Mood of the Boardroom: Goff rated best for mayoralty by CEOs

When chief executives consider the candidates vying to lead Auckland, political experience seems to win out, as Tim McCready explains
Among business leaders, Phil Goff is likely to take the title of Auckland mayor. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Among business leaders, Phil Goff is likely to take the title of Auckland mayor. Photo / Brett Phibbs


Experienced national politician Phil Goff is rated by 43 per cent of respondents to the Herald's survey as having the best attributes to be the next Mayor of Auckland.

Survey responses indicate there is a sense of inevitability in the senior business community that Goff will take the title of mayor come the October 8 election.

Goff has, by far, more name recognition than any other candidate, and has been in the public eye since he entered Parliament 35 years ago as a Labour MP, rising to be party leader before being trounced by John Key at the 2011 election.

His campaign has focused on using his experience in central Government to solve Auckland's housing affordability problems and public transport.

Westpac NZ boss David McLean had qualms about Goff's plans to bring back trams saying that was genius for Melbourne -- but Melbourne was designed for it. He questioned whether Auckland streets were wide enough: "It would take a huge change to put them back."

Goff's connectivity to Wellington -- he is a former Foreign Affairs and Defence Minister -- was consistently noted among CEOs as a capability that will help things get done. "Collaboration with government agencies will be critical to ensure government support", says Hawkins Group CEO Geoff Hunt.

But with support at just 43 per cent of survey respondents he still has to build broad credibility with senior business.

The chief executive of a major bank says although Goff is far from perfect, he's "the best of the lot".

"He's got plenty of substance but little flair -- he'll do a great and competent job and Auckland will progress."

Vic Crone is ranked second by CEOs, with 19 per cent support. Crone is the centre-right front-runner; she has the backing of senior National Party MPs, and her corporate experience, including senior leadership roles with Telecom, Chorus, and Xero, provides a clear point of difference from Goff. Former National candidate Mark Thomas comes in third with just over 2 per cent.

Not one of the more than 100 survey respondents thinks businessman John Palino has the best attributes to become mayor. Palino was a mayoral candidate in the 2013 election coming second to Len Brown.

Cooper and Company chief executive Matthew Cockram says Crone and Thomas have robust and thought-through policy platforms that deserve a better airing.

But Cockram says Goff is "by default" the best politician of them all: "hopefully some of what they have suggested and pushed for will be picked up and developed by Goff."

An energy company boss expressed dismay that the mayor and councillors hold such a vital role in creating and sustaining a successful economy, and yet on the whole fail to attract quality leadership.

He's got plenty of substance but little flair -- he'll do a great and competent job and Auckland will progress.

Perhaps most surprisingly at this late stage of the campaign, 22 per cent of CEOs have indicated they don't yet know who they will vote for -- though some of this can be explained by respondents feeling uninspired by the candidates, and concern that no one has the depth of skill required.

The boss of an energy company expressed dismay that the mayor and councillors hold such a vital role in creating and sustaining a successful economy, and yet on the whole fail to attract quality leadership.

A further 16 per cent suggested other candidates should have emerged with one nominating Auckland Chamber of Commerce CEO Michael Barnett, who has previously been flagged as a potential mayoral candidate. Another business respondent nominated former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg -- who earlier shied away from contesting the US presidential election as an independent candidate this year.

Top 5 priorities for next mayor

Chief executives overwhelmingly want the next Mayor of Auckland to improve public transport in the increasingly congested city,

Among their other top priorities for the mayoral agenda are getting large infrastructure projects funded; bringing Auckland Council spending under control; improving how council works alongside the government and implementing the Unitary Plan.

The New Zealand Council for Infrastructure Development says Auckland's transport system is at a tipping point. Significant progress has been made since the mid-2000s, with record levels of investment. The completed western ring route, rail electrification, City Rail Link and other projects will make a difference, but in order to meet the needs of a further one million people by 2050, Auckland must accelerate progress.

NZCID chief executive Stephen Selwood says that Auckland's current transport problems will be much worse unless we make a step change in investment into transport infrastructure. "Density must be strongly targeted around rail and bus way corridors, and future urban areas will need to be concentrated where new transport capacity can be provided with urgency. Additional funding through road user charging will be fundamental to achieving the level of investment required."

"Are we spending enough? How can we finance the infrastructure we need?" questioned a company chair. "I would support the sale of local assets on the basis that money was used for infrastructure -- the spend needed in Auckland is massive."

Mayoral candidate Phil Goff's own policy planks -- city infrastructure bonds, expanding the Government's $1 billion infrastructure fund, and public private partnerships to fund growth -- obviously resonated with chief executives' belief that rates and debt cannot be the only funding source for transport and infrastructure. There are also clear concerns that morning and afternoon gridlock in Auckland on main arterials are increasing to the point where it is significantly impacting on productivity.

ICBC (NZ) chairman Don Brash says there isn't a problem with the adequacy of electricity or water infrastructure, but "roading in Auckland is seriously deficient -- or, perhaps more accurately, is being inefficiently used because it is not being appropriately priced.

"There is also a huge need to improve our transport infrastructure and selling, for example, shares in the port would both provide funds for that purpose and improve the efficiency of the port (witness the Port of Tauranga).

"Why Auckland Council continues to own a minority stake in the airport also defies understanding -- it is a purely commercial business, and the council should sell out now while the price is very high."

Auckland Council is also seen by some as severely bloated with too many staff -- and as a consequence those staff find myriad ways of obstructing development with pointless regulations and endless delays.

For her part, mayoral candidate Vic Crone sees public private partnerships and other investment tools as the way forward for Auckland's infrastructure. She also wants to see the port moved to make better use of waterfront land.

Several of those surveyed -- including Precinct Properties chairman, Craig Stobo -- agree the best use of Port of Auckland's land is for residential and commercial use, and not for shipping. "The next Mayor needs to lead the shift of the harbour port to an inland port serviced by other harbour ports," says Stobo.

A consensus is unlikely in the short-term. Port of Tauranga chief executive Mark Cairns says it is simply unrealistic to move the port in the medium term.

"If ports simply priced and invested to achieve a cost of capital return, then a natural hierarchy of ports (international container hub, regional feeder, regional bulk) will emerge quite quickly.

"Ports are multi-million (often billion) dollar long-run infrastructure assets, not regional Economic Development Agency playthings."

There is mounting concern among CEOs that without significant improvement in Auckland's infrastructure -- along with improving housing affordability -- the city will lose staff to other centres around New Zealand where the cost of living and lifestyle are becoming more attractive.

• 4 per cent of CEOs indicated they have had to increase salaries and offset the higher cost of living in Auckland in order to attract and retain talent;

• 39 per cent have found it difficult to find staff willing to relocate to Auckland, and 17 per cent have already considered relocating some of their operations away from Auckland.

A media boss noted it has been difficult to attract staff even at the senior management level because of reduced quality of lifestyle that would be offered.

"While 'quality of lifestyle' can reflect access to amenities and communities, the biggest factor is ability to afford to provide a comparable property to live in for their family."

But Beca's Greg Lowe said Auckland tended to provide good career opportunities and the scale of the market seemed to attract people to work there. "Those who place higher value on lifestyle than career opportunity, that is, considerations such as lower housing/living costs, easier transport, perhaps phase of life such as young children) may choose other locations."

An exporter says salaries need to be higher and there are definite skill shortages in accounting and finance. "Perks like car parks are now gold."

Another suggested Auckland had potentially become too dominant in New Zealand and would encourage some businesses to move out of Auckland -- "some form of government programme?"

- NZ Herald

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