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The neoliberal power game: cities for sale

Written By: - Date published: 7:24 am, May 4th, 2014 - 27 comments
Categories: auckland supercity, business, capitalism, democracy under attack, housing, infrastructure, manufacturing, poverty, public transport - Tags:

I haven’t seen Mai Chen’s new book on Auckland and Wellington.  But the NZ Herald integrated review, promo, and interview with Mai Chen, make it all seem like it supports neoliberal capitalist values of big business, competition between powerful entities, and cheerleading for Rodney Hide’s corporate-favouring supercity structure.

skycity auckland

There’s no mention of thos in big Auckland struggling with income, transport and housing poverty.

Early in the NZ Herald article, ,A tale of two strong cities“, author Robin Blackstocksets up a power struggle between Auckland and Wellington:

It tells how Australasia’s biggest council organisation, which has a $3 billion annual budget and around 8,000 staff, was formed from the perspective of the key people who created and ran it during its first term, in 2010.

Chen makes no apologies that her book is likely to re-ignite age-old rivalries between Auckland and Wellington.

She believes politicians in the capital do not fully understand the needs of the country’s largest, most prosperous city. She thinks a small tail is wagging a big dog.

He seems to follow Chen in his awe of the sheer size of Auckland Council,

The amalgamated Auckland Council oversees a population of more than 1.5 million and accounts for just over 37 per cent of New Zealand’s GDP. It is predicted the city will have 2.5 million people by 2040, with more than half hailing from a steadily growing melting pot of diverse ethnic backgrounds.

and the big money that is gravitating towards it:

In recent years, however, the capital has seen a number of major banks and businesses, such as BNZ and ANZ, relocate their main offices to Auckland.

In December, oil giant BP announced it would join the corporate drift north and close its Wellington base of six decades.

The article then turns to Wellington, with a focus on the celebrities, movie industry, music gigs, and tourism that it attracts.  It makes an attenpt to suggest that Wellington should go the supercity route, and that Auckland and Wellington would benefit form working together.  But the article ends returning to talking up Auckland. It makes bold claims to be speaking for all Aucklanders, while ignoring those who are struggling to survive in the big city.

Back in her high-rise Auckland boardroom, Mai Chen presses her case for Beehive bureaucrats to start considering Auckland’s unique needs. But she stops short of sparking calls to shift the capital to the nation’s economic powerhouse.

Auckland was the capital until the 1860s, when parliament was moved to Wellington to be closer to the then most powerful economic and population bases, Dunedin and Christchurch.

“Aucklanders don’t like it when Government undermines the Auckland mayor, even if the mayor was Tweedledee or Tweedledum,” Chen explains. “But Auckland cannot fund its infrastructure, despite its wealth, without Central Government,” she says. “We need them. … Aucklanders just want to get on with it and could well do without dealing with another 30,000 officials in town.”

But the economic activities featured in the article do not include the production of material needs and wants fr all Kiwis. Chen’s book is called, Transforming Auckland: the Creation of Auckland Council.

We need another book: one that looks in depth about the Hide model supercity and how it enables the flow of big money, while the lives of the precariat continue to be one long struggle with higher prices, relatively little gains in incomes, less affordable housing, more transport and energy poverty.  Maybe a book called Transforming Auckland and Christchurch: the undermining of the lives of the struggling precariat ?




27 comments on “The neoliberal power game: cities for sale”

  1. barry 1

    So they are saying that in 26 years time Auckland will have half NZ’s people and will have added more than a million people?

    40000 people per year is more than the average growth rate for NZ as a whole

    Does this sound possible? If it were possible how could it be desirable?

    • Tamati 1.1

      Nobody has seriously questioned these pie in the sky population projections. I’m skeptical that there are waves of people arriving in Auckland every day…

    • Molly 1.2

      I attended the Auckland Conversations on the population expectation of 1 million, and realised they rely very heavily on statisticians – and so the projected figure was (and is) achieved by the usual methods.

      Was I convinced? Did start getting the giggles when the statistician started referring to retired nurses as “girls” and advised that when working in the UK, he and he fellow statistician misjudged the projected population statistics by underestimating the effect of the release of the contraceptive pill.
      Wondered for a while if I was watching a stand up comedian rather than a consultant. You may be interested to know that I seem to recall his company is used by the National government as well.

      That said – the million extra growth figure was fairly in the middle of top and bottom growth projections using different criteria.

  2. ghostwhowalksnz 2

    Chen forgets that big chunks of the Auckland Council are carved off into mostly independent fiefs.
    Auckland Transport and Watercare largely run their own budget and activities with very little oversight from the elected representatives.

    • andrew murray 2.1

      What makes you think Chen forgets this..

      • Colonial Viper 2.1.1

        Yep, it’s quite likely that her law firm has done significant work relating to it one way or another.

    • Ad 2.2

      Not true there are endless goddamn workshops, which are continuing this week for all CCOs – particularly Transport and Watercare – with the Council.

  3. Philj 3

    Thanks for this information. The very core of the nation is at stake. The influence of Auckland is unbalanced to the detriment of the whole country.A monster has been created. What to do?

  4. adam 4

    I think the west and the south are not impressed with the super city. Hell in the west it feels like we are the forgotten child who should shut up and do as they are told.

    One thing I always loved about neo-liberalism is that it get’s more and more wasteful, as the projects it champions gets bigger and bigger.

    Bugger the super city, it is a failure of democracy, it is a failure financially, and it is the same old white boys club spooning the cream off for themselves.

    Local government should be just that – local. Smaller is better, more cost effective and more democratic.

    • Colonial Viper 4.1

      One thing I always loved about neo-liberalism is that it get’s more and more wasteful, as the projects it champions gets bigger and bigger.

      Creativity, innovation, nuance and artistic endeavour always give way at the very peaking of empire in favour of an ego driven, self aggrandising, bigger, bolder, brasher.

    • One Anonymous Bloke 4.2

      Local government should be just that – local. Smaller is better, more cost effective and more democratic.


      The evidence is in. There is no alternative.

  5. Will@Welly 5

    One thing I’ve always enjoyed about Mai Chen’s commentary’s is she is very approachable and down to earth. I suspect she has written this as much as an article to kick-start a discussion as to inform.
    Realistically it is probably too soon to pass judgement on the merits or otherwise whether or not the SuperCity is a pass or a fail. Most did not want it, most still do not want it.
    In Wellington, that seems to be the similar viewpoint, although many of the local politicians appear to be pushing for a similar amalgamation.

    • Colonial Viper 5.1

      Realistically it is probably too soon to pass judgement on the merits or otherwise whether or not the SuperCity is a pass or a fail

      I’d ask a more simple question. Has it been a pass or fail for the democratic interests of local communities within Auckland.

      In Wellington, that seems to be the similar viewpoint, although many of the local politicians appear to be pushing for a similar amalgamation.

      It’s similar to what senior management does when they are out of ideas and serving the interests of their customers has become a low ranked priority. Acquire, merge, diversify, etc. Plenty of money to be made by the consultants and IT contractors.

    • Molly 5.2

      Well there is a local precedent and a published research paper from 2005 Local government amalgamation policy: A highway maintenance evaluation that might give some indication:


      Evaluating the effects of a change in public policy setting is a critical element in the chain of accountability. Factors such as effectiveness and efficiency in government operations are often difficult to measure. In this study of efficiency outcomes, we follow events before and after significant structural change arising from local authority amalgamation. The study focuses on highway maintenance and uses Data Envelopment Analysis (DEA) to evaluate whether greater efficiency was achieved. Results(confined to highway management activities) show no evidence that amalgamation was justified in terms of diseconomies arising from smallness (i.e. increasing returns to scale). While new governance practices introduced contemporaneously lifted the level of performance of local authorities in terms of higher technical efficiency, there is no evidence that the amalgamation policy contributed to this improvement.

      The policy impact evaluation methodology developed in this paper has potential for application to other local government service activities.”

  6. Ad 6

    One subtle shift in how Auckland Council and central government engage is in changes to the Land Transport Management Act 2013.

    Auckland Transport alone is now responsible for reconciling the transport strategies and priorities of Auckland Council and the Government Policy Statement for Transport. This accounts for about 35% of the whole rates take, and about 33% of government’s transport fund.

    Auckland Transport must now prioritise the momentum of needs from its $14 billion of assets under management, and stay within the 2.5% rates increases that the Mayor and Council have forecast, and carefully deploy the depleting National Land Transport Fund.

    Consider that impact: with little input, and with the best technical prioritisation skills in the country, Auckland Transport must broker central and local government together permanently. And do so in a manner that enables the entire network to function and improve, every hour of every day.

    • Molly 6.1

      Spoke to a roading engineer from AT at a Generation Zero presentation.

      I mentioned that the division of AT from Auckland Council made it hard to get access to AT regarding issues regarding community planning. When I suggested that it seemed more effective to include how people move with how people live when planning, and the separate organisations (and outcomes) made this unlikely, he replied in the negative.

      When I asked him why – his response was:”It’s much easier to get the job done if we don’t have to take anything else into account”.

      His definition of effective and mine were completely different.

      • Ad 6.1.1

        Auckland Transport are required to take into account the growth of Auckland and the consequent infrastructure needs of that growth.

        • Molly

          Yes, but as defined by those further up the hierachy, and with little consideration of how people live in communities. That is why to AT it is reasonable to consider bisecting communities with roads, and only backtrack after public outcry. Silo mentality.

  7. Chooky 7

    karol +100 …Great Post…and thought provoking..

    This may be of interest in regard to under- the- radar surreptitious planning for supercities in New Zealand and huge population immigration ..imo feelers are being put out to test the NZ public reaction to super cities…Shanghai anyone?

    Kathryn Ryan interviews Richard Ogden on Friday May 2 :

    09:35 Richard Ogden is the chairman and founder of the UK organisation Buildoffsite. He is visiting New Zealand to help set up an Australasian chapter and Bruce Coubray is the general manager of Howick Engineering, who is spearheading efforts to set up a functioning offsite construction industry here.

    Certainly it will have implications for building super motorways


    • Not Petey 7.1

      “This may be of interest in regard to under- the- radar surreptitious planning for supercities in New Zealand and huge population immigration ..imo feelers are being put out to test the NZ public reaction to super cities…Shanghai anyone?”

      Eh ? Even Winston would make this kind of outlandish claim.

  8. Ennui 8

    Chen makes her statements in the context of the very immediate past, the here and now. She obviously is adrift in the sea of time..she has no idea of why cities are as they are, or the economy as it is. She is the perfect cypher of todays mega citizen lording over the wage slave classes and mindless masses. Her business partner Palmer, ditto, a supposedly large intellect that could not connect to a wider reality, concentrating on the narrow goals of efficiency and professionalism etc, but for what?

    So where does this narrow focus of our “intellectual” and “political” elite leave us? Out of context I think, believing that what is now is always going to be. That bigger is better and more efficient despite any evidence.

    If you want to understand cities as they are today, and the urbanisation of the last 150 years the obvious question needs asking. Why has nothing on this scale happened before? The answer is very simple: fossil energy applied to technology applied to economic growth. We see this as “progress”, an unchallenged continuum. Fossil energy has (if you had not noticed) peaked, its finite and going down, and there are no replacements. Before you say “technofix” consider that technology uses energy, it is not in itself energy.

    Maybe we need to envisage cities in the light of decline, places such as Detroit. They don’t need super city status, they need localized “development” to suit current and real future requirements. Asking simple questions like, how are we going to get food in? Or supply water? And maybe is a million person city even sustainable and desirable?

    The Chen Palmer classes are yet to awake to this new reality. We need to before they “take charge”.

  9. The Real Matthew 9

    You’ve got Auckland striving further ahead of the rest of the country courtesy of it’s economic development.

    Meanwhile Wellington has elected a Green council and is based on Arts and other socialist BS industry.

    The people are voting with their feet and are migrating to Auckland in ever increasing numbers. Wellington is dying.

    Yet the contributors to this website want to turn New Zealand into Wellington.

    Go Figure.

    • karol 9.1

      It’s not the people voting with their feet – it’s big business moving to a corporate-friendly context, and people following where the jobs are.

    • Chooky 9.2

      @ the real matthew

      Is that really true? …I know John Key has said Wellington is dying….and then later regretted it

      It is not the impression one gets from the new tech and software development companies ( who are en route to beating the dairy industry as NZ’s biggest earner)….their directors say that Wellington is the perfect size and has the perfect structure to lead this nascent high tech industry into the future and become the lead city for computer software tech devt in the South Pacific…some have moved their companies to Wellington from overseas….USA?

      Maybe it is you and John Key who are not up with the play here?

  10. ropata 10

    Some recommendations of the Royal Commission which have not been adopted or implemented:

    6A The Auckland Council should include a vision for the region in its spatial plan.

    6B The Mayor of Auckland's annual "State of the Region" address should describe progress towards the attainment of the vision.

    21D: Auckland Council CCOs and their statements of intent should be subject to performance review by the proposed Auckland Services Performance Auditor.

    22A Two Māori members should be elected to the Auckland Council by voters who are on the parliamentary Māori Electoral Roll.

    22B There should be a Mana Whenua Forum, the members of which will be appointed by mana whenua from the district of the Auckland Council.

    22D The Auckland Council should ensure that each local council has adequate structures in place to enable proper engagement with Māori and consideration of their views in the local councils’ decision-making processes. Where appropriate, current structures and/or memoranda of understanding should be transferred to local councils.

    24F Auckland Council should consider creating an Urban Development Agency, to operate at the direction of the Auckland Council, with compulsory acquisition powers.

    The Auckland Council should determine the extent to which responsibilities for the delivery of stormwater services are shared between local councils and Watercare Services Limited.

    26I Watercare Services Limited should be required by legislation to promote demand management.

    26M Watercare Services Limited should be required to prepare a stormwater action plan.

    27D The Auckland Council should prepare an e-government strategy as an intrinsic part of its proposed unified service delivery and information systems plan.

    28A The Auckland Council should work closely with consumers, the industry, and central government agencies to develop a climate change and energy strategy for the region, including monitoring and reviewing electricity security of supply performance, and industry planning and regulation impacting the Auckland region.

    30A The Auckland Council should develop a Regional Waste Management Strategy, including strategies for management of organic waste and integration of waste management with other environmental programmes.

    32G A statutory position of an independent Auckland Services Performance Auditor (to be appointed by the elected Auckland Council on the joint recommendation of the Chair of the Commerce Commission and the Auditor-General) should be created to provide assurance to the council and the public that the Auckland Council is providing high-quality services in a cost-effective way.


    • ropata 10.1

      Rodney Hide was allowed to rampage over the orderly transition process recommended by the Royal Commission and ram through a bunch of anti democratic, corporate friendly measures with a view to flogging off precious Council assets which previous generations (Bruce Jesson) had fought long and hard to retain in public ownership. Of cource Mai Chen and her corporate cronies are salivating at the thought of juicy public utilities that can be monopolised (like Telecom) and then squeezed at the expense of the average Joe.

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