The South Auckland councillor’s tendency to speak his mind has, some say, rubbed Labour power brokers up the wrong way. Efeso Collins tells Toby Manhire why he’s decided to run with or without the party’s endorsement.
“I’ve never been afraid to speak my mind,” says Fa’anana Efeso Collins, his hands clasped across the small dining table in his Ōtāhuhu apartment. “But I didn’t think it would quite unravel the way it did.” In March last year the Auckland councillor had called on TVNZ to retire Police Ten 7. A promotion for the show that “showed young brown people” typified the “low level chewing gum TV that feeds on racial stereotypes”, he tweeted. “It’s time you acted as a responsible broadcaster and cut it.”
The post touched a nerve, prompting a burst of media coverage and a review of the show, which in turn led to a “reimagining” of the format. It also delivered a deluge of vitriol, much of it racist, most of it directed at Collins. The online stuff – from “keyboard warriors who hide behind the photograph of a puppy or a fruit” – was depressingly routine. But this time there was something else: bomb threats levelled against Collins and his family. The threats were sufficiently plausible that the police called him in for a briefing.
Where before Collins had told himself he could fence off the most toxic elements he faces, it had now arrived, quite literally, in his home, as police swept the two-bedroom apartment where he lives with his wife, event manager and consultant Fia, and their two young daughters, for any sign of explosives.
“I think that was a pivotal moment for our family,” says Collins, gesturing around the room, its walls covered in family photos and artwork by the kids, who moments ago set off for the library and the pool down the road. “It really threw us. It confused us a little bit. Why were we doing this? I walked away from that experience – the death threats and the police, who were really supportive, and I want to thank them for that – and I wondered if this was the right thing for us. As a big Sāmoan guy, I’m used to being challenged. If people come up to me and challenge me, that’s cool. I can have conversations. But I wore quite a deep sense of guilt because I thought I had brought it on my family,” he says, leaving the sentence unfinished. “It was a time that we really paused to reflect on whether this was worth it.”
Racism is something Collins has encountered throughout his life – “the micro-aggressive and the in-your-face racism”. It surfaced even when he was sworn in as a councillor after standing as a Labour candidate in 2016. “I could get really angry at the world and just hide. Or I can take a lot of those really negative and sad experiences and choose, we can choose as a family, to take those experiences and channel them into something positive. To show Auckland that we’re a maturing city, that everyone has something to offer,” he says.
The period of reflection after the bomb threat lasted a few weeks. “Then we came back thinking we’re kind of the people we are, and even if I was to walk from politics, I would probably end up in a role where I’d still be speaking my mind. I’ve always chosen to speak what I believe in. It was there that we firmed up the decision.” That decision wasn’t just to stick with Auckland Council, but to go for the job that many call the second most important political role in the country. “We decided, yeah, actually not only are we going to stay on, but this is the time to seek the office of the mayoralty. It’s a city we thought might warm to leadership that’s bold. And I hope that that’s how people see it. It’s time.”
Out of favour?
The Weekend Herald on Saturday carried a curtain-raiser to this October’s Auckland mayoral election. The paper’s veteran council reporter Bernard Orsman suggested the incumbent, Phil Goff, was likely to announce in the coming weeks that he would not seek a third term. Discussion was “mounting on the left”, said Orsman in his opening paragraph, that Goff, a former leader of the Labour Party, would “endorse a rising star on council, North Shore councillor Richard Hills, as his successor” – an endorsement that would likely amount to tacit backing by Labour. That meant the contest “could well become a three-horse race”, reckoned Orsman, with Hills taking on Viv Beck, best known for heading up CBD business group Heart of the City, and the voluble hospo operator Leo Molloy.
Collins, who had previously signalled his interest in running with Labour’s support should Goff call it a day, was given fleeting mention. “The Labour member is out of favour with the party, despite his strong links into the Pasifika and South Auckland communities and his charisma and oratory skills,” wrote Orsman. “It is hard to see him standing without the party machinery that would come with Labour backing.”
I read passages from the Herald piece aloud to Collins across the table. Our interview was teed up before that article was published, but the lack of any hesitation in his response suggests he knew the question was coming. “I take all of Bernard’s stuff with a grain of salt,” he says. “I have the greatest respect for Bernard, he’s been writing for a long time.” Of the substance, however, “it’s disappointing to read those kinds of things,” says Collins.
In the four elections since the Auckland Super City was established in 2010, the party has provided its tacit endorsement and, crucially, institutional and organisational support to nominally independent candidates, in the form of Len Brown and then Phil Goff. The process by which endorsement has been secured, however, is shrouded in mystery. Collins wants that to change. In his capacity as chair of the local body committee for Auckland Labour and in direct appeals to the power-brokers, he’s been making the case. “Last year, I made it clear to the president of the Labour Party, to senior ministers in the Labour Party, that I believed it was time to run a process that was fair, robust and transparent, so that we could endorse a candidate,” he says.
“I’ve been part of the Labour Party for over a decade. I’m proud to be in the party. I’m part of the Labour whānau. And that’s why I reached out to them. I reached out to Phil Goff, had an honest one-on-one conversation with him, because I thought that was the honourable and respectful thing to do.” He’s had no formal word back, which is “a little bit disappointing”, although he’s received “the odd phone call from different people saying it’s being thought about”. He holds his hands out. “I don’t know how Len Brown or Phil Goff got endorsement. And that’s why I pushed for an open, honest process. And I’m still willing to participate in an open honest process that I hope will lead to endorsement.”
This was hardly the first time Collins had encountered stage whispers suggesting the party just doesn’t think he’s the guy. “You know, you read things like ‘out of favour’ – I know what my leadership style is like,” he says. It’s a leadership style that doesn’t come with the finely tuned on-message party-line filter that is these days so widespread. There’s no hint of resentment in his voice, but neither is there any sense that he’s about to change his approach. Within a few minutes of my arriving at his place on Monday morning, as we’re talking about the South Auckland readiness for the Covid red setting, he questions Trevor Mallard’s tweeted encouragement that “If you can afford it it will pay to stock up a bit.” “I don’t know that it was helpful for the Speaker of the House to send out a tweet that grew its own legs here,” is Collins’ unprompted response. “It sent some major anxiety waves throughout the community, because our people don’t have the discretionary income to just walk out and say, well, I’ll get an extra bit of milk powder for the kids. That’s not a reality here.”
Collins has been critical of parts of the government’s Covid response and vaccination rollout throughout, “pushing back”, as he puts it, on issues that impact the community he represents as Manukau ward councillor. “I think it was important for the government to know off the bat that prioritising Auckland, and South Auckland in particular, needed to be a serious consideration. So I was disappointed when papers were released that showed that it wasn’t something that was seriously considered … I think it was important that I advocated for that position.” It’s not just Covid. “I know,” he says, later in the interview, “that people have been challenged by some of the views that I’ve had.” He cites the the regional fuel tax, a policy he opposed on the basis that it would fall most heavily on poorer people who depended on vehicles, and “where I stood on Ihumātao” – Collins was a vocal supporter of the occupation and protest.
He says: “I know that those have been challenging, but that’s what robust discussions are about and I think we’ve got to put Auckland first. I’m up to a hard conversation. I’ve been dealing in inclusive leadership for a long time. And hard conversations is one of the things we encourage – courageous conversations. I think Aucklanders are up for it.” Local government, he says, is a different beast to the Westminster model. “It’s getting away from the central government view, which is ‘you sort it out in caucus’. All of it happens [instead] around a table of 21 people who are sitting at the governing body, and allowing them to thrash out the issues.” He’s up for “taking on advice” from party figures, he says. But: “We should have discussions on honest, robust premises, rather than just, ‘well, I’m a loyal Nat or a loyal Labour person, and I’ll just do as I’m told.’ Because I think we’re all past that kind of behaviour.”
Collins is not giving up on a Labour endorsement and remains keen to take part in any process. But he’s not going to die waiting. “I think it’s important that people know today that I’m willing to stand and to present myself to Aucklanders, so that they can judge me on my character and my vision.”
More pragmatically, there’s the question of funding a campaign. “I’ve been told that it’s going to cost us anywhere between $300,000 and half a million to be able to run a genuine mayoral campaign. It’s almost February and we’re still a little bit unsure as to what’s going to happen. And I’ve been approached by people who say, ‘Look, I’m happy to support you. Do you need some money?’ I’m thinking: well, yes, I do. But I’m not quite in the race yet. So I think it’s important that people know I’m putting myself forward.”
Phil Goff would not comment on the reports, beyond confirming that he will be making an announcement about his plans “in the coming weeks”. The Labour president, Claire Szabó, told the Spinoff that given there is no current vacancy for a Labour-endorsed mayoral candidate, “announcing a process to find one would not be appropriate. We will announce a process should it be required. Then through that process Labour would form a position on who it supported for Auckland mayor.”
The Collins pitch
To overcome the naysayers and mount a successful campaign for mayor, Efeso Collins needs not just to issue a compelling, positive vision for the city, but to convince people that he to a large extent embodies that vision. The son of Sāmoan migrants, Efeso was the youngest of six children, and the first in the family to attend and graduate from university. Among his subjects was philosophy – as evidenced today by a sprinkling of intellectual-influence name-drops, including Heidegger, Sartre and (repeatedly) Nietzsche.
Newly married, he and Fia bought a three-bedroom house in Glen Eden, on a classic 700-square-metre section. “But we were never there,” he recalls. “We both led really busy lives, whether it’s being involved in church, work, a whole lot of things, and we decided we wanted somewhere we didn’t need the car so often. When the girls came along, I think it really shifted our priorities. And we wanted somewhere where we could walk to the shops, get to the playground, get to a swimming pool. This was the place.” It has the added benefit of being a stone’s throw from one of Auckland’s best food courts.
“It’s small, but it really works for us. We’ve learned how to live in this space.” Collins hopes he can make the same case to Aucklanders more broadly: that the city needs to rethink the way it lives, the way urban spaces are configured. As buses whizz past outside towards the centre of town, Collins says he can “perhaps try and role-model what the new Auckland looks like, which is an apartment close to good amenities, and the ability to raise a family in the city”.
Public transport, urban spaces, housing – all are priorities Collins points to, with climate change arching across all of it. Collins questions whether Auckland Transport bosses fully grasp commuters’ realities. He says he’d like to see a bigger focus on decentralised hubs. And he’d like public transport to be fare-free.
The perennial challenge remains, though: how to pay for it all. Does he want rates to be increased? The question delivers a reminder that for all his candour, Collins is still a politician. “Firstly I think we should be proud of Auckland Council in that less than half of our revenue stream is rates-dependent,” he says, adding that the story needs to be told better, making contrasts with other parts of the country, championing the proposed climate action targeted rate, and extemporising at length about having conversations and getting the balance right. Is that a very long way of saying: yes, rates need to go up? “It’s a long way of saying that our investment in the city needs to be more fulsome, and an increase in rates will need to be part of their consideration.”
Collins is determined to be a voice for Pasifika, for South Auckland and for working class people, so many of whom “feel disengaged, and perhaps disillusioned … I’m hopeful that they might look at my candidacy and think, hey, that’s one of us. He speaks for us. He understands what we’re going through. We’ll put our trust in him.” He adds, with an intake of hopeful breath: “And we’ll actually register to vote.” That last consideration, he says, “is probably going to be the greatest challenge for me”.
It is difficult to overstate that challenge. The evidence is thuddingly emphatic: voter turnout tends to be lower among people who earn less, are brown and live in the south. Collins says he’s up for the task, that he can win over the tribes of suburban Auckland he’s previously called “the leafies”.
“I’m into a politics of listening,” he says. “I don’t have all the answers. I welcome everybody’s feedback.” The onus, he says, “rests on me to get out and meet the community, to hang out on the Shore, to be available and accessible to people in Remuera – we’ve got family in Remuera!” His goal is “a city that is for all and a mayoral campaign for all, a mayor for all”. The declamation “for all”, he insists, is not empty rhetoric. It was possible to respect those who have “invested in Auckland, who got their houses, and that’s their wealth creation for the next generation” while “inviting them to think: how do others get on to their journey? Because we can’t be selfish and say that’s just for us and it’s just for my family and my legacy for my family. This is about a legacy for a city. And we know from the data that home ownership for Māori and Pacific populations is really low. I’m inviting Aucklanders to think about how we get that for everybody, not just for some.”
As far as reaching across the left-right aisle is concerned, Collins points to his working relationship with Desley Simpson, the National-aligned councillor for Ōrākei. “I made a deliberate choice to sit next to Desley. And that is based on the fact that I represent the poorest ward in the city, and she represents the wealthiest, and we can sit there while other discussions are going on and thrash things out,” he says. “And 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.” During last year’s Covid lockdown, that resulted in “one of those beautiful things”, he says, when “she turned up with trailer loads of goods, which had women’s sanitary products, food, furniture, and she bought it to the Māngere budgeting service – trailer loads of stuff … She rang me and said: look, I’ve got these people who said they’ve seen you on TV, they know you’re really keen to get some services and products out to your community. Let’s make the link.”
‘Dad! God is a woman?’
Collins is closely involved in the networks of faith that permeate so much of South Auckland. “Our faith is really important to us,” he says. “Fia and I were married in the Catholic church and I was raised Pentecostal. And my father was a church minister for a time in the Sāmoan Pentecostal movement … Our faith is deeply personal.” The church also provided a way to “keep the Sāmoan going and the learning of our girls” and has provided “an awesome hub of support for us. Our church family were wonderful, especially through that time of the death threats.”
With an upbringing immersed in religion, some of the ideas he encountered at the University of Auckland – where he would go on to be elected student president – were confronting. “I remember doing a metaphysics paper. And the first thing I heard was the professor come in and say, ‘God is a woman.’ I remember going home to Dad and saying: ‘Dad! God is a woman?’ And Dad was going, ‘Oh, my goodness, what do we do?’ and it challenged our theology, immediately. All our lives, Mum and Dad had said to us, one of you has to go to university. I was the first to go and to graduate at university. And then my first class is an immediate challenge by a professor to everything I’ve ever learned.” From there, he says, he quickly understood the importance of being open to different experiences, ideas and backgrounds. “Perhaps my approach had been very, very straightforward. And university helped me to start to open my eyes to difference.”
Asked for his position on abortion, Collins says the world could use fewer men pontificating on the subject, before circling around without quite answering the question. He later sends me a message asking to clarify. “Rather than focusing on labels,” he writes, “it’s my position that I won’t get in the way of women and people who are pregnant making their own, deeply personal decisions. I too am on a journey of understanding and empathy and always open to listening to people’s diverse experiences and beliefs.”
On the broader question of his faith and cultural values, Collins keeps returning to the idea of a “journey”. He details the way he and his family responded to a nephew who transitioned to become a niece – “we, as a family, were really challenged by that”, he says, but they came to lend their support and join her in celebrating victory in a faʻafafine competition across the Tasman. Collins asks for patience for those whose views don’t align with liberal western norms. “Those of us who have come from really strict religious upbringings are journeying towards that position, and we’re looked at poorly because we’re still travelling towards where people are today. And that’s where I think bridges can be made.”
A decade ago, Collins publicly spoke out against the gay marriage law. “I acknowledge that my position on gay marriage hurt people,” he says. “I thought at the time that I was really representing the church, standing strong for them. I acknowledge that it hurt people, people who were my friends. I had a conversation with someone just on Friday, who said, ‘yeah, that did hurt me.’ And I had the opportunity to apologise and say, ‘that was never my intention, and I’m sorry, because that’s what I believed, perhaps in a closed-off mind, was that it was the only way to express your Christianity. I know today that it’s not the only way to express it.’”
A mayor for Pacific Auckland?
Given Auckland can boast of being the world’s biggest Pasifika city, many of Collins’ supporters are calling for the city to rally around would would be its first Pasifika mayor. Is that the way he sees it? “I think it would create a lot of pride and excitement within the Pacific community. And it would give me great pride being a son of Sāmoa, a son of migrants to New Zealand, to hold that position. But I’m just excited that in our society today I have the opportunity to do it,” he says.
“There’s something special about Auckland, and Tāmaki Makaurau is a special place because it’s invested so much in us. We’re committed to reinvesting into a city that I think can be something beautiful.” But, he stresses, it remains the fact that his children, according to the data, begin their lives at a disadvantage. “And I’m really concerned that the dream for which my parents migrated to Auckland is slipping away for too many in our community … So, yeah, it could be time for a Pacific person, but definitely time for an inclusive, collaborative leader who can make decisions, but will introduce or participate in a politics of empathy and listening.”
In the months to come, Collins faces the challenge of lifting his profile and projecting his message across New Zealand’s biggest city. He doesn’t yet have a campaign manager, manifesto or a slogan, but he has talked already to the people who composed the cult classic campaign jingle ‘Efeso, Efeso, Efeso, Yeah, Yeah’. Featuring lines like “He grew up in Ōtara, in the hood where life is harder / Efeso Collins is a Polynesian version of Obama”, the track was released in 2013 for his local board run, but attracted wider attention when he went for council three years later, playing at just about every event he staged.
“Actually I was just talking with the boys who created that,” he grins. “I used to be a youth leader in church and the boys, some of the young people in my youth group, they’re really musical, much more musical than me, they rang me up and they said, ‘Hey, Efeso we’ve made up a little jingle. And if you like it, cool, go for it.’ And I couldn’t believe what they’d come up with. I thought, this is awesome … I’ve been talking to the boys this weekend, saying, ‘Could we just change a couple of the lyrics, maybe just look at using the word ‘mayor’ in there.”
I put it to Collins that one of those lyrics that might need reworking is from the chorus: “If you want to vote for a party, Labour Party is the party.” “I’m keen to keep that!” he says, his eyes lighting up. “They are part of my family. And this is something you want to do with your family.” Either way, however, Collins is running. “If they endorse me, cool,” he says. “If they don’t endorse me, that’s cool as well. I’m standing.”
This article was updated on January 26 to include a response from Claire Szabó