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Meet the new boss, definitely not the same as the old boss – on Phil Goff’s first days as mayor

New Auckland mayor Phil Goff wants everyone to know he’s in charge. He’s been laying down the law for council officers, getting offside with some of the councillors, turning himself into the star of his own show. This week, as the new mayor and his council meet for the last time in 2016, Simon Wilson looks at what Goff and Co are getting right and what they’re screwing up.

Fa’anana Efeso Collins started it. I don’t mean that business in the town hall on 1 November. Remember that? For the inauguration of the new Auckland Council, of which Collins is a member, an usher didn’t let his family sit in the VIP seats. Didn’t believe Samoans like them could be related to a councillor.

He didn’t start that, he merely spoke up about it, because that’s what councillors are: people who speak up. See a wrong, try to set it right.

And if the Collins’ family experience seemed petty – some usher made a silly mistake – he reminded us that it’s not petty if it happens to you. Because for some of us it never happens and for the rest of us it happens all the time.

No, what Efeso Collins started was the crying. It happened when he made his inaugural speech the next morning, during the first proper meeting of the council. He was talking about his family: the sacrifices of his parents who worked in factories, cleaned buildings, drove a taxi; the love of his wife and four-year-old daughter, this time happily settled into the front row of the public seats.

Efeso Collins. Credit: Mana Magazine

Efeso Collins. Credit: Mana Magazine

Efeso Collins is the youngest of six in his family and the first to graduate, despite having been told by a teacher in the 7th form that he was “too dumb to go to university”. He’s a calm but determined orator and he has a skill shared by only some of his colleagues around the council table: he speaks in whole sentences.

And when he talked about his family, he cried. He was followed by the other four new councillors, and all but one of them cried too. It wasn’t forced, it was heartfelt. Being a councillor means a lot to them and they tie it directly to the succour they gain from their families and, by extension, to the communities that support them. This is a Good Thing and it made the start to the third term of the Auckland Council seem very fine.

There was Richard Hills, earnest young upstart from the Shore, who thanked not only his family but all his political mentors, the women who run the centre-left of Takapuna politics, some of whom were lined up just along from Collins’ family. He cried. They lapped it up.

Daniel Newman from Papakura, who has the buzz cut and in-your-face insistence of a movie marine gone into politics. Channing Tatum, say, with the intellectual glasses. He’s so tough he tipped out a sitting councillor and you better not forget it. He cried.

Greg Sayers, Mr Functional of Rodney, he’s all smooth hair and smooth suit, and he also tipped out a sitting councillor. He mentioned his family but mainly he used his inaugural speech to threaten the new mayor, Phil Goff, on accountability. Sayers is setting himself up to be the leading hard-arse. He was the one who didn’t cry.

Last came Desley Simpson, last because the order was alphabetical, who said she was the only actual maiden giving a maiden speech, ba-boom. She wore a jacket of blindingly strong pink trimmed with glittering baubles. She must love that jacket – she also wore it the night before in the town hall, when they all lined up in front of the choir onstage and everyone else was in some monochrome variation of black and white. She glowed. She pulsed.

She rolled through her whakapapa. Great-grand-uncle Sir Henry Brett, who founded the Auckland Star and became mayor of the city. Kapow. Her grandfather, who also served on council; her father who was in public service too, but died young. It was a blockbuster whakapapa.

She was wearing Sir Henry’s actual fob chain and she reminded Goff that he was wearing Sir Henry’s actual chains of office: the great man’s name was on the link just over his right shoulder. The message was clear enough: I own this. She cried.

Desley Simpson. Credit: desleysimpson.co.nz

Desley Simpson. Credit: desleysimpson.co.nz

Goff had made his own maiden speech at the town hall inauguration the night before. It was a formal occasion marred only slightly by Auckland Choral’s insistence, yet again, on trotting out the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah. Any new tunes, guys?

Rather better was the version of Pokarekare Ana by the Stellar Singers. It’s former mayor Len Brown’s favourite song and I thought it was another tune I didn’t ever need to hear again, except this time it was sung with such hauntingly sadness. That felt right, although he wasn’t there to hear it.

X-Factor etiquette was in play. As each councillor took the oath of office their fans in the crowd whooped and cheered. Cathy Casey gave a good “Yay!” when she was done. Ross Clow assonantly declared,

“I, Ross Clow of the Whau,” and waited for a moment, smirking.

Dick Quax revelled, as he always does, in the chance to say his own real name: Theodorus Jacobus Leonardus Quax. I’m with Theodorus: who wouldn’t want to answer to that? Desley Simpson, we discovered, has two royal middle names: Elizabeth and Charlotte. If she had a few corgis at home I would not be surprised.

Goff’s speech was pretty good. He said he stood before us with “a clear and compelling vision for the direction of this city” which he would promote to all who care to listen as “one of the best places to live in the world”. He quoted the late Sir Paul Callaghan: we should be a place “where talent wants to live”. Auckland, he said, is Tamaki Makaurau, which means, he said, “the place desired by many”.

Screech, stop. He said what? Isn’t that the slogan of the ill-fated marketing campaign for the city?

The one dreamed up by ATEED, the council’s promotional agency?

The one that mayor Phil Goff claimed on 12 November, less than two weeks later, when the Herald broke the story about the campaign, that he did not know much about and definitely did not support?

WTF? Clearly, on 1 November Goff not only knew about the ATEED campaign, he supported it so unequivocally he used it for the theme of his speech. He owned it.

Why then was he so quick to disavow?

The answer is simple enough. He wants to look tough. He’s projecting to Aucklanders and council officers alike that he’s not going to put up with any shit.

But gee. How tough is it to change your mind at the first hint of trouble? And blame officers for something you previously supported them on?

Looking tough in the Herald has become the early marker of the Phil Goff mayoralty.

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Is there a downside? The council-controlled organisations (CCOs), including ATEED, need to be held more stringently to account. No question of that. Goff’s prepared to tread on a few toes. Good lesson for all?

Not exactly. ATEED is one of the more go-ahead and functional CCOs. It’s instrumental in making any number of events, big and small, happen in Auckland. It oils the wheels of many significant economic projects. It does what it was set up to do.

Now, though, officers at ATEED and everywhere else in council will be asking, can we trust this guy?

That’s bad for the city. If they don’t trust him, they’ll be less likely to put up good ideas, act with confidence, take risks and adopt a can-do attitude.

ATEED is easy to take pot shots at, because it pokes its head up and does lots of work in the public eye. That’s not like Watercare or Auckland Council Investments Ltd (ACIL), which do their best to stay right out of the public eye. ACIL in particular, the body responsible for Ports of Auckland, is far more deserving of a good critical drubbing.

Why did Goff not get all that? Was he railroaded by the Herald, which broke the story because it had been leaked a copy of the ATEED campaign?

Since 2010, when the super-city was formed, the Herald has attacked most things the mayor or council or CCOs have tried to do. It’s a default position, a knee-jerk antagonism. If Goff is trying to build a better relationship with the paper than his predecessor had, that’s a good thing. But if he’s going to do it by letting them determine what he thinks, we’re in trouble.

And who leaked the campaign? In an hour-long interview recently, Goff told me he knows for sure it was no one in his office. He invited me to believe it must have been someone at ATEED, although a motive for that is hard to spot. A third option is that someone in another part of council wanted to whip up a lynch mob for ATEED in order to divert public attention away from their own activities.

Goff doesn’t have to support council staff. On the contrary, he has to call them on mistakes. And he didn’t conceive the ATEED campaign, it wasn’t done on his watch and he didn’t have to support it. But he did support it, and once he’d done that the people who created it deserved better than to be hung out to dry.

 

“Bollocks,” said Cr Mike Lee, in a mutter loud enough to be heard throughout the room. He’s perfected the technique. Long years in politics.

Lee is back on council, having handed the supposedly popular Bill Ralston his arse in a paper bag, in the election for the Waitemata ward. (How on earth did Ralston, Mr Media-Friendly Bon Vivant of Ponsonby, lose that fight? Because he didn’t really give a fuck, basically.)

But Lee also used to be one of two councillors on the board of Auckland Transport (AT) and he’s lost that job. At the meeting of the council’s governing body on 10 November he made it clear he was furious about it.

Phil Goff was shouting at the meeting and then he apologised for shouting. “Still getting used to not speaking in a Parliamentary chamber way,” he said. Actually, emphatic speech is his default, in conversation almost as much as in meetings: definitive, overloud, every word stressed, it must be hell at the breakfast table.

Goff wanted to stress he had not “removed” Lee and the other councillor, Christine Fletcher, from the AT board. They’d done two terms and according to the rules that meant their time was up.

That’s what caused the “bollocks” from Lee. Cr Cathy Casey argued that he could have invoked an “exceptional circumstances” clause to keep them on but Goff wasn’t having it.

Lee made a very good speech about the virtues of the old way of doing things. Transport is core business for council, he said, and therefore it’s right and proper that the elected members be engaged with it.

“A week ago it seemed like two councillors went through a public execution,” he said, referring to the Herald’s gleeful reports of his and Fletcher’s humiliation. “And now it seems we have to turn up for the burial. It’s not about the two of us. Everyone in this room should have the aspiration to be a member of the AT board.”

He even tacked on a literary flourish: “Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” Who doesn’t want to be like Hemingway when the time is right.

But it meant nothing. Goff was happy enough: it doesn’t hurt him to be sniped at from the fringes, on the left or the right, while he holds the broad centre together. And while it’s true he didn’t “remove” Lee and Fletcher from the AT board, he has arranged matters so they are most unlikely to return. A small, high-powered committee will select three new board members; councillors are at liberty to apply but they won’t have the credentials.

I spoke with AT board chair Lester Levy recently and he gave me a different perspective. He hopes the three new board members, between them, will bring expertise in four areas: funding models, the business end of high-tech enterprise, communications and the role of transport in “placemaking”. None of that sounds like Lee. Fletcher has decided not to seek reappointment.

Levy also said he was pleased about the ways Goff wants to make CCOs more accountable. They’ll have to answer to the elected councillors much as government departments answer to Parliament, with written instructions from council, statements of intent to be approved by council, regular reporting and an expectation of cross-examination.

Much of this was in place under Brown, but it languished. Goff is using it to enhance the democratic process, although Mike Lee does not see it that way. His battle will continue.

As for Goff’s attack on ATEED, it was such a king hit it got many officers wondering if he plans to destroy that organisation in order to make a point to all the rest. But Goff told me he is not going to touch the CCO set-up. He’s not a fan of structural change as a means to culture change.

God knows, as an MP since 1981 and a minister in two governments during that time, he’s seen enough to know.

Auckland's new mayor Phil Goff speaks to supporters and media at the Sweat Shop Brew Bar on October 8. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Auckland’s new mayor Phil Goff speaks to supporters and media at the Sweat Shop Brew Bar on October 8. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

 

Goff and the council put the new enhanced democracy model to the test on December 13, at a meeting of the Finance and Performance Committee, which is a committee of the whole: all the councillors belong but the mayor is not in the chair. That honour belongs to Clow of the Whau.

Each CCO turned up to make its quarterly report and they got quizzed. Later in the meeting the mayor’s new draft Letters of Expectation (LOEs) were debated. These are explicit instructions and everyone is taking them very seriously.

It was great the CCOs were in the gun. What wasn’t great: almost every one of them was asked for more financial details than they were able or willing to provide.

“We have pages and pages and pages of data,” said Don McKinnon, one-time deputy PM, one time sec-gen of the Commonwealth, now chair of Regional Facilities, which runs the stadiums, the theatres and the other venues the council owns. He was shouting just like Goff, despite sounding quite ill. Something about ex-MPs when they turn up at council. “We’re happy to give you all you want,” he raspishly boomed, “but if you could just give us some idea…”

All the CCOs said it, one way or another, and it was all bullshit. The CCOs need to come better prepared to tell councillors what they’re up to. The council needs to work up better templates for them to do it on. And, not least, the councillors need to go deeper. Often during the long, long meeting – oh my god, it was 10 hours – it was obvious our elected officials had simply not done enough homework. They didn’t know how to ask the questions or how to interpret the answers.

The whole accountability thing is a work in progress. Afterwards, pretty much everyone seemed to agree with that. It’s to the enormous credit of Phil Goff that council is trying to hold CCOs to account. It never happened under Len Brown. But they’ve got a long way to go to work out how to do it well.

Goff has hit the reset button for his senior appointments, and on the whole done it well. His new deputy is Bill Cashmore, a concrete slab of a man with the sartorial elegance of Colin Meads. He’s from the rural Franklin ward, belongs to the National Party and has an established working relationship with Bill English and transport minister Simon Bridges. English’s election as prime minister makes the appointment even more felicitous.

Penny Hulse was upset to lose her deputy role and even more upset to have the chair of what is now the planning committee taken off her. But she’s got “environment and community” instead. It’s a new committee and a position from which she could, if she wants, oversee a profound shift in council power down towards the community level. There’s strong support among councillors for giving local boards more authority and Hulse could become the instigator of that.

Goff has established an eight-strong inner group or kitchen cabinet, with the chair and deputy chair of each of the three main council committees, plus himself and Cashmore. It’s a smartly chosen group. Three are members of the Labour Part and three National (the other two being left-leaning independents). Three are women and there is one Pasifika councillor.

Four were new to council last term and have moved into senior leadership; two (including Goff himself) are completely new to the governing body. It’s a changing of the guard, although “rising star” Efeso Collins is not in the group. Not rising very fast just yet.

Chris Darby now chairs the planning committee. The bullet-headed policy wonk from North Shore probably has a better grasp of the intricacies of city planning than any of his colleagues, along with some firm views on how to build a desirable compact city. It’s a good appointment and this gives him the chance to show if he has the leadership skills to complement his knowledge and outlook. He’s been gagging for it.

Desley Simpson and Denise Lee have deputy chair roles. Simpson has a big power base in the eastern suburbs and Lee is the only councillor from the ineptly run National Party front organisation Auckland Future. If there was going to be an organised right-wing opposition to Goff, they would have led it.

Now, unless Lee and Simpson try to subvert Goff from within the core group, the rightist oppositional role falls to the earnest and ineffectual Dick Quax and Christine Fletcher, and to the newcomer Greg Sayers. He’s talking about cutting the mayor’s budget: Goff proposes to reduce the rates increase next year from 3.5 to 2.5 per cent but Sayers wants it down to just 2 per cent. “I signed a pledge,” he likes to say.

The kitchen cabinet meets on Monday mornings. Goff bakes them cheese scones and gets their consensus approval before he goes public with his proposals. He told me, for example, that they support his budget plans. Actually, I don’t think he bakes scones.

He doesn’t always get their approval either. Goff drafted his CCO letters of expectation and sent them to the chairs of each board before he ran them past any councillors. They had a big debate a few days later at that Finance Committee meeting, but it was academic. Goff and the CCOs had already agreed what was going down.

Goff does not govern by consensus. More examples: the attack on ATEED was him alone, as was the move to reform the AT board. And so was the announcement last week of a taskforce on housing.

In some ways, it was the weirdest one of all. Does a taskforce to tackle the city’s most urgent and intractable problem sound like a good idea? It might, if nothing else was happening.

But the council already has people working on various aspects of the crisis, many of them under the leadership of Penny Hulse. But she seemed blindsided by Goff’s announcement.

More worryingly, the council has been lobbied hard in recent months by a housing entrepreneur, to absolutely no avail. Leonie Freeman’s strategy for tackling the crisis has the backing of pretty much everyone in the sector – except the council and central government.

Freeman was advised by council officers that there would be no council support for her plans. The mayor, they said, didn’t want to talk to her. The council would not stump up a share of the funding she needed to move to the next stage. She was hoping for only $50,000 or so from the council.

Yet Goff’s own proposal looks very similar in framework to hers. It’s a kind of mirror image of the ATEED debacle. In that case, he owned the idea and then discredited it. This time, council dissed the idea before the mayor took it up and owned it.

Okay. A taskforce is a good idea. The city needs a new process to jumpstart work on housing, and sound policies, budget and an action plan to come out of it. But we’ll get all that when the policymakers have productive relationships with the people in the sector.

As with the ATEED debacle, this project feels like another example of Goff standing on the table shouting at people. Tough guy, loud mouth.

But Goff also shows signs of being a subtler operator. Late in that finance committee meeting Theorodus Quax lectured everyone on the evils of “latte-sippers” and their desire not to have cars parked on the finger wharves of the port. According to him, if the wharf isn’t used to store the unloaded vehicle imports, the less-well-off people of Auckland won’t be able to afford cars anymore.

Goff shouted at him that his instruction to ACIL, the CCO that runs Ports of Auckland, was “as neutral as I could make it”. It doesn’t tell them to remove the cars, it says they have to look at ways to handle the freight better: “Maybe get the cars off more quickly, maybe store them differently.”

Stand by for freed-up finger wharves and an architecturally magnificent car-park building is what he means. I think. The obstacles would be enormous. But if Goff gets that done he’ll get an awful lot else done around this city too. I might even become a proper fan.

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