Monday, August 06, 2012
Urban Legend - Sir Dove-Myer Robinson by John Edgar (Hodder Moa, $40.00) .
Review by Gordon McLauchlan
If you define Sir Dover-Myer Robinson by the nature of his enemies, he emerges from this biography as heroic -- a long-sighted politician and strategist who fought to develop a big, competently managed city for people to live in comfortably and well; but he was almost always thwarted by opponents who were myopic political tacticians, protecting their bailiwick boroughs against the nasty prospect of progress.
Most long-time Aucklanders will find their recollections confirmed by this book: the Citizens and Ratepayers organisation was for decades a shelter for stodgy, self-satisfied Establishment figures for whom progress was best impeded and the future was foreseen as an extension of the present.
However, if you consider “Robbie” -- his nickname for most of his record six terms as Auckland mayor – for the quality of his social life then he fails as a man of caring and decency.
Let us dispose of this first and then get on with his contribution to Auckland as a city and region. His treatment of women was awful and of his family appalling. Their need for a loving husband and father remained unrequited. In the end, justly, he became a lonely old man, a condition he had inflicted on himself by disregarding their emotional needs as he pursued his political ambitions and sought out those who would pander to his considerable ego. Lonely and bereft, he even tried to lure back his fourth wife who had left him some years before, feeling a side-show to his main act.
Robinson came to power in Auckland as he fought almost single-handedly against a council plan to fix the effluent problem in the Waitemata by simply moving the outflow further out, to Browns Island. The plan was supported by council members,and their engineers who should have known better. The common sense of the public gradually understood that Robinson’s plan for a sewage treatment plant was visionary and sensible. He thus won and saved our beaches.
Next, he tried to build a regional government, something Arthur Myers, the mayor of more than a century before, had attempted but failed. Robinson, too, failed in the face of opposition by the parish pumpers of tiny boroughs. He was instrumental in getting the Auckland RegionalCouncil set up but it was a pale organisation compared with the one he thought necessary.
His final big strategy was to put a rapid rail system in place. He quite accurately predicted Auckland would need superior public transport to avoid the jammed up raids we have today. He was eventually worn down by borough, city and regional councillors– including Tom Pearce, chairman of the regional authority, a man so archly conservative he was opposed to a civic reception for The Beatles because they were long-haired larrikins. This, despite the fact that “the people” returned Robinson to office six times.
Pearce and others prevailed on Rob Muldoon and then Norman Kirk to oppose the scheme -- which had the sort of foresight that planned wide-gauge rail to provide for bullet-train speeds .
To underline how bitter had been the exchanges between Robinson and his opponents over the years, his implacable foe, Reg Savoury, one-time city councillor and later chairman of the Auckland Harbour Board, was grossly unsavoury enough to more than once refer to him behind his back as “Jew boy”.
Whatever Robinson’s failings as a person, Aucklanders can be grateful to him for fighting beyond the call of duty to keep our city healthy and our beaches clean for recreation, and we can only lament that his vision of a well run Greater Auckland with a highly developed public transport system was frustrated by some pretty mean-minded fellow politicians.
This biography is very readable and mostly even-handed.
Gordon McLauchlan is an Auckland-based writer and commentator, and occasional reviewer on this blog.