The invisible mayor: Phil Goff launches stealth campaign to keep his job

Phil Goff has kept a low profile compared with his headline-grabbing opponent in the early stages of the Auckland mayoral campaign. Hayden Donnell heads along to see if the mayor can win back the spotlight at his campaign launch.

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Just minutes before Phil Goff launched his bid to be Auckland’s mayor on Sunday, his campaign sent out a press release. “Phil Goff to prioritise clean transport, environment, climate change in next term,” it began, promisingly. Things fell apart in the next four words. “Phil Goff for Mayo,” they read.

It’s a small mistake, but accidentally putting out a strong statement on condiments is indicative of a deeper problem for Goff: he’s in a rush. The core of his small campaign team has only been on the job a couple of months. They’re trying to take on an opposing team with a six-month headstart. When John Tamihere announced his mayoral ambitions in January, he’d already signed on veteran union organiser Matt McCarten as campaign manager and National Party lifer Michelle Boag as a political adviser.

McCarten immediately painted a truck in campaign colours and emblazoned it with unsettlingly large pictures of Tamihere and his prospective deputy, Christine Fletcher. They’ve been taking it to markets across Auckland since early in the year. That grassroots effort has been mixed in with a steady diet of borderline deranged policy announcements, each of which have drummed up media attention. Tamihere, for all his faults, is driving the conversation. Meanwhile, when Goff turns up to events, it’s usually alone or with one staffer. He doesn’t really have any recognisable campaign colours. His face isn’t on the side of any trucks. Compared with his main opponent, the mayor has been mostly invisible. 

It could be because he didn’t take Tamihere’s challenge seriously at first. His own polling, carried out early in the year, had him at over 50% and Tamihere at 22%. Perhaps he thought he’d stroll back to power. Instead he’s found himself in a political knife fight, struggling to deal with his opponent’s relentless aggression.

The launch was a chance for Goff to get back on the front foot. His team had decked out the walls of the Diversity Centre in Papatoetoe with campaign signs. Most of them featured a smiling picture of the mayor in the bottom corner and quotes at the top. One read: “I love living in this city and it’s only getting better.” The message is the opposite of Tamihere’s, which could be summarised as: “I’m starting to hate living in this city because Phil Goff keeps making it worse”.

That tone is the key difference between the campaigns. Tamihere has unceasingly attacked Goff and his council, bestowing him with the off-brand Trumpian nickname “Budget Blow Out Phil Goff” and calling him names in debates. Goff has struggled to respond in kind. When he tried to insult Tamihere at a Grey Power meeting on Friday, he looked uncomfortable, the crowd murmured in disapproval, and Tamihere immediately threatened to sue him if he did it again.

Goff’s more regular message is that things are going great, thanks! He wants to appeal to people who are positive about Auckland. His speech at the launch was preceded by two performances from entertainers who reflect the best of a multicultural city. Teen singer General Fiyah sang one of his singles and 10-year-old Pearl Pita delivered a traditional dance. Goff was dragged up to dance side of stage at the end of the performance. He jerked his arms up and down and grinned, though a close observation might reveal he was praying for death.

PHIL GOFF DANCES. PHOTO: NEWSHUB FOOTAGE

When the mayor spoke, he started by listing his achievements: planting a million trees, securing a $29 billion transport spend, improving water quality, collecting data on the city’s homelessness crisis, and shepherding in projects like the Te Auaunga/Oakley Creek walkway. His message was that improving the environment and combating climate change would top his agenda next term, with plans to plant 1.5 million more trees and make the council’s vehicle fleet fully electric. 

But for all Tamihere’s talk about Goff and his “Labour Party mates”, the government wasn’t doing him any favours. He wanted to announce a headline-grabbing policy about Labour extending its ‘feebate’ policy to allow Auckland Council to buy a fleet of electric buses. Instead he could only talk about “positive discussions” with Jacinda Ardern on the idea. 

It was left to the singer and MC Jackie Clarke to inject some actual shock factor. She brought the launch to a close by singing a full six-minute version of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, complete with weird vocal flourishes beyond the imagining of even Freddie Mercury.

Goff didn’t have the same flair for the dramatic. None of his announcements ended up getting the coverage that Tamihere had secured two days earlier, when he revealed plans to turn the Auckland Harbour Bridge into a double-decker monstrosity. The mayor’s plans were studiously feasible; his policies unfailingly realistic. “The choice this election is continuing to build Auckland’s future or risking it with instability and unpredictability,” he said in conclusion.

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That’s fine. Politicians don’t have to come out with outlandish schemes, and it’s tough to chastise them for telling the truth about what they can actually achieve. But the question is whether Goff can inspire a victorious turnout on a platform of doing more of the same; whether he can survive until the election while his opponent takes up all the oxygen in the room.

At the end of the event, Goff’s volunteers packed away the billboards at the Diversity Centre. In many ways, the signs epitomise the problems facing Goff’s campaign. They’re filled with dense text spelling out policy positions, and they’re biodegradable. That’s probably good for Auckland and the planet. But Goff’s name is too small and they’re hard to read from a passing car. What’s more, there are fears they could disintegrate in the rain. If the conditions are wrong, the signs could melt away. It would be like they were never there at all.

hayden@thespinoff.co.nz

The Spinoff’s local elections coverage is made possible thanks to The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism click here.


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