By Daphne Lawless
August 24, 2013 -- [From Fightback, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission]
The latest opinion polls put John Minto – teacher, veteran activist and MANA movement candidate – in third place in the race for mayor of Tamaki Makaurau/Auckland, to be held on October 12, 2013. Why has John Minto decided to run for the most powerful urban office in Aotearoa/New Zealand? He hesitates for quite a long time before answering – he calls it “the hardest question”.
It’s certainly not a question of seeking the limelight. A recent interview in the NZ Herald by Michelle Hewitson focussed relentlessly on delving Minto’s personality – and bringing up what John calls “the wallpaper of history” about his 30-year activist career. So he seems quite relieved that Fightback is interested in his campaign’s politics.
“I wouldn’t have stood as an independent”, he tells us. The MANA Movement is “keen to raise its profile in the community”, he explains, as a “building-block” for the general election next year.
A major goal of the Minto for Mayor campaign, John explains, is to change the perception of MANA as simply a Maori Party split, with Pakeha (European-ethnicity) leftists merely being supporters of Maori aspirations. John gives this as the reason why, in the last New Zealand general election in 2011,“all of the MANA candidates in general seats bombed”, and only their main Maori spokesperson, Hone Harawira, was elected to parliament.
Building “a broader base for MANA in Tamaki” is thus a crucial goal of the campaign. To this end, John mentions the role of revolutionary leftists – in particular the Socialist Aotearoa group – in his campaign, alongside single-issue activists such as the Tamaki Housing Group and some individual Green Party members.
Len Brown, the incumbent mayor of Auckland, was elected as a centre-left candidate, but his time in office has been marked by fence-sitting and compromise with the forces of big business. One major issue that the MANA campaign harps on is Brown’s silence while the municipal council-owned Ports of Auckland locked out its waterside workers. As mayor, Minto explains, “I would absolutely weigh in on the side of the workers.”
Some argue that a left-wing mayor would be restricted in what he or she could do by their council or by the “commercial independence” of the municipal council-controlled organisations (CCOs). Minto will have none of this. “The mayor has got enormous power – if [the mayor] gets involved, the thing is going to be sorted.” He has no illusions that his policies “would be fought fiercely” by the usual suspects such as the Chamber of Commerce – “that’s when you have to call on the community for support.”
The Minto for Mayor campaign certainly stands out in the Auckland elections on the basis of its emphasis on policy (see the Minto for Mayor campaign website HERE.]. John’s billboards emphasise one of his core planks – “Free and Frequent Public Transport”. This contrasts with the meaningless buzzwords like “strong voices”, “community” and “caring” put about by the other campaigns and candidates.
John Minto on free and frequent public transport.
“We’ve got big solutions to the problems facing Auckland”, says Minto. “Our four major policies will bring major benefits to low-income people, particularly."
“Free and Frequent Public Transport” is the #1 plank of Minto for Mayor. The Brown administration has recently crowed of its successes in negotiating $10 billion of transport funding from central government – although the majority of this will be spent on roads.
Minto doesn’t mince words about what he thinks of this – “a crock”. He points out that experts agree that road-building cannot avert total gridlock in Auckland within seven years. Minto predicts that the government’s plan is to force Auckland to privatise the Ports of Auckland and other choice infrastructure assets to fund public transport.
“Len Brown won’t withstand the pressure”, John adds. “He’s a roll-over mayor.” He rejects road tolls and congestion charges – “driving low-income workers off the roads” – as alternative funding mechanisms.
“The cost of congestion should be put on employers and businesses, rather than low income workers”, he insists. “We can gridlock-free the city within 12 months, at at least half the cost of these new road projects. If the people of Auckland speak with a loud voice, the government will follow.”
No one – apart from some for the wilder ideologues of the right – disputes that Auckland needs better, more frequent and more comprehensive public transport. At the moment, commuters face a choice of “two expensive options”, as Minto puts it. Free and frequent public transport would clear congestion from the roads and thus offer two good options.
Nevertheless, we put to John some of the arguments raised against free public transport: that it would cause the system to collapse under too much demand, that homeless people would sleep on the buses and cause a nuisance, and that Auckland is too big for such a trial to work.
John showed very little patience for the first two arguments, calling them “brainless” and “bullshit”. He doesn’t see any difficulty with doubling the number of buses on the road before the Central Rail Link comes online. But what about the fact that the cities where free public transport has been trialled – such as Tallinn, the capital of Estonia – are quite a bit smaller than Auckland?
“Many cities of all sizes around the world are now looking at free public transport”, John argues. “It has traditionally been a thing in smaller towns and cities, but it’s moving into the bigger ones. Auckland is ideally placed to benefit – everything has been designed for cars here. We can break out of this with free and frequent public transport. It will change the culture of Auckland, the way that people see themselves and their place in the city.”
For this reason, Minto is not in favour of immediately removing minimum parking requirements for business and homes, which some argue would make for cheaper housing. “There are families living way out west or south who currently need three, four or even five cars. But this will change once free public transport becomes a reality.”
The second major policy of John’s campaign has been dealing with Auckland’s housing crisis. The current council’s Unitary Plan promotes a future of intensified (apartment, flat or townhouse) housing, as opposed to the sprawl of stand-alone houses which currently constitutes Auckland suburbia. Does John agree with the arguments of some activists that this is a recipe for “slummification”?
John Minto on affordable housing.
“In the case of [the working-class suburb of] Glen Innes, it absolutely is”, says Minto. “They’re replacing existing state housing with eight-story slums in the town centre. We’ve seen this happen overseas – they’ll be rubbish quality.” He adds that the council is handing social housing over to the private sector, “so you have an additional landlord screwing you as well as the state. The Unitary Plan is a blueprint for developers, not for communities.”
“There are affordability issues across Auckland, but the sharpest point is on low-income families who need affordable rental homes”, John argues. MANA’s solution is to build “20,000 state-of-the-art, warm, dry, affordable rental homes” on municipal council-owned land. These will be “a mix” of stand-alone and high-density housing. Minto admits that “inevitably there will be a huge waiting list”, but in his first term as mayor he could commit to getting all the building projects underway.
Minto has no problem with the idea of intensification, or that Auckland should be growing “up” rather than out. But he insists that low-income families will still need stand-alone housing. “Families need wide spaces to grow up in – they’re not growing to grow up on the sixth floor of an apartment building.”
How would Mayor Minto deal with the issue of homelessness, given the Auckland Council’s recent by-law against “nuisance” begging? John points out that this is the result of the “massive inequality” brought to New Zealand by neoliberalism and the economic crisis. “The most useful thing we could do would be to reduce inequality over all. We could improve our education, our health, all of our social indicators which have gone backwards over the last decades.”
Equality and democracy
The third major policy of the Minto campaign is for a living wage for all council employees and contractors, backed by a “maximum wage” for its leaders. This would lead to the mayor taking a small pay cut, and the CEO of the council taking a large one.
MANA is additionally standing 12 candidates for the council and the various local boards in working-class South and West Auckland. Minto doesn’t necessarily want a reversal of the “Super City” amalgamation of Auckland under a single council – but insists on a shift in power within the organisation, as his fourth major policy.
“The current Super City is not democratic at all. Three quarters of the rates charged go to the CCOs, where there’s no accountability. We’re saying that they have go come back under the democratic control of the people of Auckland. This far-right model has introduced private sector values of greed and ratcheting up of senior managers’ salaries.”
Quite presciently, Minto talks about “needing to look at the whole contracting model under the Super City”, currently worth about $800 million. “We want to move away from contracting, back to employing people directly. It provides greater stability, and cuts out the middle-man.”
(About a week after we did this interview, the news came out that the CCO Auckland Transport had reported possible corruption among its contractors to the Serious Fraud Office, and a senior manager had been stood down.)
But Minto insists that MANA doesn’t want for the Auckland Council to become “a big Stalinist centralised bureaucracy”. He calls for a devolution of power to the 21 local boards under the Super City. “We want local communities given decisions for themselves on fast food outlets, liquor outlets, and pokies [slot machines] in their areas – where, and how many.” These community organisations could also be empowered to deal with local petty crime.
“In this way, we can build a real grassroots democracy in Auckland. What we have is mass disillusionment – not apathy. Only 40% of people will probably vote in this election – thinking, no matter who I vote for, it doesn’t matter.”
What side he’s on
So what’s the feeling out on the streets? “We’ve got some really good coverage of the public transport policy”, John says. “Len Brown wants to ignore all policy debate, because he wants to coast through on… nothing, really – a big grin and PR spin."
“It’s my role to cut through that and put policies forward. By the time this campaign is finished, people will know which side we’re on.” Minto doubts that younger people and immigrant communities will be even be aware of his activist history about which the mass media seem fascinated. “I’ve been out there talking, and getting really positive feedback.”
“MANA has policies for everybody”, John emphasises. However, he thinks it’s really good for the revolutionary left to be involved in such a “broad” campaign. “We do need revolutionary change, however you see that happening. New Zealand has become so laissez-faire in economics that the Chinese are lecturing us about it. We need to work towards a Kiwi socialism, that won’t necessarily look like socialism in any other country.
“But you have to take people from where they’re at. If you come in from the outside and preach at people – as so many leftists have over the years – people don’t understand the message, and you have a complete disconnect. We have to win people to these big policies – and when they see the power that they have to implement such gainst, the whole world opens up.
“We can dramatically change our economy, get rid of the parasites from it, bring back community controls.” Minto talks about the Mondragon co-operative in the Basque Country within Spain, which has accomplished “zero unemployment” in its areas. “There’s all sorts of models.”
And what’s John Minto’s future? “I’m committed to MANA seeing through to the end of next year. We’ll see if we’re able to break into to the Pakeha world and engage people. If not, it’s probably the wrong vehicle at the wrong time. I’m pretty relaxed about it, but I’m going to give it my everything.”