If they say that a week is a long time in politics, then the past 10 days have been an eternity.

In that time we’ve had a new Prime Minister sworn in, a chaotic shambles around Auckland Transport’s plans for the Elton John concert, a storm, a flood, political polls, a Prime Minister finally visiting Auckland and a row over the new city mayor.

At the centre of it all are two men with contrasting styles. One from the Far North, one from the capital. One younger, one older.

The new PM was no surprise to many. With Grant Robertson ruling himself out, Chris Hipkins was the logical appointee. Apparently he’s now known as “Chippy”, although we hadn’t heard him referred to by that name in his many appearances before the nation’s media to date. But a cute nickname is a good start.

Chippy carries on the tradition of his predecessor, in that despite the inadequacy of his track record, he is now the PM.

As Minister of Police he oversaw a level of public lawlessness that is new to us. His big idea was fog cannons. Although once he announced it, we realised we hadn’t ordered enough (more on that shortly). Fog cannons are the ultimate ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.

Instead of stopping robberies, and instead of playing hardball with the crims, our solution is to wait until they start robbing the store and then blow smoke in their faces.

Announcing before ordering was something he’d done before. As Covid Minister, he told the nation that we were at the front of the queue for vaccines. We weren’t.

Chippy has also been the Minister of Education. In fact, during his watch we have learned that almost half of our kids aren’t going to school regularly, and our educational achievement levels are worse than ever.

However, and again like his predecessor, our new PM is a good communicator. He’s sharp and witty and likeable. He’s youthful. I’m told he has a nice smile. Despite the failures listed above, he’s regarded as trustworthy. Sound familiar?

These qualities are already influencing the first political polls under Hipkins’ leadership, with a much-needed bounce for the Government leaving a Newshub political reporter struggling to contain her excitement.

Hipkins is going to need those communication and public relations skills too. Because he has a hell of a mess to clean up and some explaining to do.

We’re told that he’s likely to dramatically soften the Government’s co-governance position on Three Waters.

There’s also a rumour that he’s likely to put a stop to the $370 million merger of Radio NZ and TVNZ. He might even step back from the extreme nature of the so-called health reforms. And word on the street is the Government’s much-heralded light rail system for Auckland might be about to get chopped.

On the face of it, these decisions are likely to partially appease many of those who have become so angry with this Government. There are just a couple of problems.

First, these projects are the Government’s flagship policies. Whether you agree with them or not, if they are variously watered down or even terminated, what will this Government have left in terms of achievements? Not much.

Second, they have already spent outrageous sums of money on these projects. And sooner or later they are going to have to explain the waste. How much has been spent on these initiatives without an outcome?

Consultants’ bonanza, indigestible policies

I understand that we have spent $70m on the business case for Auckland light rail alone. Let’s not forget the $52m of consulting fees on Auckland’s bicycle path over the harbour. This is spending that many well-qualified people suggested was not necessary or justified in the first instance. It turns out that they were right. That is now money wasted.

The only people whose business model is working are the consultants.

As taxpayers, many, but by no means all of us, contribute between 20 and 39 per cent of our income to enable these people to run the country. It is downright disrespectful to those taxpayers to spend a whole lot of money, many tens of millions in these cases, only to put politically indigestible policies on hold in an election year.

A decent journo needs to ask the new Prime Minister to explain Labour’s desire to splash the cash. In case they haven’t noticed, we’re borrowing a billion dollars a week. The Finance Minister repeatedly says our books are no worse than those of other countries. But that doesn’t make it right. Simply put, it’s like not worrying about your $1m mortgage because your neighbour owes $1.5m.

The Christchurch earthquakes occurred when we had a bit of a war chest. Auckland’s floods have come at a time when that war chest is empty, its contents largely spent over the past five years by the sixth Labour Government on Covid-19 and a range of unnecessary projects. Hipkins has been one of the architects of that miserable outcome.

Fortunately for Auckland Transport, their Elton John debacle was dwarfed by the need for media coverage of the rain and subsequent flooding that hit Auckland last Friday night. That flooding brought the new Mayor of Auckland his first crisis.

Unlike the PM, Mayor Wayne Brown is not good at press conferences. He appears tired and grumpy rather than happy and chatty. But a few short months ago we voted overwhelmingly for him. When we voted, we knew he didn’t like the media and that he could be a grumpy bugger. But we bought his suggestion that Auckland needs fixing and that he knows how to fix things. To be fair, and unlike many politicians, he has a track record of doing that.

Now, I have no business defending Mr Brown. I don’t know him and have met him briefly only once, probably about 15 years ago during an introduction that he would not remember. But contrary to much of the criticism floating around this week, the floods and their outcome are not Wayne Brown’s fault.

There was a press photo of Brown and Hipkins taken on Saturday. They both looked stunned by the enormity of what was going on around them. Much was made of Brown appearing to be freaking out. For the record, Hipkins looks just as traumatised. But you know what? It’s just a photo. Just because they both look like they’re freaking out, doesn’t mean they are.

Besides, when you’re running a city and hillside homes start sliding into the valleys, and roads and footpaths start collapsing, it’s hard to look great in a photo.

And in a situation moving so rapidly, I understand how it can be hard to get the PR right. The PR was badly handled. But the public relations slip-ups are not the lead story. There are plenty of other questions that need answering.

One of those questions is about what happened to our emergency response team. We have people on the council payroll whose job it is to help prepare the city and to plan for such events. Many of those people have been in the job a lot longer than Brown and his predecessor Phil Goff combined. Where were those people last weekend?

Instead of looking for answers to these questions, it seems we were more interested in hearing that Mayor Brown had emailed councillors in order to attempt to manage the communication flow. One councillor accused the mayor of asking councillors to “button it”. But that’s not what happened.

The Herald published Brown’s email and I read it. It is a perfectly reasonable and logical attempt by a leader to manage the way crisis communications are handled. In it, Brown suggests he and the deputy mayor handle the PR and communications on the macro and regional matters, and elected councillors, who are closer to the local communities, “continue to talk publicly about what’s happening in your local communities”.

At least one councillor appears to have objected to that approach because that email was leaked to the press.

One councillor chose to publish their reply to the mayor, telling him he was out of line. On the issue of the mayoral email, the only person in the wrong was that councillor. Crisis management is a team game. In this situation, you’re in it for the good of the community, not for scoring political points.

My suggestion is that we put all the nonsense about Wayne Brown’s press conferences behind us and get focused on what needs to happen. Just like Christchurch before us, we need to rebuild our city. The damage is not as dramatic as Christchurch. But it’s more widely spread, and it’s happened hard on the heels of 10 years of rapidly increasing building costs. It’s going to be expensive.

The good news is that we’ll get another regional building boom, just like Christchurch had. We’ll also get an injection of cash into our economy from overseas-owned insurance companies. Those two factors may help to drive us out of the recession we’ve been talking about.

Rebuilding challenge

But we have some problems too. Where will the money come from to rebuild the roads? In Northland, Coromandel and Waikato we have roads out of action on a holiday weekend. The businesses at the ends of those roads need the tourists they deliver. Some of those roads are now closed for months.

We need to pay for them and we need to rebuild them better than they were before. We have to rebuild stormwater systems and other infrastructure. The money will have to come from savings elsewhere. Cutting spending is not one of this Government’s strengths.

We need know-how too. We are already short of workers. Tradies are in short supply. And we’re short of leaders who know how to get things done. If our officials couldn’t see their way to open up the immigration lines before, they have no choice now.

The reality is we have plenty of politicians who don’t front unless there’s a camera crew, an adoring journalist and a microphone to hold onto. Let’s face it, it’s hard to get a front-row seat at the floods when Jacinda and Chlöe are in town.

Our new Prime Minister might surprise us. But in a city that needs to rebuild and recover from last weekend, having a Mayor who understands engineering, and knows how to get stuff done, albeit without a microphone at hand, might just turn out to be our saving grace.

This article first appeared in The New Zealand Herald on Saturday 18th February 2023.