesterday. It uses words like “profound disappointment and disapproval”, it censures the mayor, it calls on him to reimburse all personal costs and make an “appropriate contribution” to council’s other costs in relation to the affair. It also requires a “stronger working relationship and level of accountability”. Finally, it accepts Brown’s apology and “signals its willingness to work with the mayor in the best interests of the people of Auckland”.

That motion will be carried.  So why will Len Brown stand down?

In the current issue of the magazine, I have suggested that Brown’s misdemeanours are not sufficiently serious to require resignation, but if he loses his ability to do his job, that changes. If he cannot lead the council, he needs to find the courage and grace to step aside.

He’s reached that stage.

There are two groups around the council table. The first is his direct opponents, the people who have called on him to resign. They’re the political right, and not even all of it. Their opposition doesn’t need to hurt Brown particularly, except that he prides himself on being a consensus leader. As I’ve reported in the current issue of Metro, Brown believes he is “breaking the mould” on council, by creating a cooperative environment across party lines. To a surprisingly large extent, that actually was true of the last term. But it’s not true now.

It shouldn’t matter. Politicians are big and tough enough to cope with having opponents. But if you stake your leadership on consensus, as Brown has done, it’s got to hurt a lot when that consensus falls apart.

If nothing else, this affair will mean that Brown, if he stays, will no longer lead the council by consensus. That wounds him but doesn’t break him.

His bigger problem is that most of the other councillors have also been alienated. They are pissed off, and they continue to carry Brown only because they do not believe it is in the best interests of the city to express no confidence in the mayor. Christine Fletcher has spoken critically of the divisive political motivation of Cr Cameron Brewer, who has been a leading advocate of no confidence. Cr Calum Penrose said they will be in an impossible position if they try to govern with the mayor, having expressed no confidence in him. Cr Mike Lee said they had to “try and put the fire out” but no confidence would not do it, because it would signal to Wellington that “Auckland is now officially dysfunctional”. Cr Bill Cashmore said quite openly, “only the mayor can decide to stand down”. The subtext is clear: they no longer have confidence in him.

Can Brown still do his job? Widely viewed as a disgrace and/or a laughing stock, his only salvation lies in his potential to harness council support to lay that reputation to rest. He needs their goodwill and support if he is to have any chance of re-establishing his claim to leadership. But councillors have made it plain that cannot happen.

Brown should not be confused about this. Most councillors will not support the explicit right-wing attack on him, at least partly because they do not want this to be seen as a right-wing victory.

But he should recognise that they want him to resign anyway. They are waiting for him to do the decent thing.

Len Brown will soon be gone. It’s hard to see him lasting past Christmas.

Update 2.10pm: Cr Penny Hulse's motion to censure Brown has passed, 15 votes to 5.

Illustration by Anna Crichton. For Simon Wilson's interview with Mayor Len Brown, see the January/February Metro, on sale now.

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