Auckland's success is no laughing matter

A sense of humour has a place in politics.

So savour the government’s sense of humour: it said a provincial coastal town up north could run a nation-promoting event beamed round the world.

And savour Auckland mayor Len Brown’s sense of humour: he said Murray McCully might have been collegial, collaborative and thoughtful of others in his takeover of that event after some opening night miscues.

Both McCully and John Key kept up the humour by saying they were not pointing the finger, while shunting Mayor Brown. They said the bit the government ran worked fine (cancelled ferry sailings from their wharf were not their business).

Humour blended nicely with irony: the Auckland at which the finger wasn’t pointed was Key’s and Rodney Hide’s creation, with roads-and-trains Steven Joyce in tow.

Key, McCully and Joyce last week proved constitutional sticklers: they maintained the hallowed doctrine established in the Turakina tunnel disaster in 1944 by Labour Minister of Works Bob Semple. Semple he was responsible but not to blame.

That doctrine works fine until the tide of opinion turns during a government’s tenure and voters stop distinguishing blame from responsibility. That point has not yet been reached so McCully has unnecessarily put himself in the blame frame for future stuff-ups.

There probably won’t be any more big ones so he will claim responsibility and praise for a great show. Which on opening night it was for the great majority. New Zealanders of widespread dispositions and ideologies glowed next day. Ticket sales are high (and bank-breaking) and the country is on display.

Most of it, that is. The Prime Minister’s monolingual opening speech overlooked that he signifies a bicultural nation. Hekia Parata and Tariana Turia could have made that point to him just by voicing their names. Key left te reo to Bernard Lapasset.

A sneak peak at the Auckland Council’s draft economic development plan would have given Key the same message. Auckland, though mostly an outgrowth of Europe, is also unmistakably Pacific, in geography and in its population of Maori, swelled over the past five decades by new waves from Polynesia. “Value te ao Maori” is one of the plan’s six principles.

The plan is issued this morning. The interest for Otago is that if Auckland can’t be got to work well, the country won’t and so Otago won’t.

The plan sets ambitious targets which it intends to monitor and report on every two years: average annual exports of more than 6 per cent, average annual real gross domestic product growth of more than 5 per cent and average annual productivity growth of more than 2 per cent. That is so far above recent history as to border on fantasy. As the plan states, to achieve those rates “will mean a fundamental change in Auckland’s economy”.

It will require turning it into an international, outward-looking city into which creative types — those who invent things and ways to do things — pour to live and work. The yobs who verbally and physically abused the opening ceremony waka crews at are not of that ilk. Neither are the cafe and beach loungers pictured on pages 4 and 12 of the plan. Is this the vibrant, hard-at-work, crucible of energy that will transform the nation?

The plan says “the level of innovation and commercialisation of new ideas … is extremely limited for a city of our size”.

Auckland has recently been planting in its cultural desert, bidding to challenge Wellington’s Arts Festival, and its new museum director, Roy Clare, has energy and outreach. There are hints from cabinet quarters of more resources for scientists and other innovators (though we’ve heard such hints for two years now). On top of that Auckland needs to find entrepreneurs who turn ideas into profits and high-paying jobs and drag in capital to back them instead of exporting them.

These sorts of people are in a global business. Auckland has to be, too. That is a wrench. Auckland built its economy on half a century of import protection, the dominant factory in a sealed economy.

The mass extinction of those of this protected species who could not find niches in a globalised economy was a big generator of the “underclass” Key worried about when in opposition. Auckland’s big and growing underclass is a brake on economic growth. The plan touches on this but can’t confront it because that is for ministers to fix.

The same goes for the “green” line, integral to Brown’s personal objective of a “liveable” city. It is highly liveable — for many — but not because it is actually green: Aucklanders are among the world’s most committed car users and carbon polluters.

The message is the same as for the rugby world cup: the government can’t pass the buck to Brown and underlings and blame them if Auckland fails to make us innovative, green and rich. Auckland’s bid for prosperity is a national project, as the cup is. Whether Key picks up the ball and runs with it, as a schoolboy called Ellis once did, is no laughing matter.