When floods smashed Auckland, deputy mayor Desley Simpson left her boss in the shade. So why has the councillor from the posh end of town never had a crack at the top job?
This story was first published on Stuff.
Desley Simpson wants her photo taken at the Wintergardens glasshouses in the Auckland Domain, because she is really proud of the council’s recent refurbishment of the century-old architectural jewel: on time, on budget, on message.
So here we are, just after 11.30 on a sunny Tuesday morning: Simpson and her chief adviser Edward, and Stuff photographer Lawrence Smith and me.
The Wintergardens look lovely, but Smith isn’t happy. The sunlight’s glary. The glasshouses are infested with visitors who’ll get in shot. Also, Smith has learnt that Simpson, deputy mayor of Auckland and councillor for well-heeled Ōrākei, has a blue Porsche 911 with the plate: “DESLEY”.
Sooo… he can take the gardeny picture Simpson’s hoping for, but if the car’s nearby, could she also pose in front of that?
Simpson takes a small backward step. Yes. She drove, so her car’s here. But her guard is up. She knows what this is all about.
“That’s the story of my life. I’m judged. Because you judge a book by its cover.”
Still, she’s co-operative, re-parking to meet the photographer’s needs. And that’s not totally surprising: throughout her 16-year career in local politics, Simpson has been notably accessible, to media and to the public.
Yet I can’t be the only Aucklander who only fully noticed Desley Simpson and her media chops after the chaos and ill-temper of the Anniversary Weekend floods.
First there was that car crash of a press conference at Helensville Fire Station, where Simpson literally dragged mayor Wayne Brown out the back door to stop him bickering with journalists.
In the following days, Simpson picked up the talking stick Brown had so tetchily cast aside and became, as Newsroom put it, Mayor-by-Default: someone who could communicate calmly and clearly to let the city know Everything Was Probably Going to Be Alright. When Cyclone Gabrielle blew in a fortnight later, Simpson was still in loco parentis.
Which is why I thought it might be interesting to meet her. Despite Simpson’s anxiety about being pigeonholed by a photograph, it was only after reading cuttings that I realised she was extremely wealthy and she likes bright designer clothes. I had no idea what car she drove.
Which isn’t to say that I’m now entirely uninterested in the Porsche. It’s a beautiful thing of gentian blue and stitched leather. As I ride shotgun with Simpson to the council offices for the interview proper, the engine purrs like a lion that might tear your limbs off if it cared to.
Wayne Brown’s office is on the 27th floor. We stop at the 26th, but the view from the deputy’s office is still spectacular: Harbour Bridge to the left; Tamaki Drive to the right; Tīkapa Moana/Hauraki Gulf in between, glinting like a handful of diamonds.
For Desley Simpson, politics runs in the family. Sir Henry Brett, a many-greats-uncle, was mayor of Auckland in 1878. Her mother’s adoptive father Sir James Donald was a government minister and later chaired the Auckland Harbour Board. Each time Simpson’s been sworn in she’s worn Sir James’ fob chain “because my mother got it made into a bracelet.”
Music’s also in the blood. Simpson’s mother Leonie Lawson, still going strong at 92, was head of music at Diocesan School for Girls. Simpson herself is an accomplished musician who plays pipe organ, piano, cello and flute.
Growing up in Remuera, Simpson had “a very happy childhood”.
“We had a big back yard and could climb trees. We had a holiday place on the Coromandel. I had a younger brother, and great parents.”
When I ask what year she was born, Simpson declines to say.
She’s also slightly resistant when I ask for a walk-through of her pre-politics CV, because it seems “not exactly relevant to my job”, But she gives a few snapshots: she studied science and psychology. She was general manager of the Yamaha Music Foundation. She was involved in the Graeme Dingle Foundation and co-founded Kiwi Can, a values-based schools programme that focuses on “how to express yourself when you are angry or sad”.
She had two children – both now in their mid-30s – with Scott Simpson, who is the National MP for Coromandel. Her second husband, Peter Goodfellow (of the richlister Goodfellow family), was National Party president from 2009 to 2022.
Simpson herself didn’t get around to politics until 2007. Her father had recently died, her marriage had ended. People had been urging her for years, but now it felt like time, so she stood, “and the rest, as they say, is history!”
That history in full: Hobson Community Board 2007; Ōrākei Local Board 2010 then 2013; Auckland councillor for the Ōrākei ward 2016 then 2019 (including appointment by mayor Phil Goff as chair of the powerful Finance and Performance Committee). Then, after her re-election as councillor last year, the new guy, Wayne Brown, made her deputy mayor.
She says she’s proud of big projects such as raising sections of Tamaki Drive (“when all these floods came along, that road was driveable”) or the walking-cycling shared path through Pourewa Valley. Also the way she proved herself in the finance roles under Goff, even though he was far to her political left.
But 16 years of newspaper cuttings show she’s also really into the small stuff: traffic lights, zebra crossing and cycle-lanes; the provision of berm-mowing; the fate of a dog running into traffic near Kohimarama beach. In local paper snaps Simpson admires a worm farm, celebrates some new astroturf, poses near a twinkly-lit tree.
Does she ever grow tired of this stuff?
“No! I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it. I could be a lady who lunches a lot and having a great life, you know, but I think I am having a great life. I’m living the life I want to live.”
Simpson is on the political right, traditional home of climate denialism, but says that’s not her. Obviously climate change was behind the big flood, “and we’re not going to have to wait another hundred years for the next one”. Assuming she thinks otherwise would be “judging a book by its cover”.
Likewise around issues of colonisation. She remembers a time when “my father wanted me to leave a school that taught Māori”, but there’s been a generational shift, and now it’s impossible for her to represent Ōrākei “without knowing that a big part of it is Takaparawhā/Bastion Point and the marae and Ngāti Whātua”.
The people of Ōrākei voted her in, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t care about other parts of the city.
Efeso Collins, the Manukau ward councillor who lost out to Brown in the mayoral race, has often said he would deliberately sit next to Simpson in council, so Auckland’s richest and poorest wards could learn from each other.
Yep, says Simpson, she and Collins would sit together and the exchange of ideas worked “both ways”.
“But again, don’t judge a book by its cover. I spent a lot of time in South Auckland with the Kiwi Can programme. I was in pretty much every school in Manurewa, a lot of schools in Māngere.”
She says she’ll never know South Auckland like someone who grew up there, but that’s why there are 20 councillors around the table: “It’s about the diversity of Auckland.”
On the weekend of the floods, Simpson was just home from abroad. She was hoping for an uneventful long weekend to overcome her jetlag.
Instead, rain fell, the city flooded, and she found herself in Helensville, watching Brown coin the phrase “widespread misunderterpretation” and losing his rag.
Simpson says what happened is that unlike prime minister Chris Hipkins, who turned up with a speech to read, Brown was responding on the fly.
“I’ve seen him do this before. He tries to explain what happened and he just cannot articulate that. He gets upset when the media don’t seem to understand what he’s trying to say.”
Simpson realised that “it wasn’t getting any better, so it was just like – get outta here!”
Has she ever had to drag a speaker off a stage like that before?
Did she realise in the moment it might become a meme?
“No.” She laughs loudly. “No, I didn’t.”
Given the praise heaped on Simpson for her subsequent performance as the public face of the floods, is Simpson going to run for mayor herself?
“I think my answer at the moment is one never says never. At the moment I am more than challenged being deputy mayor.”
OK. But what if you were running for mayor. What would your policies be?
“Oh stone the crows! I haven’t even been in the job six months. Can we get through at least a year of this term?”
OK. Let’s ask again in October.
Simpson has to be at the Town Hall at 2pm, so we race through some quickfire questions. Favourite travel destination: Italy. Favourite spot in Auckland: The Domain. Thing you love most about Auckland: “He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata.”
Thing that upsets you most about Auckland?
“Congestion, maybe? … Actually nothing really upsets me. It can be frustrating that it could be better, but I’m never upset by Auckland. I love it. It’s like a child, you know? Your children can do things that annoy you, but you love them regardless.”
There’s one more thing I want to ask.
At least four times today, Simpson has said people shouldn’t “judge a book by its cover”. She first said it when asked to pose by her Porsche, so it’s probably connected to that, and maybe the pink Karl Lagerfeld dress she’s wearing. But I want to be clear: what precisely is the “cover” Simpson reckons people are misjudging? And what’s the book inside that they should be noticing instead?
She responds with a question of her own.
“Why haven’t I stood for mayor? [Because] I never thought anyone would vote for someone who looks like me. And I’m not going to change the way I am or who I am.
“Yet I have seen white man after white man after white man put their hand up. And it doesn’t seem to matter for a man, but as a woman, you can be judged by what you wear, what your hair looks like. Phil Goff I think lived in a grey suit, you know? But I’m me. I love nice things. I love colour. I can afford that and I like to wear it – it’s a reflection of my personality.
“But it’s tough out there for some of Auckland. And I do my utmost best to understand what it’s like to be in areas outside of my own.”
That’s why, long before politics, she worked on those programmes for school kids. She really believes people can be whatever they want to be, regardless of background. That’s partly why she’s been reticent today about her own background.
“Because it shouldn’t matter whether you were privileged or not. We have a city that no matter where you live, we have a wonderful education system – even though it’s got a whole lot of problems. You can be whatever you like. You can go to university. You can deliver on your dream.”
Her voice cracks.
“I am so passionate about this city.”
She fully tears up, then takes a long breath.
“I know that people like you look at me and you think well, she does this, and she drives that. She can’t possibly be something else. And you couldn’t be more wrong. And I’m sorry you’ve left it to the last five minutes to cover that.”
She laughs at her tears.
“Woah! Glass of water please!”
She continues: “But I work as hard as the hardest-working person in this building. I just have this vision for Auckland where everybody can thrive.”
The water arrives, and some tissues. Simpson sips, and dabs.
“God. That’s so unusual for me. But this is my passion. Forget what I did when I was 5 or whatever. Doesn’t matter.”
Her next appointment is in seven minutes. She gathers her stuff and strides for the lift, apologising as she goes, perhaps for the hurried conclusion; perhaps for the surprise tears.
I’m slower to move and by the time my lift reaches the ground floor she’s already halfway across the street. There she is: the deputy mayor you’ll never see in a grey suit, walking very fast toward the Town Hall.