Ships had been entering the Manukau for decades according to Auckland mayor Phil Goff who last night railed against a report which he said hardly touched on that as an alternative to the downtown area.
At a New Zealand Herald Premium debate held at SkyCity, Goff said the Upper North Island Supply Chain Strategy investigation, led by Wayne Brown, had not properly examined alternative locations for the Ports of Auckland and that was one of its flaws.
Whether Manukau was viable as an alternative or not, that report should have fully analysed that location "and not doing that was a huge failure" of the study, Goff said.
But Shane Vuletich, managing director of Fresh Information and one of the report's authors, said the study had examined Manukau "but that was discounted very early due to extreme challenges. We have greater aspirations for South Auckland than as a dumping ground for containers."
He also referred to the inconvenience of being on the west coast and ships having to go around Cape Reinga.
But Goff said that for decades, the Manukau harbour had been used to gain entry to Auckland "ships far less capable than they are today so it's just not true to say ships can't enter the Manukau because they had been for 100 years."
Last night's debate also heard how Government could play a more proactive role in the port's move.
Transport Minister Michael Wood said the Government should have a active role and be engaged as well as leading the debate, recognising there were different interests.
An audience member said "900 years" and asked "where is Māori right now in this conversation? The moana is what binds mana whenua together."
Wood acknowledged it was important to work with iwi.
Vuletich said a "rail-dominated freight system to get containers off the road" had been emphasised in the report he had worked on.
Goff said he had problems with that study. Requests had been made after its release, asking for access to the full analysis, but Goff said Wayne Brown refused that "on the basis that the report stands for itself."
Goff said he had a big problem with that report.
EY had said Northport was one of the worst options but in that report said it was one of the best, Goff said.
"Why should I have confidence?" Goff asked of that study. "This was a conclusion looking for a justification."
The report had also been leaked before he had seen it, he said.
"Everything about that report - we are the stakeholders, we are the shareholders. You talked to us once at the beginning and then not again," Goff complained to the audience of hundreds.
Treasury and the Ministry of Transport had problems with the report too, Goff said.
Michael Wood said it was important to keep the bigger picture in mind and the port issue should not be a process led by regional interests.
Goff said the shipping lines have the "whip hand", able to play one port off against another. An assessment of whether it makes sense to have three ports in the upper North Island competing or whether it should be an "New Zealand Inc" approach, Goff said.
On the mana whenua front, Goff said Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei would be "a big player in what the future of that port looks like" and he cited the Archimedia plans.
"We"re done with reclamation," Goff said, stressing it was not viable to keep expanding the port "and I don't think any of us want that. Re-joining the city centre to the edge of the water is remarkably appealing."
Urban Auckland's Julie Stout said she felt Auckland had slipped back 15 years but she was heartened to hear tonight's debate "because it keeps driving me to think how wonderful our city and waterfront can be".
The debate's question time was led by Miri Alexander, the Herald's premium content editor, who said passionate Northlanders had made it clear via their questions to the forum that they did not want Auckland's problems.
Wood cited greenhouse gases and carbon emissions from freight.
A freight hub being built on the outskirts of Hamilton was a road, rail and significant industrial infrastructure project, bigger than the Auckland central city.
"That's the kind of thinking we need," Wood said.
Asked about the need for a referendum on moving the port, Goff said "you can't even get agreement from the 20 different reports" on moving the port so asking people their opinion was not the right path forward.
"I need to know if you're going to move the port, what are the implications on the prices charged to consumers and the cost to business? If we didn't have Auckland completing with Tauranga and Northport, how would you stop them jacking their prices up?" Goff asked.
Asked about the Royal New Zealand Navy, Goff said Northland could be a new site for the Devonport navy base.
"A lot of people working at the navy base love living here. The dry dock is pretty old and past its best day and if you could free up that part of the North Shore, it's a beautiful part of the harbour. Northport would be a viable alternative for Auckland," Goff said of an alternative navy site.
Asked about the port development being allowed now and the new car parking building, Goff said no one had shown it was possible to relocate the port in the next 10 years. So freeing up storage on the wharf was the right way to go, he said.
Wood said ports were isolated with a primary responsibility to make a return to shareholders and a "conversation" was needed on that.
Goff said "it's going to cost $10b or higher so almost impossible for the council to maintain 100 per cent ownership of the port because where are we going to raise $10b? If the Government was going to front up with the infrastructure costs, they're not going to leave us with 100 per cent ownership. So a new port would have us as a minority shareholder. And frankly if I had $10b, there are a lot of other things I'd rather buy than a new port."