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Phil Goff on his motorbike in a campaign ad for the 2016 mayoral run.
Phil Goff on his motorbike in a campaign ad for the 2016 mayoral run.

PoliticsApril 20, 2016

‘It’s probably a form of masochism’ – an interview with veteran MP turned mayoral wannabe Phil Goff

Phil Goff on his motorbike in a campaign ad for the 2016 mayoral run.
Phil Goff on his motorbike in a campaign ad for the 2016 mayoral run.

The front runner for Auckland’s top job has been a Labour politician for three decades, but now he’s embracing independence. And the ticker is good for another 20 years of toil, he tells Tim Murphy

Phil Goff is shedding his tribal Labour Party skin. He is starting to like his new look and feel as an independent candidate for mayor of Auckland.

He’s feeling strangely liberated. Odd things are happening.

Lately Goff has found himself addressing a branch meeting of, wait for it, the New Zealand National Party in the Botany electorate. To a turnout of 150 people, which the local National MP, Jami Lee-Ross, career-limitingly tells him is “much more than Judith Collins” got.

He’s been hosted to a “clinic” in Wellsford by NZ First MP Tracy Martin.

He says people tell him, often, “We do not vote for your party but we are going to vote for you as mayor.”

Phil Goff rides his motorcycle in a clip from his campaign video

“It’s cross-sectional,” the 30-year MP says, sitting in his very Labour Party Mt Roskill electorate office looking out towards the last of the Three Kings hills and over to Maungawhau Mt Eden.

“I’ve always been able to get cross party support. The main reason for running as an independent is that you’ve got to deal with governments of any political shade. It is a much more individual-focused vote, then.”

Goff is Roskill-born, state-educated, whip-smart and mission-ready. A former university tutor, MP, minister in the Lange and Clark governments, Leader of the Opposition and now wannabe mayor of the Super City, he is famously hard-working.

He’s always been known as capable and usually reasonable. Despite mischief in his eyes and a ready laugh, he’s a bit of an enigma, wrapped up in a mystery. But without the excitement of the riddle. He’s got an image of being earnest, average on TV and, well, a bit grey. He’s been around.

Goff has always been a bit old for his years. He talks wistfully of growing up in ’50s Warren Ave, Mt Roskill, with those post-war neighbourly and family values.

Ignoring Basil Fawlty, he mentions The War. “The war framed our approach. If it was good enough to do it in the war, it was good enough to care for everybody in peacetime.”

That’s a long time ago, Phil, for the 2016 voters in the Super City, where 95% of New Zealand’s growth in the working age population will occur in coming decades.

At one point during the interview he mentions the feeling he’s picked up as the Len Brown era ends: “It is the most effective slogan in politics – It’s Time for A Change.”

More from Tim Murphy on the Auckland 2016 mayoral race:

Is Victoria Crone for real?

A very odd afternoon with John Palino

Many, I suggest, would say it is time for a change away from a name, a face, and a political shadow as long as his own.

“Well, people are saying, actually: ‘We are really glad you are doing it. We have watched you over the years and we think you are pragmatic, centrist, a safe pair of hands and you have something to contribute to the city.’”

He’s fired up about Auckland. “The day I lack energy and passion is the day I am out of public life.”

So, sitting as he is as the clear front runner (on name recognition and on the basis of one UMR poll which had him in the 40s and the nearest other contender under double figures) how many terms as Mayor would the 62-year-old intend?

“I went for my three yearly heart test, an ECG and on the treadmill and scan and all of it and they said: ‘You are good for another 20 years of work.’”

His wife, Mary, doesn’t want to hear that. “But retirement is not something that I look forward to,” Goff says. “I am ready to work the 80, 90,100 hours a week as mayor. It’s probably a form of masochism…”

He rejects the term “coronation”. He eschews the word “inevitable”. “Nothing’s inevitable except death and taxes. The day you become complacent is the day you lose whatever you were complacent about.”

But: “I think I will win”.

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - DECEMBER 18:  Minister of Justice Phil Goff discusses the David Dougherty case in his office at the Beehive, Monday. Goff announced that Dougherty will be awarded compensation for being wrongly convicted of abducting and raping an 11 year old girl.  (Photo by Robert Patterson/Getty Images)
Phil Goff, then Justice Minister, in 2000. Photograph: Robert Patterson/Getty Images

Why does he think a party political lifer can run the sprawling Auckland village? “The strongest credential I have is the years of experience, as a minister working out in budgets how to do more with less, as a parliamentarian, as an advocate for the community.”

Mindful of his opponent Victoria Crone’s claim that the Auckland Council is a $3.5 billion business needing a mayor with corporate expertise, Goff says the council “has to be run with business efficiency but it is not a business.”

Being an MP is a challenging job, but “the Mayor is the representative of 24 electorates. That is the scale of what we are talking.”

Then, despite a promise not to be negative about opponents, he can’t help adding “I think one of the skills in politics is how we communicate. I think that should be a skill of chief executives, but often it is sadly lacking.”

And, “if you didn’t like politics, the job would drive you crazy.”

At this point he gets all presidential, quoting Richard Neustadt’s book Presidential Power, which Goff once used in his classes at Auckland University. The mayor’s “power to persuade” doesn’t come simply from the “constitution”, but from the expectation and capability to bring councillors, the community and the government together.

Will Goff offer a version of Len Brown’s “Mayor in the Chair” main street talks with the citizenry? “I’ve done that for a lot of my career in my caravan stops. But my outreach would be different, rather than seeing a small number of the electorate, lining up with their problems, I’d rather go to Mt Roskill Intermediate on a Saturday morning and see four to five hundred people and say gidday. A place where the middle of the road citizen is going to be at.”

He’s been “doing” Facebook for years. “The last post got 15,000 likes and I got 200,000-plus on one. I put my Dad’s birthday up and got 15,000 and my son’s wedding went up.”

As he runs through his Facebook successes, you can see him simultaneously listening to how it all sounds. “They are looking for the personal as well as the policy prescription,” he says. “I have been a bit sceptical about the cult of personality.”

Phil Goff on a Pacific trip in 2003. Picture: Parliamentary gallery
Phil Goff on a Pacific trip in 2003. Picture: Parliamentary gallery

Is Facebook really the authentic Goff, then? “Well I am out on the streets on Poppy Day, down at the supermarket. To some people that’s a chore, but people are really quite warm out there. I do the cancer collections, the arthritis collection, partly because it is a good cause and partly because it gets me out there.”

Asked to nominate mayors he is taking advice from, Goff mentions Sir Barry Curtis, the once lordly Mayor of Manukau, and Sir Bob Harvey, the prince of Waitakere. “They were both larger than life characters as mayor.”

Curtis, not so much. He was an industrious steward of his south and south east Auckland communities, but tended towards pomposity. Harvey was and is a rascally, surfer and advertising man suited to the wilds of the west.

To a question of where, on a spectrum of Curtis to Harvey, he would see himself as Mayor, Goff says: “I don’t think they are at different ends. I don’t know that they would appreciate me saying it but they are both very outgoing and avuncular.”

Well, Goff was a sort-of diplomat, when he was Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Do we want, still, to be Mayor Brown’s “world’s most liveable city?”

“That’s become probably a little clichéd now. We want to be a city of choice, opportunity, diversity. It’s about building a community where people want to live. It’s called ‘placemaking’.”

This day, Goff has come in early from his Clevedon farmlet for a breakfast meeting at which his Labour leader, Andrew Little, is speaking. Goff is off to the Chamber of Commerce in the afternoon, where the perennially rumoured mayoral candidate Michael Barnett will greet him, and then to speak at Milford Rotary in the evening.

To get to all his meetings in a traffic-gridlocked city, Goff has taken to riding his motorbike around town. If you’re waiting for a stunt from Mayor Goff, a mayoral two-wheeler would be pragmatic, boomerish and cheaper than a Limo. That’d be independent.

Phil Goff on …

What’s not working with the Super City

“We are six years in and we need to step back and say what is working and what is not. We replaced eight separate councils in order to eliminate waste but put in place one council and five CCOs. When I see Auckland Transport put out a policy on light rail and the Governing Body says, ‘we didn’t know about that,’ then that’s not a system that’s working.

“When I talk to a drainage engineer who used to work with two inspectors for sign-off and now needs nine, then that’s not working. When I hear there are managers down to Tier 4 in the Council who have their own personal assistants – why would you not share resources? Even at Tier 3 managers. Maybe you can justify that at Tier 1 and 2. I want to know why there are 113 communications staff in the council.”

What he likes about Auckland

“I’m a born and bred Aucklander. It is a city of choice, of opportunity, of diversity. We can do a whole lot of things that smaller scale cities cannot do. We are a place where talent should want to live.”

What’s not to like about Auckland

“Congestion, housing and other affordability issues and the state of the Gulf.”

Local boards

“Decisions should be made closest to where the consequences of the decision will be felt. That was the case with Tomorrow’s Schools and that’s true of Auckland as well.”

Port of Auckland

“The Ports Future Study will end up going nowhere. How can we do it as Auckland when actually the most sensible solution could be something, theoretically, in the Hauraki area half way between Tauranga and Auckland? There’s no input or other contextual approach from the Government.”

Asset sales

“The council has budgeted the sale of $750m of assets in surplus properties. The council has to dispose of things that are surplus to their needs. But if you want to talk about asset sales, the EY and Cameron Associates report on the Remuera Golf Course shows how much it is returning to ratepayers and it is small. If it was a public park, then that would be different. But it is right by one of the biggest parks in the area, Waiatarua Reserve. I think I’m obliged to look at that. Talk to the golfers and see if a sale makes sense.

“As for the Auckland airport shares, those advocating for the Council to sell its shares “can’t wait to get their hands on it, both in dividends and capital value. But it is a critical strategic asset for Auckland, the gateway to the city.”

The Council controlled organisations

“I want to know why they do not provide administration, and procurement services centrally. I want the mayor to work with the chairs to combat the silo mentality.”

Funding his campaign

“Fundraising has raised a couple of hundreds of thousands and it looks like it might take $400,000 to $500,000. I’ve used raffles, fundraising dinners, the business community has been helpful, the ethnic communities, for example the Cambodians passed the hat around.

“The rules are very clear on it; you have to disclose everything above $1500. I’m not running trusts. I try to keep it at arm’s length. I do not accept cheques. I don’t ask people for money directly. There are no quid pro quos. If somebody is a support they have my ear but that is all they have.”

Who’s in his kitchen cabinet?

“David Lewis, Helen Clark’s former chief press secretary, is my campaign manager. I have a guy who used to work for me and was a Treasury deputy secretary, running his eye over the books. I have people who have come out of the woodwork, some originally from a National Party background.”

Keep going!