Bryce Edwards: How authorities failed Aucklanders in an emergency

Bryce Edwards: How authorities failed Aucklanders in an emergency

How much confidence should the public have in authorities managing natural disasters? Not much, judging by the farcical way in which the civil defence emergence in Auckland has played out.

The way authorities dealt with Auckland’s extreme weather on Friday illustrated how hit-and-miss our civil defence emergency system is. In particular, the communications failures made the crisis much worse than it needed to be.

Wayne Brown and the Auckland Council being blamed

Government agencies are being criticised for their incompetence in dealing with Friday’s disaster. But the politician with the most questions to answer is the recently-elected mayor Wayne Brown.

Brown has been charged by many as being asleep at the wheel during the crisis. When the public was expecting leadership on Friday, they got silence. Brown was missing in action throughout the day and most of the evening. Although he finally announced a state of emergency at 10:17pm, there’s a strong consensus that this should have come many hours earlier.

Yesterday one of Brown’s own staff members told a journalist “we’re doing a terrible job”, and Aucklanders will agree. Brown himself now admits that “some incorrect decisions” may have been made.

Broadcaster Rachel Smalley says today that it’s now clear that Brown “does not have the core competencies to lead a city through a crisis”. She points out that when the Mayor communicated with the public “he was combative, rude, belligerent, and seemed focused on protecting his reputation. And this in the hours that followed confirmation that Aucklanders had died in the floods.”

Lack of communication with the public

All central and government agencies did a very bad job of communicating with Aucklanders on Friday evening. Auckland’s Emergency Management proved particularly unhelpful to the public during the chaos of Friday. This council-run agency is responsible for co-ordinating civil defence, and yet it didn’t release any sort of statement until 6pm on Friday – despite it being clear that a massive weather emergency was brewing. Between 6pm and 10pm it issued no social media alerts at all. Auckland Transport also left most travellers in the dark.

As for New Zealand’s civil defence mobile phone message warning system, this failed to kick in. It only issued warnings to Aucklanders’ phones on Sunday night – over 48 hours too late.

Many Aucklanders said they felt abandoned on Friday. Authorities normally keep in touch with the public throughout a disaster. According to Civil Defence minister Kieran McAnulty, “Even when there’s nothing new to say, we have to keep talking to people” – ideally every 30 minutes. This didn’t happen.

Today the Herald points out in its editorial that during the day, “There was ample time for local authorities to alert people during the day to the fact [the weather] was expected to get worse”. The newspaper admonishes authorities for failing to communicate crucial information that could have helped: “People needed phone alerts of the worsening storm and advice so they could get home or shift to higher ground early. In particular the suburbs being hit hardest needed attention. A live press conference to announce a state of emergency and evacuation centres in the early afternoon would have helped.”

The Herald’s Simon Wilson pinpoints the crucial role that Mayor Brown should have played throughout Friday: “Brown has not grasped that it’s the job of political leaders to lead from the front, visibly, in times of crisis. Think Bob Parker in his orange raincoat during the Christchurch earthquakes. John Key after Pike River, Jacinda Ardern over and over again. In a crisis, political leaders are supposed to soak up people’s fears.”

Stuff’s Todd Niall adds: “Being mayor is about more than crunching budget numbers and table-thumping to deliver election promises. It’s about being visibly there for Aucklanders when they expect him to.”

Brown did eventually give an informal press conference, at 11:14pm, to which many media organisations weren’t even invited. And when he spoke on the radio the next morning he wasn’t able to answer simple questions such as whether the tap water was safe to drink.

State of emergency declared too late

Many politicians – ranging from Auckland city councillors through to Opposition leader Christopher Luxon – have complained that Wayne Brown and his council staff should have declared a state of emergency many hours earlier than they did. Luxon even resorted to tweeting his request to Brown to do so.

Brown has since explained that he left this issue to the Auckland Emergency Management team, which has the official role of advising on this.

Auckland Emergency Management says that they started to consider a state of emergency at about 5pm on Friday, and decided against one at 6pm. Brown says he eventually signed the declaration at 9:27pm. But, strangely, it wasn’t publicly announced until nearly an hour later.

A Failure of leadership

In defending his role in delay, Brown has said he had to let the bureaucracy do its job and follow the correct process: “The state of emergency is a prescribed process. It’s quite formal. I had to wait until I had the official request from the emergency management centre”.

The council staff became a clear focus for Brown’s defence, with him adding: “I rely on the professionals to tell me exactly what steps to take, and I follow those exactly”.

The problem is that Brown was supposed to be a mayor who would get things done, and push aside the bureaucracy in order to be effective. As Simon Wilson points out, “He won an election by excoriating the professionals in charge of the City Rail Link, Auckland Transport, Ports of Auckland and other council agencies.”

For political commentator Liam Hehir this is the age-old problem with populist politicians: “Populists often campaign on promises to shake up the status quo and disrupt entrenched bureaucracy, but once they attain power, they often find the comforts and excuse making of bureaucracy too easy to hide behind. This is particularly true in situations where difficult decisions must be made and accountability is required.”

Hehir therefore says, “It’s so revealing that, after holding himself out as someone impatient with bureaucracy, the Mayor of Auckland seems determined to hide behind it.”

What’s more, Hehir says that even if the state of emergency process had to take as long as it did, this didn’t prevent Brown from staying in touch with Auckland: “what was to stop him talking directly to the public about the need to evacuate and using his bully pulpit to harangue officials into action?”

By Sunday, Brown was back to blaming staff for the late state of emergency declaration. In a visit to a community hall in Māngere, he was reported as saying that there “may have been some incorrect decisions from the emergency management group.”

Blaming the bureaucracy and PR professionals

Increasingly, the bureaucracy is being blamed for the poor management of Auckland’s weather disaster. Of course, public servants are absolutely crucial for making society function properly. But too often the system can become bureaupathic, with rules and procedures becoming more important than producing the right outcomes. Officials themselves can become more driven by self-interest than by serving the public interest.

In this regard, Liam Hehir also suggests that an unhealthy bureaucracy can make things worse, arguing that too often “officialdom can serve to perpetuate and worsen a disaster” and “layers of red tape and regulations prevent swift and decisive action, ultimately leading to a lack of accountability.”

We saw on Friday night that one of the worst examples of this was when Waka Kotahi – the government agency tasked with roads – logged off early in the disaster, tweeting that they were finishing for the night about 7:30pm, and leaving road users to their own devices.

The modern public service is now dominated by a “public relations focus” which is more about “political spin” than public service. Comms staff – both in central and local government – are now a huge part of the budget, and have an increasingly influential role in shaping how politics works.

As we have seen in recent years, the job of comms and PR specialists is increasingly about damage limitation, preventing public information from getting out, and spinning news so their bosses look good. And politicians themselves are increasingly all about communicating good news and messages about themselves. Their core mode is to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. Hence when the politicians and the comms staff must communicate essential information they are in unknown territory – many simply aren’t able to deal with the realities of natural disasters.

Of course, the blame can’t be all shifted to the bureaucracy – the Mayor himself has proven to be the worst communicator of all. He was already failing to front up to the public prior to Friday. It was reported last week that Brown had only agreed to two media interviews out of 108 requests.

Today’s Herald editorial points out that Brown will be remembered for his “tone-deaf” defence on Friday night that “my role isn’t to rush out with buckets”.

The Hipkins-led Government has come off better than Brown

Friday’s crisis was Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’ first chance to prove himself and his political management skills. Of course, he was always going to struggle in any comparison with his acclaimed predecessor.

The Herald’s Thomas Coughlan has evaluated Hipkins’ role, saying he was inferior to Ardern when it came to connecting emotionally and with empathy when he visited Auckland. For example, “Meeting residents, he at times didn’t know what to say when the cameras were rolling – a stark contrast with Ardern.”

But it was Saturday’s farcical press conference in which Hipkins shared with Wayne Brown that was particularly difficult. Hipkins stood alongside Brown, but the Prime Minister, together with his two other emergency ministers, were completely marginalised.

According to Coughlan: “This would not have happened under Ardern, who one can’t imagine ever sharing a platform with Brown in the first place, and if she had, would have found some way to control him. Ardern, a veteran of many crisis press briefings, never lost control of a press conference. Her ability to exert power over the press, by controlling the order of questions was famous to the parody, but what was less appreciated was her ability to control the cast of characters with whom she often shared a stage.”

So why did Hipkins allow Brown to monopolise the press conference? Coughlan suggests it might have been a simple case of Hipkins knowing to let Brown take the blame for what had happened.

But it could also be that Hipkins lost control to Brown: “That is concerning. As prime minister, he commands power incomparably greater than the others in the room, power his predecessor happily exerted in a time of crisis. He failed to exert that power in that moment”.

RNZ’s political editor Jane Patterson adds today that “Chris Hipkins allowed himself to be sidelined during a pivotal media event he should have made his own.” She says that this “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”.

Most importantly, however, when the Prime Minister was asked if he had confidence in Auckland’s local leadership, all Hipkins could say was: “that’s not a question for me”.

Aucklanders won’t be so inhibited. An increasing number are likely to see this as an early turning point in which they have lost confidence and regret the election of the self-proclaimed “Fix-It Mayor” who failed his first test. Already an online petition calling for Brown to resign has accumulated about 9000 signatures.

Although the mayor, as well as the emergency systems and authorities, obviously didn’t create the disaster, they had a responsibility to mitigate its worse effects, which they did not do. Lives have been lost, the public has faced significant disruption, and there have been billions of dollars of damage to property. The failures of authorities mean that these consequences have potentially been much worse than they needed to be.


Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.  


Further reading on the Auckland floods

Jane Patterson (RNZ): Flooding disaster showed up major failures in local Auckland leadership
Liam Hehir (The Blue Review): Please remain calm: Auckland and Chernobyl
Rachel Smalley (Today FM): The Mayor’s office quickly needs to sort out its communication
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Wayne Brown vs. everyone a test of Chris Hipkins’ power(paywalled)
Chris Trotter (Interest): After the deluge
Torika Tokalau and Todd Niall (Stuff): Auckland mayor Wayne Brown’s own staff: ‘We’re doing a terrible job’
Kelly Dennett (Stuff): Countdown to Chaos: As Aucklanders were desperately seeking safety, officials were silent
Simon Wilson (Herald): When Auckland needed him most, where was Wayne? (paywalled)
Tracy Watkins (Stuff): The missing minutes in the Auckland flood response
Todd Niall (Stuff): Wayne Brown appears to have missed what a mayor’s job is in a crisis
Mark Longley (Newshub): Petition set up to remove Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown over ‘unacceptable lack of leadership’
Suze Wilson (BusinessDesk): Where’s Mr Fix-It when you need him? (paywalled)
Herald Editorial: It’s important to learn from this disaster (paywalled)
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Wayne Brown must resign
Rachel Thomas (Stuff): Auckland’s state of emergency was too slow, says National’s Christopher Luxon
Shannon Johnstone (Hawkes Bay Today): How did Auckland’s flooding response compare with Napier’s in 2020?
Herald: Auckland Emergency Management sends weather warning alert to Aucklanders’ phones
Mohammad Alafeshat (RNZ): Wayne Brown on flood reaction: ‘There may have been some incorrect decisions’
Benn Bathgate (Stuff): No mayor to declare? – Emergency powers delegated in Tauranga says law professor
Gianina Schwanecke and Sinead Gill (Stuff): The delicate art of declaring an emergency, according to mayors who’ve done it
RNZ: Explainer: What is a state of emergency and who can call it?
RNZ: Auckland thunderstorm: Civil Defence texts not sent
James Renwick (The Conversation): The Auckland floods are a sign of things to come – the city needs stormwater systems fit for climate change
Kevin Trenberth (Newsroom): Why the north and east have had such a dreadful summer
1News: Wayne Brown pulled away from testy Auckland flood conference
Newshub: Mayor Wayne Brown caught in testy exchange over disaster communications
Jonathan Milne (Newsroom): State of emergency: Auckland floods ‘a wake-up call’
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): The Boomer King slept while Auckland drowned
Madeleine Chapman (Spinoff): Where is Wayne Brown?
Toby Manhire (Spinoff): Wayne Brown pens sternly worded letter to the rain
John Weekes (Stuff): Auckland floods: Insurers fly staff from Australia, South Island to handle huge number of claims
Emma Clark-Dow (Stuff): More than 6000 insurance claims lodged, with more expected
Brianna MciLraith (Stuff): Thousands of insurance claims lodged as residents assess damage
Brianna MciLraith (Stuff): Economic impact of Auckland floods will be ‘many millions’, business leaders say
Tina Morrison (Stuff): NZ construction industry too stretched for ‘enormous’ clean-up ahead
RNZ: Deputy PM Carmel Sepuloni on flooding response: ‘We do have each other’s backs’
Bridie Witton (Stuff): Deputy PM Carmel Sepuloni: Food, bedding, accommodation support for those who need it
Herald: Auckland floods: Storm-damaged schools offered extra support, return to class up to each board of trustees
1News: Auckland floods: Lorde and Chlöe Swarbrick pitch in to help
George Block (Herald): Auckland flooding: Houses on the edge as 141 yellow-stickered, 30 red-stickered


Other items of interest and importance today

Andrea Vance (Stuff): A man at ease with being called Chippy, vs a man who makes people call him Christopher
Luke Malpass (Stuff): Chris Hipkins vs Christopher Luxon: The tale of two Chrises
Heather du Plessis-Allan (Herald): Now is Chris Hipkins’ chance to prove he’s a different sort of leader (paywalled)
Claire Trevett (Herald): Chris Hipkins starts to wrestle Labour’s problems – can he win back an angry Auckland? (paywalled)
Janet Wilson (Stuff): The world of woke and why we need to take on the ‘new Puritans’
Bernard Hickey (Interest): New PM Chris Hipkins to use cabinet reshuffle and policy tweaks to try to distance Labour from Ardern and catch up to National
Fran O’Sullivan (Herald): Plenty of challenges for new PM Chris Hipkins (paywalled)
Brian Easton (Pundit): Christmas Briefing Papers
Rod Oram (Newsroom): What NZ doesn’t need – middle-aged, risk-averse Pākehā men with narrow backgrounds
Herald: Chris Hipkins v Christopher Luxon: Which Chris won the week? (paywalled)
Herald Editorial: Christopher Luxon versus Chris Hipkins (paywalled)
Virginia Fallon (Stuff): Chris down the Cossie: A glass of wine for $6 at prime minister’s ‘local’
Gianina Schwanecke (Stuff): Two of three Wellington general electorates being vacated ‘unusual’
Glenn McConnell (Stuff): Grant Robertson not contesting Wellington Central at election
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Grant Robertson to retire from electorate, run on party list
RNZ: Grant Robertson goes list-only, will not contest Wellington Central
David Farrar: Robbo set to bail
Vaimoana Mase (Herald): Carmel Sepuloni: The girl who grew up to be New Zealand’s first Pacific Deputy Prime Minister
Andrew Gunn (Stuff): ‘It’s a great advantage living in the real world’
Joe Bennett (Herald): Our new ‘humbled’ Prime Minister may be mincing his words(paywalled)
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Māori Party’s Malcolm X vs Labour’s Martin Luther King in Election 2023
Philip Temple (Newsroom): MMP and my part in the downfall of First Past the Post

Damien Grant (Stuff): Under Ardern’s guidance, we became the nasty team of 5 million
Elliot Crossan (Newsroom): Ardern squandered her chance at transformational change at every turn
Elliot Crossan (Newsroom): How Labour fell into crisis barely two years after its historic election win
Elliot Crossan (Newsroom): An uphill battle for Chris Hipkins
RNZ: Judging Jacinda Ardern on her seven biggest projects
David Farrar: Possible jobs for Jacinda
Michael Neilson and Claire Trevett (Herald): Jacinda Ardern goes from Prime Minister to backbencher – huge pay cut, new office and security (paywalled)
Herald: On the Tiles: Jacinda Ardern’s legacy and what comes next for Labour
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Beehive Diaries: Revealed – Jacinda Ardern’s secret cat(paywalled)

Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Three Waters entrenchment: Papers reveal months of planning to entrench provision, hidden meeting with Greens (paywalled)
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): How Chippy saves 3 Waters & Co-Governance
Susan Botting (Local Democracy Reporting): Northland’s first major fluoride-treated drinking water likely next year

Tom Pullar-Strecker (Stuff): What would become of TVNZ and RNZ if their merger is shelved?
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): How Chippy saves the TVNZ/RNZ merger
Katie Harris (Herald): RNZ CEO and top broadcaster clash in leaked recording over TVNZ merger spending
Mark Jennings (Newsroom): Hipkins needs a new plan for TVNZ and RNZ
Tom Pullar-Strecker (Stuff): Sir Peter Gluckman puts knife into TVNZ/RNZ merger
Herald: Proposed TVNZ-Radio NZ merger plan is outdated and disturbing, Sir Peter Gluckman think tank says
RNZ: Mediawatch: Political pressure on media merger pumped up
Ricardo Simich (Herald): Spy: Musical chairs in New Zealand’s TV newsrooms
Duncan Greive (Spinoff): How TikTok decisively won the media coverage of Auckland’s floods

1News: Renters, not ‘squeezed middle’ carrying financial burden – commentator
Katharine Moody (Interest): Affordable rents – a formula approach to regulation
Sam Olley (RNZ): Emergency housing: ‘Global embarrassment’ expected at UN
Greg Ninness (Interest): Housing the most unaffordable for 1st home buyers in the history of’s Home Loan Affordability Report
Rob Stock (Stuff): Five-year home loan rates are on their way down, here is why you should ignore them
Geraden Cann (Stuff): Aucklanders buying fewer homes in the regions, but cost of living could change that
Rebecca Stevenson (Interest): Anti-apartment complainers ‘screwing over’ young generations: Brad Olsen

Mark Quinlivan (Newshub): Minimum wage hikes have ‘very small impact on inflation’, Workplace Relations Minister Michael Wood says
Newstalk ZB: First Union: Now is the time to raise minimum wage up to level of the living wage
Tom Pullar-Strecker (Stuff): NZ unemployment expected to remain near record low despite chill wind
Amanda Cropp (Stuff): Are you past landing a job at 55? The reality of ageism despite labour shortages
Alison Mau (Stuff): Employers desperate for staff may like to give thought to this
Tina Morrison (Stuff): Pain ahead for workers as companies cut jobs to ‘tighten their belts’

Damien Venuto (Herald): Can you afford a hit of $800 per fortnight? The poison dart in NZ’s economy (paywalled)
David Hargreaves (Interest): Labour market figures may tip the scales for next RBNZ interest rate decision
Rebecca Stevenson (Interest): Costs to rise, prices to rise: ANZ Business Outlook sends price warning

Rob Stock (Stuff): Deposit guarantee scheme in place for 2024? Don’t bet on it.
Liam Dann (Herald):  Can artificial intelligence tell us if inflation has peaked? (paywalled)
Liam Dann (Herald): Mood of the nation’s sales teams dims as economic slowdown threatens (paywalled)
Kevin Norquay (Stuff): Meet the man trying to save Tiwai Point – and why he thinks TikTok could be the answer