Auckland’s deputy mayor has once again met the moment. So who is Desley Simpson?
Visible and accessible. Articulate and adept. Desley Simpson has become a familiar face and comforting voice to Aucklanders in the seven months since she was appointed deputy mayor. In the past she might have dismissed ideas of running for higher office, thinking her wealth, privilege and penchant for colourful designer clothing would count against her. Turns out, at least in an emergency, people mostly just want a leader.
To some, she first leapt into view when she leapt in to rescue a colleague from a broiling altercation with journalists at a news conference after the January floods. In the days that followed, and again after Cyclone Gabrielle a few weeks later, she was everywhere, across radio and television, print and press conference, issuing updates on the impact and response, underlining the critical civil defence messages, expressing heartfelt empathy with those whose homes and lives had been thrown into turmoil.
Yesterday, then, as Auckland recoiled again in the face of flash floods, closed schools and gridlocked streets, there was some reassurance in the news that she had been delegated emergency powers. No shade there, to be clear, on the mayor, who was away on council business in Sydney – there is no cause for him to be upbraided in this case for being out of the frame, let alone for not rushing out with buckets.
Unsurprisingly, uncomplicatedly, Simpson resumed her role fronting the council response – laying out the state of play, speaking directly to those affected (“my heart goes out to you, honestly”), acknowledging unambiguously the role of climate change in making such weather events more frequent and more severe.
Humane, calm and armed with all the latest information, she took questions on radio and TV, and at Auckland Emergency Management briefings. She rocked up to this morning’s, at 8am, having spent most of yesterday and half the night at the emergency response centre, sunglasses perched optimistically on her head. She had listened to the experts, and here she was, an elected representative, to relay the details as simply and clearly as possible.
Who is Desley Simpson? Standing under the banner of Communities & Residents, the local body analogue of the National Party, Simpson was first elected to council in the Ōrākei ward in 2016, and quickly built rapport around the table. Phil Goff appointed her chair of the finance committee in 2019.
Efeso Collins, the centre-left former councillor beaten by some distance in his tilt at the mayoralty last October, spoke warmly of his friendship with Simpson – the two used to sit together at council meetings so they could share experiences from the areas they represented – respectively the poorest and wealthiest wards. “What that has done has allowed me to understand how people in her area see the world, the same way I can invite her to understand how our people in this part of Auckland see the world,” said Collins.
She describes herself as focused on “delivering value for money and efficiencies” and points to “a long political lineage”. Her great-great uncle Sir Henry Brett was a media mogul and mayor of Auckland in the 1870s. Her grandfather, Sir James Donald, was a government minister and chair of the Auckland Harbour Board in the 1840s.
She is an accomplished pianist. She drives a Porsche 911 with personalised plate DESLEY. Her first husband was Scott Simpson, the National MP for Coromandel. She is now married to Peter Goodfellow, the formidable, long-serving former president of the National Party. She has two children and four grandchildren, and told the Herald: “My great achievement is my children.”
In an enthralling interview with Stuff’s Adam Dudding, she was asked whether she might ever seek mayoral chains. “I think my answer at the moment is one never says never. At the moment I am more than challenged being deputy mayor.”
Later in the interview, on the subject of her style and appearance and judging books by covers, she said: “Why haven’t I stood for mayor? [Because] I never thought anyone would vote for someone who looks like me. And I’m not going to change the way I am or who I am.”
She said: “Yet I have seen white man after white man after white man put their hand up. And it doesn’t seem to matter for a man, but as a woman, you can be judged by what you wear, what your hair looks like. Phil Goff I think lived in a grey suit, you know? But I’m me. I love nice things. I love colour. I can afford that and I like to wear it – it’s a reflection of my personality. But it’s tough out there for some of Auckland. And I do my utmost best to understand what it’s like to be in areas outside of my own.”
Simpson has consistently defended the mayor in the face of criticisms. In another fascinating interview, she told the Herald’s Bernard Orsman, “we are very complementary…the sum of two parts makes a good team”.
It is more than the high-viz couture that makes her the most visible of those parts, however. The Mike Bush led inquiry into the response to the January floods identified a range of shortcomings, spanning the emergency management, the council staff and the mayor. The report, which included five mentions of the word “empathy”, stated: “The issues of leadership exposed by this crisis must be addressed. Key leaders in Auckland City failed to appreciate the vital importance of visible leadership and frequent public communication during a time of crisis.”
Upon the release of the report, there was no sign of the city’s senior directly elected representative. Who was first to speak publicly on behalf of the leadership? Desley Simpson, deputy mayor.