Goff’s First Three Weeks: An Uncertain Start

Phil Goff will give his inaugural address as Mayor of Auckland when he is sworn in tonight. Having listened to him speak more than 60 times during the mayoral campaign, I have a good sense of what he is going to say. He will be keen to move on from an uncertain first three weeks start as the new Mayor of Auckland.

He will say Auckland is a fabulous place, but we have lots of “challenges”. We need to “do more for less”, we need both more affordable housing and more public transport more quickly and, most importantly, someone else will have to pay.

His oft repeated line that Auckland is experiencing 50% of the country’s growth but we are not getting 50% of the revenue (GST, PAYE) that comes from this growth often got a good response on the campaign from the mainly older, more affluent people we spoke to. Yet it only told part of the story.

The Government already spends nearly $20 billion in Auckland each year – six times the amount Auckland Council itself provides at $3.5 billion. And this $20 billion is close to amount the region as a whole pays to Government. Former mayor Len Brown thought that balance was about right.

But it also implies that council is already doing all it can from within its own business. Yet late last year two very considered reports from Ernst & Young and Cameron Partners said up to $3.4 billion could be provided by council itself to invest in priority infrastructure. If Goff remains determined that council doesn’t do this, we need to hear when the “someone” is actually going to start paying – otherwise his campaign plans, such as they were, will amount to even less.

His key challenge is getting on top of a job he doesn’t fully understand and his first three weeks haven’t gone smoothly.

His decision to accept the advice of Auckland Transport and dump two Auckland councillors from the AT board highlighted his lack of awareness of the problems Auckland Council has had gaining control of this CCO. More effective scrutiny is needed, not less. This year’s Elected Member survey showed Auckland Transport is one the primary areas for improvement within the wider council. As someone who comes to the role of Mayor with no significant transport experience, he should have appointed himself to the board.

His streamling of the council committee structure, which should have been welcomed, has created three ‘Super Committees’ with huge workloads. His “enhanced” monitoring of Auckland Transport sees its focus split between the Finance Committee and the enormous Planning Committee – where transport issues will have to compete with the Unitary Plan, housing, Watercare and many other big issues.

Rather than seize on Labour’s commitment to half fund the light rail scheme he wants to run from the CBD to his old electorate and put pressure on the current government to match it, he demurred and missed an opportunity to start making this a 2017 general election issue. And despite housing and transport being the key issues we had drummed into us on the campaign trail, he has added a new billion dollar stadium to his unfunded wish-list without even speaking to the privately run Eden Park.

On the smaller issues, he is also not moving effectively. On the decision to cut libraries hours, rather direct the CEO to cancel the decision – he has passed the buck back to local boards who have very little time to engage with their communities on an issue which should have been canvassed during the Annual Plan consultation round in February.  He wasn’t able to let people know whether ATEED should spend “hundreds of thousands” of dollars supporting a Joseph Parker fight here – despite the payback for one-off events of this type being well known to be very small. He has picked up on my sceptism of Len Brown’s Liveable City slogan, and said he doesn’t support it – but is doing nothing to actually change it.

Despite claiming to be an independent mayor, he is now actively supporting the Labour candidate for Mt Roskill. In much the same way he launched the Labour local government election campaigns around the region. He appears to be independent only when it suits.

Goff, like almost all other mayoral candidates, campaigned strongly on the “problems” to be fixed in Auckland – and less on the details of his solutions. This was sensible politics because with only 15% happy with council there was always a clap or a nod about the problems. But governing, as he knows, is very different. That’s about delivering – or at least managing expectations if you’re not.

Tonight’s speech from the mayoral throne will reveal whether he is making more certain progress in either area.

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