Simon Wilson: Party politics and the Auckland mayoral race

OPINION

The Labour and National parties now both have a candidate running for Auckland mayor. Not that either of them would put it like that.

Viv Beck, CEO of the central Auckland business association Heart of the City, has entered the race as an independent with the support of the Communities and Residents (C&R), the group that used to be called Citizens and Ratepayers.

C&R is the vehicle used by the National Party to contest council elections in Auckland. Although it will not meet to endorse Beck formally until next week, she told me yesterday “They’ve said yes.”

Beck herself does not belong to a political party.

Fa’anana Efeso Collins, a two-term councillor for the Manukau ward, is also standing as an independent, with an endorsement from the Labour Party. This is the same formula used by the current mayor, Phil Goff, and his predecessor, Len Brown. All three are members of the Labour Party.

But while the major parties now have their fighters in the ring, there are no heavyweights. So far. High-profile former MPs including Paula Bennett and David Shearer have ruled themselves out – although no one should ever say never in politics. And no stars have stepped forward from the worlds of sport or entertainment.

This is the fifth super-city election and the first where none of the mayoral hopefuls have either big-name recognition or solid experience in government. Even Collins’ experience is limited: he’s not a senior member of council and doesn’t chair a council committee.

The Labour endorsement will make an enormous difference to him, providing a campaign-hardened advisory team, a big bunch of volunteers and significant fundraising opportunities.

Its candidates have won all four previous mayoral elections with hefty majorities and the party will not want the embarrassment of a loss this time. With no big-name opposition, this is Efeso Collins’ election to lose.

Beck will benefit in similar ways from the C&R endorsement. Despite its spectacular lack of success since 2010, it has campaign experience, volunteers and access to fundraising.

But her immediate problem is Viaduct restaurateur Leo Molloy. He’s a genuinely independent candidate and he’s been telling the story around town about how Bennett and Whangaparāoa MP Mark Mitchell tried to persuade him not to stand.

Molloy’s campaign manager is Matt McCarten, who also ran John Tamihere’s campaign in the 2019 mayoral election. Former mayors John Banks and Sir Bob Harvey are “sympathetic”.

But, says McCarten, the rumour that Michelle Boag is involved is “absolutely not true”.

Molloy’s strategy will be to make himself a household name. He’ll do this with some bold ideas and by ridiculing the other candidates. In February he called Viv Beck a “poodle”.

Will the ideas be drowned in the ridicule? Will his predilection to abuse people alienate all but a core of laddish voters?

Efeso Collins, meanwhile, will campaign as Mr Nice Guy. Yesterday he extended a “warm welcome” to Beck when she joined the contest. Then he acknowledged all the mayoral candidates in “what I’m sure will be a fantastic campaign”.

The sting was aimed squarely at Molloy, not Beck, and was delivered with pure Collins niceness: “This election will be a choice about the kind of values we need in a time of stress and how we can build a city that makes us all proud.”

Collins vs Molloy will be quite the clash, especially as, despite the profound differences in their personalities, neither man lacks self-confidence. Beck may be hoping they knock each other out.

Many more candidates will decide that they also have heard the siren call of history. “Why not me?” they’ll be asking. To date, third-time candidate Craig Lord, second-timer Ted Johnston and first-timer Jake Law have declared. Johnston is a co-leader of the New Conservative Party; the others are independents.

Is the backroom party involvement a charade and if it is, why bother with it?

If it was a charade, it ought to stop. But the weird and wonderful thing about local body politics in Auckland is that it’s not a charade. Councillors who belong to one political party or another don’t routinely vote together; some barely even work together.

Phil Goff is proud of the way he has forged a coalition across party lines on his council. He gets loyal support from some Labour councillors but his two most powerful lieutenants are deputy mayor Bill Cashmore and finance committee chair Desley Simpson, both members of the National Party.

It’s a centrist coalition but it leans Left, requiring Cashmore and Simpson to support centre-Left policies like incremental rates rises and the regional fuel tax. For their pains, they have to put up with quite a bit of abuse from the right.

But sometimes Goff crosses the other way, too. He strongly opposes Labour’s new housing law for its blanket approach to intensification.

Why does the centrist coalition exist? Because without party whips keeping them partisan, competent people with moderate aims tend to gravitate together. They can keep the radicals on their own side in check, and they don’t have to accommodate the incompetents in their own corner either. Sadly, there are one or two councillors you wouldn’t trust to run a bath.

Goff’s working majority in the middle isn’t a monolith. Behind closed doors they argue, often fiercely, about the size of rates rises, how much money to give libraries and playing fields and community events, the funding for Auckland Transport and how they think regional parks and the Hauraki Gulf should be managed. And more. And then they take a consensus position to the council table.

Will this election change the way things are done? Viv Beck said yesterday she wants to “work with people on all sides”. But if a majority of centre-Right councillors is also elected, she could introduce a more partisan parliamentary-style approach.

If Molloy wins, he’s told me he will run council “with an inner team of six, who will make all the decisions”. Having an inner circle is standard. Having them make all the decisions has the potential to start a war with all the rest, and they’d be in the majority.

As for Collins, he’s been a bit estranged from most of his council colleagues and that won’t work if he’s mayor. He’ll need to patch up some broken relationships, promote good people and demote some others, keep his friends close and his enemies even closer.

And with all the personality politics, will policies get a look in? No one has announced a platform yet, but they all have things to say about the regional fuel tax.

Beck said yesterday she wants it wiped within 12 months, to bring down the cost of petrol.

But 12 months is well before the City Rail Link, Eastern Busway or any of the other big new transit projects will be ready. On its own, lowering petrol prices will simply put more cars on the roads. It will make congestion worse.

Molloy’s position, also revealed yesterday, is to use the $250 million of RFT funds that have been raised but not yet spent on a 12-month trial of free public transport. But those funds are going to be spent. What projects will he take the money from?

Collins, meanwhile, opposed the RFT when it was introduced, because it would hurt poorer people the most. He hasn’t said what he thinks should happen to it now, although he was the first to propose free public transport and is keen to see that happen.

They’ve all got work to do. None of these plans is fiscally coherent, yet. But there’s time: we vote in October.

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