Viv Beck on the corner of Customs and Queen Streets. Photo: Toby Manhire. Illustration: Toby Morris
Viv Beck on the corner of Customs and Queen Streets. Photo: Toby Manhire. Illustration: Toby Morris

PoliticsApril 19, 2022

Viv Beck and the plan to break the centre-left stranglehold on the Super City mayoralty

Viv Beck on the corner of Customs and Queen Streets. Photo: Toby Manhire. Illustration: Toby Morris
Viv Beck on the corner of Customs and Queen Streets. Photo: Toby Manhire. Illustration: Toby Morris

From an increasingly crowded field on the centre-right of the Auckland race, the head of the downtown business association is pledging to revive the city and the region, and with a minimum of politics. Toby Manhire wanders down Queen Street to meet her.

The shoulders of Queen Street are sagging. Deflated. Hōhā. Bone-tired. It’s quiet as a Sunday, with only a scattering of people wandering the footpath. Every block sees someone curled on a bench or propped up against a shopfront with a handwritten card asking for money. Outside the New World Metro a busker sings ‘I’ll Be There’ to nobody. Welcome to the central strip of the Super City.

Through January, downtown Auckland had been picking itself up, welcoming back workers and shoppers, says Viv Beck, when I describe the scene. Heart of the City, the business association she leads, had a big new campaign ready to roll. “It was fabulous. We were pretty excited. And then we got word that we were likely to go to red.” Omicron and its red-light glare saw the campaign downscaled into “The City Centre Is Still Happening”. It was a hit online, Beck says, but you don’t have to listen too hard to hear the plaintiveness in the slogan. 

We catch up in a first-floor cafe on the corner of Queen and Customs Street. Out the window you can see the fancy label shops. One of them, Louis Vuitton, had a few days earlier been targeted in an overnight raid with a stolen vehicle, leaving smashed glass strewn across the pavement. A few days after we meet, it’s hit by another ram-raid, as is its Gucci neighbour. Here in the cafe – the sort of cheerful place downtown workers in days gone by might have swarmed to – it’s quiet. So quiet we have it to ourselves. At half past twelve on Friday afternoon.  

It’s not all bad. Out the other window, Commercial Bay looks alive, almost humming. Beck says she’s confident crowds will return as the city moves from red to orange and border restrictions loosen further. And on that she’ll be proved right: on Easter Saturday especially, it’s buzzing around Britomart. But two years of a pandemic have stalled what was getting better and exacerbated what was getting worse. It’s here that Beck’s campaign for mayor begins.

Queen Street on the Monday after red light settings returned in late January. Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

The Queen Street spur

“It’s been tough going for these people,” says Beck glancing out the window. She’s talking about the business owners, operators and employees, about two years of Covid-19, and the task ahead, to “create momentum for people to be out again and participating in the city”. She says central government did well when the pandemic first struck, and council had its moments, but ultimately the central business district was left feeling let down. “I’ve been disappointed that we didn’t have a more cohesive, aligned approach. It’s getting better, it’s got better. But the reality is, with some different policy decisions along the way, if things had been managed a little bit differently, some of our people would have been better off.”

Worst affected were the “customer-facing businesses”, who’d endured “a dreadful two years”, she says. “They need to know they’ve got support, and that we’re going to encourage people out and about again, and really engender a feeling of: OK, we’ve had a massive health, economic and social shock. But we’ve got to be able to move forward. Because people have been pretty badly hurt.” As if conscious of sounding too doomy, she hastens to add that the goal is to “tap into the opportunity of this beautiful city … I really feel that people do love our city.”

The task of critiquing council while talking up Auckland is familiar ground for Beck, who was been CEO of Heart of the City for seven years. She’s excelled at that challenge, remaining an upbeat champion of the city while holding the council’s feet to the fire on behalf of a group of businesses that don’t always see eye to eye. Born and educated in Wellington, she studied journalism and economics, rising up the ranks to head of communications at NZ Post, and later at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. An appetite for culture has seen her chair the Wellington Museum Trust and serve as deputy director of the Auckland Art Gallery. In 2007, she co-wrote a semi-novelistic guide for women going into business called Julia Makes her Move: First Steps into Leadership. 

Beck’s first steps into the mayoral race followed the encouragement of confidants in the months after Phil Goff’s 2019 re-election, she says. In weighing the idea up, one of the factors that tipped the balance was the council management of a makeover and part-pedestrianisation of Queen Street. Disgruntlement about the project, with its myriad battles over bus-stops, plastic barriers and bollards and a scrap of whether to make permanent layouts that allowed for social distancing, saw Heart of the City join angry landlords and business owners in taking the council to court.

It was, she says, “a project that had stakeholder support, we were excited about it. We saw it as an aspirational project. We wanted it to be fabulous.” When Covid hit, she says, council ploughed ahead without bringing people with them. “We were very disappointed with the way that was managed.” At the same time she was getting “a lot of calls from people across the city who were involved in other projects, who said they had a similar experience of not feeling that projects were managed well, or that they’d had a chance to have feedback listened to. It was a bit of a revelation to me.” 

In keeping with Churchill’s maxim that leaders should never let a good crisis go to waste, wouldn’t it have been better in the bleakest days of the pandemic to go the whole mile, to take a chance and pedestrianise just about all of Tāmaki Makaurau’s most famous street? “I get that argument. It’s been in the master plan since 2012. The point was, it wasn’t about the cars, it was: if you’re going to do something like that, you have to think about how everything works around it,” she says. The sticking point related to the “less interesting stuff”, she says. “It wasn’t a disagreement about making it a beautiful people-friendly place. That was not the point. The point was, if you don’t work out, for example, how mobility impaired people can get to their doctor’s or the town hall, if you don’t do that sort of planning and you don’t think about how people get their supplies … when you don’t do that thinking right, you get a suboptimal outcome.”

Shoppers at Commercial Bay (Photo: Supplied)

Safety first

The mayoralty of the Super City, which encompasses about a third of the Aotearoa population, is routinely called the second most powerful job in New Zealand politics. Beck bristles, however, at being cast as a politician – the only time she uses the word politics is by way of explaining why a particular statement or decision should not be political. Her husband, Paul Quinn, is a former National MP. Did that not mean politics was in the air at home? “Not particularly,” she says. “I’d say that we’re interested in our country, our city. But I wouldn’t say we’re especially political. I’m not a member of a political party or anything. So I’d just say that we have an interest in our country and our city.”

She’s determined especially not to present as a reactionary law and order stereotype. Instead of crime, for example, she uses the word “safety” to sum up what is one of four broad campaign priorities. The other three: transport; a functioning, responsive, council; and infrastructure. She knows her talking points, too. Through the course of our conversation she repeatedly manages to navigate her way to ticking all four boxes across the course of an answer. 

Safety, Beck stresses, applies across the region, to people in their homes as much as on the street. But there’s no escaping the spate of headlines served up in recent months to illustrate the urgency of the problem in central Auckland. The statistics and the anecdata speak of aggression, intoxication, violence and burglaries. “Did you see,” she says, “just yesterday, they might have to tell cruise tourists to be careful of crime here? I mean, how bad is that?” Her solution? “We’ve got to deal with this really clearly, we’ve got to help people, but we need to be firm on crime. It’s not OK to have brawls in the middle of the day and open drug taking and stuff. It’s got to be dealt with. So there’s a lot to do.” Again, she checks against doominess. “I’m an optimist! And I’d like to think that we can actually focus on the great things about the city as well.”

Beck wants to see a greater police visibility in the central city, including the return of a station. “I know some people don’t like police around, but generally most people say you need stronger presence. We would like to see that downtown station back because it just gives people a sense there’s police here. That’s a big part of it. That would solve a lot of it, actually, because people would see there’s police around.” She’s quick to note that enforcement is only one part of the puzzle. “The emergency housing, mental health and addiction services are vital,” she says. The City Mission’s new Homeground facility is a shining example of what can be achieved, she says. “It’s brilliant, you know, the new facility is fantastic. It’s like a healing centre. The self-contained units, there’s dentists, doctors, detox, it’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant. But we’re probably going to need more of that.”

Auckland mayoral candidates Viv Beck and Leo Molloy.

We don’t talk about Leo

With five months to go till voting opens, one of the challenges for Beck is to establish herself as the centre-right alternative to Efeso Collins, the south Auckland councillor who won the endorsement of the Labour Party in a field of one. On the centre-right, Beck faces at least two serious rivals, former Far North mayor Wayne Brown and hospitality veteran Leo Molloy – a man who kicks up a trail of dust everywhere he goes. 

In keeping with his theatrical MO, Molloy issued a press release “welcoming” Beck’s entry in the mayoral race a full four days before Beck entered the mayoral race. Beck draws a slow breath when I bring him up, gripping on the cup of coffee she doesn’t drink from through the course of the interview. It’s clear enough the campaign mantra here is We don’t talk about Leo. “Oh, to be honest, I’d rather not comment on him, really,” she says. “I’d rather just focus on what I bring. And the point of difference that I’ve got. And people can make their minds up.”

Beck’s restraint and distaste for hyperbole finds its antithesis in Molloy’s combative, rambunctious style. In that premature press release, immediately after the cursory welcome, Molloy launched into attack mode. “Many have shared concerns that backroom deals have been made by shadowy political power-bosses to parachute Ms Beck into the mayoral race,” he declared. 

I read the line out to Beck. “I’ve got no idea what that’s about,” she says. “Honestly. I mean,” she says, shaking her head, “the few things I hear, I think: where did that come from? But, look, we’re all different. I want to have a – how would I describe it? –  I just think that it’s important people understand the candidates, and have the ability to form a view. I think competition is good. It’s good if it’s a fair competition. It’s a really important time for the future of the city. And I do feel strongly enough to put my name forward.”

She is much closer in temperament to Phil Goff, sharing with him a rhetorical carefulness – she uses the word significant a lot – that at times borders on sedative. And that’s not all they have in common. In almost seven years leading Heart of the City, Beck has enjoyed what she calls a “collegial relationship” with the incumbent mayor. He’s been a “steadying pair of hands”. She’s on the same page, for example, in opposing the Three Waters reform programme and the cross-party Enabling Housing Supply Bill. “I think he’s stood up on a few things,” she says. Her main criticism: “I would have really liked him to be a little bit stronger through the Covid period.”

Like Goff, and in keeping with Auckland practice, Beck is standing as an independent – “because I believe that decisions are actually not political” – but agrees with Efeso Collins’s assessment that it is deeply difficult to mount a successful campaign without structural and fundraising assistance. “I’ve had similar advice, that it’s important to have some sort of machinery behind you, which gives you support and endorsement,” she says. 

National doesn’t do Auckland mayoralty endorsements, but Beck has been talking to the party’s local body analogue, C&R. (The ticket was historically an abbreviation of Citizens and Ratepayers, but since 2012 it’s stood for Communities and Residents.) A relationship makes sense, she says, because while she doesn’t want to be a mayor making decisions “on left-right grounds”, her business emphasis meant “centre-right is a good positioning for me”. So what is her arrangement with C&R? “I do have their support.”

In keeping with the esoteric nature of Auckland mayoral backing, when I email C&R asking how best to characterise their support for Beck and whether they have previously or will this time formally endorse, a spokesperson responds with this: “C&R has not endorsed any mayoral candidate in the 2022 Auckland local elections, as of yet, and has not endorsed a mayoral candidate since John Banks [in 2010].” They were currently in the process of council and candidate selection and: “It is during this process when C&R will formally discuss its mayoral strategy (if any) and confirm an endorsement of a mayoral candidate, or not. If C&R officially confirms an endorsement, an announcement will be made and shared.”

Viv Beck: ‘It’s important to have some sort of machinery behind you.’ Photo: Toby Manhire

A burning platform

When Collins confirmed his candidacy, he proffered a policy that had the advantage of being both bold and an encapsulation of his platform: making public transport free. What, I ask Beck, is yours? She pauses for a moment, points out she has plenty of policy yet to announce, then says: “The fuel tax has to go.” The Auckland regional tax, imposed by central government in 2018 and earmarked for funding of transport projects, was intended to last no longer than 10 years, but Beck wants voters to back her push to scrap it as soon as possible. “We need a different mechanism and model.” She has previously hinted that a congestion charge should be part of the mix.

Beck hasn’t yet completed a full transport policy – on light rail she’s ambivalent about the plan and alarmed by the price tag – but by pledging to remove the “blunt tool” of the fuel tax she hopes to ignite for herself “a bit of a burning platform”. She says: “I know I’ve got to develop a sensible practical transport plan. We’ve got to think differently about how we work with central government so that we don’t have projects that are at risk with electoral cycles. You know, I don’t I don’t think infrastructure should be about political decisions … So I want to give myself a burning platform, a mechanism to say, actually, I don’t think this is right, I’m going to develop a plan that I will campaign on.”

As for free public transport, “I can understand it’s got appeal, and I do support ways to shift mode that work for people, that’s a really important thing. We’ve got to get emissions down. And we do have to have a really quality, affordable transport system.” But, she says, the dollars might be better spent elsewhere. “What I’ve seen internationally is that [free public transport] is not the thing that will deliver the biggest mode shift, because in the end, you need a reliable quality transport system. And I’d rather the money goes into that, rather than making it free for everybody. I think it can be cheaper for people who need it.”

While Beck’s message might chime with Auckland’s downtown business tribes, however, that’s just one chunk of a vast Super City voter base. How, for example, would she make the case to a blue-collar family in insecure housing in, say, West Auckland? Her response is that she’s for now in listening mode. “I think one of the things that I’ve shown throughout my career is I care a lot about people. And so what I’m doing now is getting out around the region. On my weekends, I’m getting around to different regions, and I’m meeting different people. I’ve got a strong interest and understanding of people’s needs. I’ve had a lot of experience with different groups of people. And I have an affinity with people. So what I’ve found so far is that people have certainly been open to talking to me, they can see that I’m a collaborative type of person, I want to listen … The goal is to go to as many places as I can and meet as many different people as possible.” So far, people’s priorities seem to very much square with hers, she says, before pivoting again to the four-part priority list.

Beck has her work cut out over the coming months, travelling the expanse of the Auckland region, building name-recognition and a profile, seeking to inspire enthusiasm in a contest for which only one in three of those registered to vote were sufficiently motivated to do so last time round. Team Beck has not done any polling at this stage, she says. “We’ve done focus groups, not polling, and I haven’t really done a lot of promotion yet. So it’s early days.” 

Given the four-out-of-four success rate for the centre-left since the Super City began, given the congestion this time among those that lean right, given an old-fashioned electoral system that makes a split vote a real risk, would it make sense for the trailing candidate or candidates to withdraw down the track? “People will make a decision as that goes along,” says Beck, untempted by the bait. “At this point, I think there is a point of difference. Ultimately, the voters will decide that. How that rolls out over the coming months – you know, time will tell  … I’m certainly keen to spend more time getting to know people and for them to get to know me.”

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