Simon Wilson: Auckland mayoral candidates Leo Molloy, Wayne Brown – the two angry men who want the top job

OPINION

And now there are five.

Wayne Brown, engineer, property developer and Mr Fix-it for governments gone by, is running for mayor of Auckland. He’s announcing it today in a speech to the Rosebank Business Association, which he calls a “much more functional” group than Heart of the City in central Auckland.

That’s a crack at rival candidate Viv Beck, who runs Heart of the City. The other contenders with serious claims to the job are Fa’anana Efeso Collins, Craig Lord and Leo Molloy.

Brown is the guy who proposed shifting Ports of Auckland, as head of a taskforce set up under the 2017 Labour-led Government. In previous decades he was also brought in to resolve problems at Vector, Transpower, the Land Transport Safety Authority, Auckland District Health Board (ADHB) and two other health boards.

Brown and Molloy are a certain type. Successful businessmen, fed up with the way everyone else is botching up the city and quick to let you know about it. Massively confident in their own ability to fix it all up.

Takes one to know one, I suppose. But they do say the darnedest things, even when the tape recorder is on and we’ve agreed they’re on the record.

Brown, who’s funding his own campaign, told me last week: “It’ll cost me half a million. Well, if you haven’t got half a million, you shouldn’t be a f****** mayor.”

He thought about that and added, “What I mean is, you shouldn’t be doing it for the wages.”

I met Molloy last week, too. He said: “People have been telling me I look tired. I don’t feel tired. I’m loving it. This is a blood sport and I was made for blood sports.”

Is politics really a blood sport? Even some of the people who do proper blood sports – Joseph Parker, say – don’t seem to relish the blood. And do you have to be rich to be mayor?

Brown is proud of his accomplishments. After the central city went dark for five weeks in 1998, he was the chair of power company Vector who restored it, as he puts it, “to health, reliability and profit”. He was given the same role at Transpower, after the major outage in 2014.

When he was chair of the ADHB in the early 2000s, he says, “the new $500 million Auckland City Hospital was finished on time and on budget, the only hospital to ever manage that”.

If he wins the mayoralty, Auckland Council will be the fifth organisation he has led with a turnover of more than $1 billion and a staff of more than 10,000.

But there’s more. Brown’s been a mayor before, for two terms (2007-2013) in the Far North. The Auditor-General criticised him for blurring the lines between his elected role and his commercial interests: a charge he has denied.

Earlier, he refused to pay rates for a supermarket he owned in Mangonui, claiming that because it was built on poles over the water it was outside the council’s boundaries. In 2003 the High Court told him to cough up.

Brown’s platform in the Far North included “bringing bureaucracy to heel, user charges and minimal rates rises”. That’s similar to what he proposes now.

His campaign team includes Tim Hurdle, a National Party-aligned political operator most recently heard from as a key member of Todd Muller’s ill-fated team. Matthew Hooton, another member of that team, has also provided Brown with advice.

Leo Molloy has also attracted a few politicos with not-quite stellar records of late. Matt McCarten, who ran John Tamihere’s mayoral campaign in 2019, is back for another go. Judith Collins and John Banks turned up to his campaign rally last Sunday night.

But Molloy’s campaign also features some very different supporters. His campaign chair is June McCabe, a company director with a strong commitment to Māori economic development and not-for-profits. And the warm-up speech on Sunday night was made by David Letele, better known as the Brown Buttabean.

Buttabean’s a hero in South Auckland. The son of a Mongrel Mob leader, a former league player and professional boxer, he’s famous for his weight-loss boot camps, motivational work and the food bank and other charity work he does.

Molloy helps bankroll a lot of that work. He’s a boxer too: he trains twice a week and once challenged me to a charity match by saying: “I’m looking for a left-wing low-achieving soft-cock media type to fight. Are you available or are you too frightened?”

I was far too frightened.

Buttabean told the crowd on Sunday how much he admired that Molloy never sought publicity for his charity work. “It’s not what you see.”

Molloy, the Labour Party and Brown have all polled for this election. Molloy says his poll shows him trailing Efeso Collins by one point, with no one else close. Labour endorses Collins and I’m told their poll shows much the same thing.

Wayne Brown’s camp polled on issues and attitudes, not the candidates directly, and say their poll suggests “he’ll probably win”.

“It’s pretty bloody clear that he can.”

Take all that with as many grains of salt as you like. Political campaigns feed the media this kind of information to serve their own ends.

So what do they want to do?

The how is almost as important. Beck and Collins will turn up for a mix of inspirational, earnest and invariably civil debate. But Brown and Molloy? They won’t bring baseball bats, but they will bring their angry.

Both are outraged at the decision-making of Auckland Transport, the other council-controlled organisations (CCOs) and government agencies in Wellington.

Brown: “The problem is, there are far too many really dumb people at the top.”

The idea that CCOs and government agencies are badly run will not be a shock to many, but the candidates’ solutions may be more divisive.

Brown again: “Everyone on the [council-controlled] boards should be a contractor or know the business in some way. But they’re all lawyers and accountants. They learn boardroom behaviour, they don’t learn about the business, and they spend their time discussing governance instead of the business. It’s more about diversity than capability. I’m not against diversity but you have to be able to do the job.”

He’s standing because: “Auckland needs a mayor who knows infrastructure and has a reputation for getting them [infrastructure projects] done on time and on budget”.

Both Brown and Molloy think central government has far too much control over Auckland.

“Nobody in Wellington should be telling us what to do!” Brown said last week, banging the table as he did so.

Molloy said much the same on Sunday: “Decisions made for us in Wellington are the tail wagging the dog.”

Neither has yet proposed what to do about it.

At heart, what’s Molloy up to? His brochure promises “A plan to freeze rates rises”, but that’s not what he says in person.

“Rates shouldn’t rise ahead of inflation,” he told the Sunday crowd. But when asked directly if he would have rates rising more than they do now, or the same amount, or less, he struggled to answer.

“We’ll leave the details for another day,” he kept saying.

It’s all a bit like that. Molloy wants to cut council income – rates, the regional fuel tax, bus and train fares, car parking and rubbish collection are all specified – but also increase spending on public transport, roads, downtown security, green hydrogen and more.

How will he pay for it?

“We’ll leave the details for another day.”

There’ll be a lot more days in this campaign, that’s for sure, and lots more to say about policies.

On Sunday night Molloy made a rousing speech, but not everyone gave him quite the respect he felt he deserved.

“Shut up you lot out there!” he shouted at one stage. “Oi! Oi! Oi! This is my show not yours so shut up!” Well, it was a bar.

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