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Brown’s Budget Blackmail Bluff

09 Jun 2023

The Mayor didn't even mention the arts as Auckland Council's budget debate got serious.  Verity Johnson explains why she reckons that's a good thing and asks are we seeing the real Wayne Brown?


Last week, it felt like Wayne Brown really was a septuagenarian Sheriff of Nottingham. 

Actually - the past few months since he announced his original budget, with the proposed slashing of $35.6 million from the arts, it’s felt like living in a highwayman’s tale. 

Those deep, bloody cuts to arts funding felt less like cost cutting and more like cost amputation. The type that happened in the 17th century when someone chloroformed you, strapped you to a table and told you that you didn’t need two legs anyway. 

Thank God we fought back. The cuts prompted community uproar, excellent arts activism campaigns, and all-round merry hell. And for a moment, it looked like we’d won. 

Brown held up his hands. He’d listened. He’d heard us. He heard the people sing that they didn’t want the cuts, and so there wouldn’t be any…But then, just over a week ago, he said that if opposition councillors didn’t pass his airport share sales budget, the cuts to the arts and community would be reinstated. 

In a clap of thunder, he’d gone from saving the arts, to throwing us over a barrel and holding us hostage to force his opposition to agree with him. 

God, you can’t make this stuff up. It was so unbelievably un-mayoral that he should have donned a tricorn hat and delivered the whole announcement from the back of a stagecoach. 

So, blindsided and blindfolded, the arts community thrashed and kicked its way towards yesterday’s budget debate. What would Brown do? Would we be spared? Would we stay hostage? Would it be the airport’s money or the arts’ life? 

 And yet….nothing. Nothing happened. Brown came to yesterday’s meeting as a different man. Or at least far more open and conciliatory than he’s been so far in this lurid tale. 

He tabled a round robin, listened to everyone’s opinions, and has now proposed a compromise budget consisting of a partial airport shares sale, increased rates, increased borrowing and reinstating cuts to local boards. He was….negotiating. And, instead of holding us as a creative community hostage, he didn’t even really talk about us. 

And so - whisper it - it looks like the cuts actually have been stopped. 

Well, they still haven’t agreed on the final budget yet so it still all could change. (And we don’t yet know if the reintroduced cuts to local boards will affect things like community grants.) But there’s no mention of the original arts cuts being reinstated in his newly proposed budget.

And - for all of his pistols at dawn grandstanding - yesterday was not a hostage negotiation. Actually, reinstating the arts cuts wasn’t even really talked about, let alone using them to force his opposition to obey. So, while many things are still uncertain, it seems we’re no longer over a barrel. And what’s more, we’re getting a clearer-eyed picture of who we’re dealing with. 

This past week, Brown has been calling his councillors financially illiterate, forwarding emails in which they’re called dipshits (although he says a member of his staff did this, not him), trying to ban mainstream media coverage of his announcements…he’s clearly fighting everyone and anyone who disagrees with him. He can talk a big, nasty game. 

Yet, he’s also not totally unreasonable. Nor is he stupid. He didn’t reinstate those cuts, nor follow through on using them as blackmail because he knew how unpopular it’d be. And so we should give thanks to our arts community champions, like the Stop The Cuts campaign, and the thousands of everyday Aucklanders who supported us in the budget feedback. 

And for all his stand-and-deliver tactics, he’s too smart to follow through on blackmail. After all, he’s still a democratic leader and not going to openly discard the wants and needs of his electorate. So no, he’s not the Sheriff. 

Instead, he’s a gnarly-ass poker player who has been playing one helluva bluff with our sector.