National Party faces awkward situation in Auckland
By Richard Harman (author)
Once again the Auckland National Party is at loggerheads with itself – this time over the Council’s proposed targeted accommodation rate.
Both Prime Minister Bill English and his deputy, Tourism Minister Paula Bennett say the imposition of the rate is up to the Council.
English told his weekly press conference this week that the rate was a matter for the Council.
Bennett opposes it and since she is Tourism Minister, it has to be presumed that it is Government policy to oppose it.
But a spokesperson for Bennett said she had not directed anybody on the Council how to vote.
However, two National Party members of the Council voted in favour.
One, Desley Simpson, is the wife of the party president.
And another, Denise Lee, is the party's candidate in the Maugakiekie electorate.
One senior source in the party told POLITIK the situation was “awkward”.
There are suggestions which POLITIK has heard from two separate sources that Bennett tried to lobby Lee to get her to vote against the proposal.
But Lee resisted Bennett’s overtures.
Bennet’s office, however, say that there was no formal approach by Bennett though the two are friends and it is possible the issue came up in conversation.
Lee wasn't talking last night but there has been speculation that she is keen to stay onside with Auckland Mayor Phil Goff in case she fails to win the Maungakiekie seat and her list ranking is too low to make it back to Parliament.
Ironically Lee is the only Councillor elected from the new National Party-aligned Auckland Future which was supposed to bring discipline to the centre right on the Council.
The full decision on the targeted accommodation rate ahs yet to go to the full Council but the vote by the three National Party councillors has alarmed business lobbyists in the city who are seeking a more consistent pro-business line from the Council.
The right wing columnist Whaleoil has suggested that such is the anger within National over Lee;’s vote that she may find she is despatched down National’s list.
But senior party sources said this would not happen.
What seems more likely is that the party might not be as enthusiastic about supporting her electorate campaign.
National Party officials say that the two Councillors explained their vote by saying that by raising extra revenue for tourism promotion through the targeted rate, $30 million previously allocated from general rates for the promotion could now go back into the Council's general fund.
Desley Simpson explained that in a video.
“This budget proposes a targeted rate on the accommodation sector which would fund tourism promotion, therefore releasing of the general rates to be used in funding infrastructure which is so desperately needed.”
But the Government opposes moves which would see the Council raise more revenue rather than address its cost base.
And it opposes tourism levies generally.
Speaking on TVOne’s “Q+A” in April, Bennett said she was personally not a big fan of tourist or hotel taxes.
“We’re really expensive to visit," she said.
“We don’t want to be seen as a rip-off.”
But despite Bennett’s influence within the Government, and her friendship with Denise Lee, and despite Simpson being the wife of the National Party President, the three National Councillors all voted against what was clearly a Government policy which was all the more political because the Labour Leader, Andrew Little, has proposed tourist levies.
Denise Lee yesterday supplied POLITIK with this statement: "I supported the targeted rate as an Aucklander because I think we need to ensure a growing city like ours is targeting those who are putting pressure on our infrastructure but I don't see this is a silver bullet. The council needs to continue to look at its asset base, spending, sensible use of debt, and procurement practise."
This report has also been edited to reflect the fact that Cr Linda Cooper, a National Party member,abstained from the vote because of a conflict of interest.