Power Play: Flooding disaster showed up major failures in local Auckland leadership

1:26 pm on 30 January 2023
Auckland mayor Wayne Brown visits the Mangere Emergency Centre following the Auckland floods on Friday, 27 January to see how they are supporting victims.

Auckland mayor Wayne Brown visits the Māngere emergency centre on Sunday. Photo: RNZ/Angus Dreaver

Power Play - Aucklanders did not get the political leadership they deserve as they face the aftermath of Friday night's devastating floods.

They needed reassurance, the confidence of strong leadership and clear direction. While the emergency response kicked into high gear on the ground, the political response was sadly lacking.

During Saturday's media conference, mayor Wayne Brown seemed most interested in rolling out justifications against accusations of an initial absence of communications and that he waited too long to trigger the state of emergency, making it clear he was just following the advice of the experts.

In his first major test as prime minister, Chris Hipkins allowed himself to be sidelined during a pivotal media event he should have made his own.

Or perhaps he was physically distancing himself from Brown's political trainwreck of a performance.

The mayor took the opportunity to deliver long, rambling excuses for failures, his defensiveness overshadowing the focus on those reeling from the severity of the floods, and trying to deal with the aftermath.

After thanking the emergency response, and expressing "bitter regret" for lives lost, he moved on to the official response, telling reporters it was "quicker than people acknowledge "and that he had signed the declaration as soon as it was needed by those on the front line.

The stony faces of the ministers standing off to the side were telling a different story.

Brown said he had been "communicating all afternoon with the emergency services and understanding what it is that they want". However, it was not the response on the ground that was drawing criticism as the night unfolded - it was primarily aimed at the timing of his crucial sign-off of the local state of emergency declaration.

Even the next day he downplayed its significance, saying "some people think the declaration was needed for work to be done, it wasn't at all, it was just a small part of the whole thing - you've got to understand that."

Emergency services were fully deployed around Auckland but a state of emergency allows national resources to be deployed, including for communications - which on Friday night were woefully inadequate - and the co-ordination that comes with a national response.

It also gives emergency responders the powers they need to evacuate people, or keep people out of dangerous areas.

Emergency Management Minister Kieran McAnulty could have over-ridden the mayor and called the local state of emergency, but that could have caused difficulties if that got ahead of the local response on the ground. It's also a big call to go over the head of the person elected locally to do that job.

Another option could have been for the minister to call a national state of emergency but the main criteria for that is basically if there is a lack of front line resources, which there were not. Look out for a law change, that's been in the works for some time, aimed at giving the responsible minister more flexibility when faced with a similar situation.

The declaration was finally signed at 9.29pm, but not before Brown had been publicly urged to act by other political leaders, including McAnulty and opposition leader Christopher Luxon.

At 10.14pm McAnulty tweeted: "The Mayor of Auckland has declared a state of emergency. NEMA (National Emergency Management Agency) can now provide additional support and resources from other regions".

People around the city and wider region had expressed their alarm, their disappointment and fear with what they felt what a lack of communication, and questions about whether the mayor had been quick enough to act.

Hipkins flew up to Auckland on an airforce plane on Saturday morning and surveyed the damage from a chopper. His subsequent media conference, where he was accompanied by the mayor and officials leading the response, was supposed to be about giving confidence, providing real-time information and making Aucklanders feel central and local government was there, present and focused on their most urgent needs.

Instead, it was dominated by excuses about Friday night's response and the array of reasons of why it had not been up to par.

It was the chance for Hipkins to shine in his first prime ministerial days; he delivered his scripted lines at the start, gave some reassurance and pledges of support, but at times allowed himself to be sidelined by Brown and his bluster - at one point he'd backed so far away from the bank of microphones he was right out of the camera shot.

When asked directly if he had confidence in the leadership within the Auckland Council, the PM opted not to take up the opportunity to back the mayor, prompting an awkward laugh from Brown standing right behind him. "That's not a question for me ... the local response is led locally", ducked Hipkins.

The night before, the first ministerial intervention was from McAnulty, calling Brown a few hours before he signed off on the declaration, urging him to take action.

The second was from Transport Minister, Michael Wood to transport agency Waka Kotahi, which tapped out of social media updates at 7.15pm on Friday as the city was becoming overwhelmed and transport networks inundated, promising to come back online the following morning.

A completely unacceptable response from a key government agency when so many people were desperately seeking information, a message delivered by the minister,

There was a rather feeble attempt at presenting a united front on the Saturday, ministers looking unimpressed after their frustrations of the night before, when the Beehive bunker had been activated but those in Wellington left sitting there waiting for Brown to push go.

One thing on which they all agree, there are many, many lessons to be learned - cold comfort to the Aucklanders who feel let down and abandoned by the city's leaders.

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