The spotlight in the latest Auckland debate belonged to a National Party insider already being tipped for the deputy mayoralty. Tim Murphy introduces Desley Simpson, and marks the candidates’ efforts out of 10
One name dominated the latest Auckland mayoral debate in a church foyer in Meadowbank – and it wasn’t any of the five heavy-hitters with their eyes on Len Brown’s chains. It’s a name all of Auckland is likely to get to know pretty soon.
The candidates realised they were in the presence of the Queen of the East and all, in their way, paid homage at the bright pink-shod feet of one Desley Simpson.
Simpson, the Orakei Local Board chair since 2010, is likely to become the next Orakei councillor on the Super City Council succeeding Cameron Brewer, but even before making it that far, her legend propelled her into the mayoral debate as the deputy-mayor-in-waiting.
She’s hard to miss. Blonde, vital and wearing a vivid green coat and shocking pink scarf, it was clear the candidates were on her turf. She spoke, briefly, at the start in an unscheduled addition to the Meadowbank and St John’s Residents Association AGM agenda, to farewell its chair and let the 120 attendees know her board had helped set up this group.
The local MP, Simon O’Connor was there. He got a nod from most candidates, but it was “Desley” to whom everyone bowed.
Phil Goff opened, saying he, his kids and hopefully grandkids would live in this city. “The first one, Desley,” is due in November,” he offered. (Births on his mind, he wished Happy Birthday to his opponent John Palino, attending the debate on the night of his 56th.)
The opening stanzas of the debate were on – yes – transport and housing, then to local issues including a cycle and walkway from Glen Innes to Orakei and changes to the east Auckland bus system.
When it came to the east, it was all Desley. Goff thanked her for taking him on a tour of the cycleway early in his candidacy and declared his full support; on the bus timetables and routes, he rang Auckland Transport and learned Desley and her board would be briefed on Wednesday about the final changes. “Can you tell us the outcome yet?” he asked. She shook her head.
At the end of the debate, a questioner from the floor wanted each candidate to say if they would appoint Desley deputy mayor, to a round endorsement from the assembled residents.
Goff, the obvious favourite to be mayor and have the power to appoint, was smilingly encouraging and non-committal at the same time. “I’m not presumptuous enough to make or announce any decision about any matter any future mayor will decide.” He said it was good she had a pink scarf on to hide her blushes at all the attention.
Victoria Crone, the highest profile centre-right candidate, said she was, indeed, already thinking about deputy and committee chairs so she wouldn’t have to rush once elected, and thanked Desley warmly for already endorsing Crone’s “fiscal responsibility” campaign plank.
David Hay, a former Green Party candidate and former Council employee, wished Desley well but told her she had to be elected a councillor first.
And John Palino, last election’s seizer of 100,000 votes in the battle to unseat Len Brown, was effusive: “Desley, I think you would be a phenomenal councillor and it would be just great to have you on the team.”
Mark Thomas, an eastie, a member of Desley’s local board and clearly a friend, said simply he would choose the best person for the job and, smiling towards her in the second row, added: “the best person may well be a woman.”
Simpson is an organisational force of nature. Anyone who has attended the annual, sprawling, Auckland Town Hall primary schools choir event over the years would have seen her, orchestrating the show with a rare unflappability. A musician, she ran the Yamaha Music Foundation before politics.
Previously married to National Party MP for Coromandel Scott Simpson, her current husband is National Party President and Rich Lister Peter Goodfellow. Sunday News called it, in 2009, a “tangled National love triangle”.
Google her image and she’s pictured there with Len Brown, John Banks, Michelle Boag, both her husbands, Thomas, Brewer, cutting ribbons, out in the community with the police and sitting at the keyboard of the big Town Hall organ. On Sunday it was “another day at the end of a spade” for the community planting at the Tahuna Torea reserve in Glendowie.
A third-generation east Aucklander, she has two adult children and, proudly displayed in a vice-regal setting on a photo on her Facebook page, is a proud grandmother to a wee boy.
A centre-right insider says she is “capable, diligent, extremely hard-working” and reckoned she could yet go straight in as deputy mayor. Incumbents will have other ideas.
Her ward is one of the areas most exercised by the Unitary Plan’s possible housing intensification and Simpson opposed the process the Council followed on the various versions, at one time urging councillors not to vote as a protest against the density being foisted out east. Now, she says she’s hopeful the independent panel will do the right thing for Orakei.
Simpson is diplomatically silent about the deputy mayor talk: “Hahahahahahahaha. What do you expect me to say to that?
“I was most flattered that my community asked those questions but I’m not even a member of the governing body yet.”
She intends to endorse one of the mayoral aspirants. “But I’m not going to tell you that yet.”
So, no royal assent just yet.
Meadowbank mayoral ratings
Phil Goff 7/10
A bit shouty into the microphone but as always well prepared and strongly on message. On transport, he feels Aucklanders’ pain, living in south Auckland and claiming his commute can take up to two-and-a-half hours a day. On housing, won points for prompting for a show of hands of those (like him) whose kids couldn’t afford a home without Mum and Dad’s help. Likes his “great hero” Paul Callaghan’s vision for New Zealand – and its biggest city – as “a place where talent wants to live”. Applause for opposing intensification leading to “ghetto areas” – and for identifying the commercial zone around Panmure transport hub as a place for housing development.
Mark Thomas 6/10
A couple of off jokes (one in welcoming Simon O’Connor MP and encouraging attendees to make submissions to him on euthanasia, as he chairs inquiry into assisted dying) but a walking policy-and-numbers guy, with thought-out solutions. This was his territory but didn’t get the applause won by Crone or Palino on the centre-right. Twice ridiculed the $20m spent by the Council on the new whitewater rafting facility at Manukau. Eschews highfalutin visions for Auckland. Wants “a city that works better”.
David Hay 4/10
Opened with “I’m not the ex-deputy mayor for Auckland City”. Someone mumbled, “pity”. Hay used his time to argue for carbon action and the complexity of local government. More mumbles as he, refused, as a former Green, to support extra funding for access paths to the new eastern cycleway. “I’m going to be tough on this. Sorry, there are a lot of great projects.” Schooled up on uni-centric and poly-centric cities, and the transport wonders of Curitiba in Brazil.
Victoria Crone 8/10
“The key message I’m hearing from Auckland is we have had enough and the council quite frankly needs a shake-up”. Seizing on the Council’s own survey finding that just 15 % of ratepayers are satisfied with its performance and decisions, Crone had a dynamism about her that started to live up to her talk of leading billion-dollar businesses and infrastructure developments. Revealed she’s already talking to potential councillors to get a voting bloc in place for reforms. Lost points for umpteenth reference to how driverless buses will solve transport problems.
John Palino 5/10
Calmer than at his historically bad campaign launch event three months ago, and happy to receive birthday wishes from Goff. Twice promoted his campaign manifesto document available on his site; main theme of the night that Auckland needs “satellite CBDs” with houses and jobs in Manukau, Albany, Henderson and an unspecified new node in South Auckland. That solution to broader intensification of Auckland got him his best response. “Our suburbs are beautiful. We need to maintain them. We need to build satellite cities.” Lost marks for suggesting plane noise over Meadowbank could be solved by making incoming planes all fly over water, like in LA. Goff pointed out planes can’t do that coming in from the east.
Penny Bright 0/10
Breaking News: Auckland held a public gathering and Penny Bright didn’t show up. The candidate’s chair was empty. No apology was recorded.