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Is Victoria Crone for real?

Tim Murphy was a sceptic when Victoria Crone’s candidacy for the Auckland mayoralty was announced. But watching her form at a public meeting on Thursday has him questioning that judgement.

It’s rumoured among Auckland’s political cognoscenti that Victoria Crone, should she fail to pull off a miracle and win the Super City mayoralty, has been promised the National Party’s Helensville seat once the incumbent cries enough.

On this theory, she has agreed to take on the centre-right’s mission to challenge Phil Goff’s name-recognition-based ascension to the mayoralty, with a wink, a nod and the prospect of a retirement by John Key.

Key, like Sir Keith Holyoake before him, would by then have won his fourth general election and hand over to whoever becomes his Sir John Marshall-style successor as PM. His nice blue seat at the top of the Waitemata Harbour would need a quality candidate. And Vic-Tory would be a shoo-in.

It is a long game, if true. Why Crone would have given up her top job as chief executive of Xero – a high growth company now operating “in 183 countries” (more than sit in the UN General Assembly) to make a futile bid to be mayor, only to become a backbench MP – isn’t clear.

So maybe the 43-year-old is not set on making up the numbers in this mayoral race.

Victoria Crone speaks during the first Auckland Mayoral debate on February 15, 2016 in Auckland.  (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Victoria Crone speaks during the first Auckland Mayoral debate on February 15, 2016 in Auckland. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

On a Thursday night at the Takapuna Boating Club, six months from election day, Crone is showing many signs of someone with the bit between her teeth. Months ago, when she announced her bid, she seemed one-dimensional: vote for me because I’m a CEO and young and businesspeople get it.

It’s clear she’s spent the intervening period getting to grips with Auckland issues and some of the intricacies of the Auckland Council and its Council-Controlled Organisations. Talking to some of the players. Poring over the numbers. Looking for points of weakness in the status quo, and in Phil Goff’s personal platform.

To an audience of about 50 mainly middle-aged to older voters, she impresses with her knowledge of things city-wide and local.

It is an hour-long session, mainly Crone taking questions from a range of lobbyists (Grey Power, NoMoreRates and so on) and hobbyists showing off their infrastructure or political smarts.

She’s from a digital background and seems to have a binary mind. Most replies begin, “So, you’re right. There’s two points to that.” Then clearly and concisely she works through two strands of answers that are loaded with numbers, planning document references and lessons from business. (Mercifully, she used the dreaded “learnings” just once.)

Crone is engaging – gives people good eye contact and brings questions and answers back to others in the audience, recalling their issues individually and in context. She’s a little long on “this is how we do it in corporates” – clearly believing voters think corporates do things right or well as a given.

This is her third recent public meeting. A town hall, of sorts. One was in the retirement haven of Orewa. Another was at the Northern Club, to the Global Women organisation, to which she reached out for support as a female candidate.

Interestingly, policy is not much in evidence. Her personal campaign site has tabs for “Donate”, “Meet Vic”, “Updates”, “Blog” and “Say Hi” but the two for “Issues” and “Calendar” are not functional. Yet.

On one hand, the candidate criticises the way “the council and mayor engages with the community – it’s still done in a very traditional way, typically in a hall in a very structured way; we have to use technology to engage”. But here she is, saying that at the boating club addressing a smallish audience.

Later she says the way to engage young people in voting will be to emphasise the importance of the super city and its financial challenges, but also through Virtual Reality presentations.

“Housing is one way to get them into the conversation, believe me.”

There’s no mention of the other well-known centre-right contender, John Palino. But Crone is practising her attack lines on Goff. “It’s not okay to leave, uncontested, a 30 year career politician to walk in and run Auckland”.  

Later, asked to contrast herself with the Roskill MP, she offers “Hopefully a bit younger. This is his third-choice job. I think he’s a nice guy and he has a lot of political experience. But I think my CV is far stronger in terms of running a $3.5 billion business.”

An audience member pipes up: “You can teach a business person politics far easier than you can teach a politician business.”

Could she do better than predicted by the unfair critic who, at campaign launch, coined the hashtag #xerochance?  

The critic was me, and I’m starting to think she could.

Victoria Crone and Phil Goff meet before the first Auckland Mayoral debate (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Victoria Crone and Phil Goff meet before the first Auckland Mayoral debate (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Victoria Crone on:

Council inefficiency

“Staff costs were $63m over their personnel budget of $793m. That’s not acceptable. If I was in a business as CEO I would be fired for that.

“The civic building due diligence was poor. Now it is $30m over budget. That’s unacceptable.

“The IT costs have been $1.2 billion. That’s nothing like anything anywhere I know of. I was talking to the former CEO of the Warehouse and they spend $10m a year! And they spent $50m to set up the whole online experience.”

Housing

“We are growing at half the rate of London, in terms of bringing in 750,000 people in coming years. We have to grow up and we have to grow out. The Council must let you know what the rest of your community services will look like, traffic, schools, when developments are proposed. There’s a lack of integrated planning. I’m seeing a lot of anxiety and fear among people.”

Infrastructure

“Having worked in large infrastructure companies, we take a 50 year view of investment. We have to do that for wastewater, for housing, for the port. There’s nothing in the 30 year plan that looks at the assets with a view to 30 years ahead.”

The Port

“The port has served us very well so far. But the port in its current view is actually obsolete. You either need to let it grow up or out. If you were to design a port from scratch it would not look like this. It is 77 hectares of land returning $43m of profit to Auckland. I’m a big fan of having a look at how we would move the port, very responsibly. I’m not underestimating the challenge of a move but cities have done it; Seattle is doing it now.”

Selling Assets

“I’m open-minded on that. If you are short of funding and want to make our city a world-class city, we need to look at the portfolio of assets and make sure they are modern and fit for purpose. As a Mum, if we want a new kitchen or to renovate my house, we need to look at our other investments.”

The CCOs

“The companies ARE accountable to the council. We have to turn them from untamed teenagers who are behaving uncontrollably into grownups. There are a lot of behaviours we need to stamp out.”

Mayoral Office and Council staff

“The Mayor actually has a reasonable level of power. The Mayor’s office has 25 staff – that’s as much as the Prime Minister and that’s a little hard to get my head around. In the Council there are also 100 people in communications. We are not going to employ any more staff.”

Transport

“The additional lens I bring is ‘how do we manage the Council so we can free up spend to bring forward other things.’ Working from home will help. Driverless buses and cars are coming. I’m excited about these technologies. Singapore is saying they want 1/3 of their buses driverless within one year. There’s not one silver-bullet.”

Mayoral Chains

“The chains are quite ugly, especially as a female. So I’m not in it for the chains.”

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