Liam Dann takes in a mayoral debate where front runner Phil Goff talks user-pays, Auckland infrastructure and 45 years of marital fidelity

Welcome to the Phil Goff show.

It's a cold, wet morning at the Employers and Manufacturers Association in Newmarket and the man most likely to be Auckland's next mayor is in full flight - beating up on council workers, embracing user-pays and proudly proclaiming his 45 years of marital fidelity.

Technically this is a candidates' debate.

There are two other contenders on stage - businessmen Mark Thomas and John Palino. Neither is expected to come close to Goff in the final vote.


Victoria Crone declined the offer to attend. Polls so far suggest Crone isn't really in this race either.

Having just one centre-right candidate might have made it closer.

But with three splitting the vote, Goff would have to blow it spectacularly from here. He appears very focused on not doing that.

It might be a small audience but he speaks like he's still campaigning to be Prime Minister - or UN Secretary General. His inflection and phrasing are not dissimilar to the style of his old colleague Helen Clark.

The earnest, slightly wooden, aspects of style - which might have cost him in the race to lead the country - seem trivial in the political second division where even the head-slapping Len Brown was a star.

It's a bit like seeing a band that used to play stadiums down at your local pub.
It could be a bit tragic, but Goff heads that off by turning the volume up to 11 regardless. His enthusiasm is infectious.

As for the debate part of the event, there isn't much.

It's a business audience and it should be Thomas and Palino's crowd. But they struggle to stay to the right of Goff.


Mark Thomas seems honest and upfront. He presents a classic centre-right approach to local government.

He's 50, although as he acknowledges himself, he's a bit baby faced. He has 20 years' experience in business, and six years on the Orakei Local Board.

He has an eye for the detail. He talks process and budget reform. He's going to re-write the Auckland Plan.

Not the Unitary Plan, the less fashionable Auckland Plan. The other candidates have all forgotten that one, he says. He's got a point, although the public seems to have forgotten about it too. He's very much true blue.

But then, so is Goff these days. Both literally, with his campaign billboards, and politically, with this crowd at least, embracing the business-friendly style of the Lange/Douglas-era Labour Party where he made his name.

Palino is harder to work out. He seems focused on a grand vision for Auckland which he shows off in a slick video and in his "book" which he plugs at numerous points throughout the morning. He is also considered a long way to the right of Goff but he seems further to the left in his advocacy of central planning.

He's very hot on building a new satellite city south of Manukau. It's not as crazy as it sounds. Especially when he starts talking about regional business nodes and getting people living where they work.

It's just that he starts sounding like a Green Party candidate invoking a vision of utopian European planning.

John Palino announces he will run for the Auckland mayoralty. Photo / Michael Craig
John Palino announces he will run for the Auckland mayoralty. Photo / Michael Craig

At one point Goff acknowledges a similar point, talking about the way the sensible Germans build infrastructure first and housing second.

But Goff is just pondering aloud. Palino's idea is central to his policy. It sounds great in theory, but you'd need the power of the Chinese Communist Party behind you to execute it.

Palino has also been plagued by allegations of involvement in the dirty politics scandal that surrounded the last mayoral campaign. Debate host Mark Sainsbury isn't shy of putting him on the spot about it and Palino is forced to grudgingly deny it all and blame the media again.

It also opens the door for one of Goff's goofier lines.

"I've slept with one woman for 45 years - that's all," he declares when Sainsbury asks him about potential scandal. "Why am I so boring?" should be the question, he suggests.

The EMA's format is a good one, devoting most of the time to questions from the business audience. They offer several variations on one theme - where will the money come from?

Business always leans towards a stripped down council, with an emphasis on efficiency and costs. But if the EMA's local body election manifesto is anything to go by, the focus is more expansive this year.

Business wants to see progress on infrastructure. So who will pay for it?

Thomas is steadfast in his user-pays philosophy. Of the three, he is the only one who doesn't think ratepayers should stump up for park and ride facilities when the new busways are opened.

He is open to asset sales and plans to book big gains from cost cutting.

Palino say he'll run Auckland like a business. It will be a high-growth business and he comes quickly back to the billions in added value his satellite city will create. It's not clear what the timeframe is for the financial returns.

Auckland Mayoral candidates Phil Goff, Vic Crone and Mark Thomas. Photo / Nick Reed
Auckland Mayoral candidates Phil Goff, Vic Crone and Mark Thomas. Photo / Nick Reed

Goff rules out asset sales, rate rises and borrowing. He's embraced the Government plan for an infrastructure fund.

"My political party opposed it," he says. "But I've grasped that with both hands."

He also sees merits in infrastructure bonds and public-private partnerships for big ticket items like light rail.

Goff's other big idea is the regional petrol tax - which he shrewdly pitches as a "user-pays" option which would add $120 million a year to the budget.

Another audience question touches on how candidates will change the culture at council.
No one has been holding back on slamming the current culture.

Taken without a grain of salt you'd think the council operates in some kind of 1970s East German style. It's one of the more farcical aspect of local politics.

The more you run down the status quo the more cost savings you can claim you'll deliver.
Nobody says they enjoyed Music in the Parks or Auckland Art Gallery's excellent exhibit of South American sculpture.

Thomas tries to slam the council's $22m investment in Manukau's Wero White Water Park but he undercuts the point by reassuring everyone how much he really enjoys white water rafting.

Goff is more ruthless, calling the council wasteful and inefficient.

He cites the fantastic cultural turnaround at Air New Zealand in the past decade. He worked with it when it was close to collapse in 2000 and, with the mayoralty in mind, he's been back to talk to two key figures in that turnaround - ex-CEO Rob Fyfe and his deputy Norm Thompson.

"What Air NZ does, when you go in to see them is you always get the sense they are there to serve you," he says.

"When you go in to council you feel - you might be funding it - but you're just a bloody nuisance. You don't ever get the feeling that you are a valued customer."

Norm Thompson talks about the "layer of clay" that stopped information coming up from the bottom to the top, says Goff.

"So they changed the nature of the hierarchy there."

Nothing gets to the nub of Auckland's funding dilemma like a question about how candidates will beg more money out of central government.

It's here that Goff is at his most convincing.

Thomas says he'll make the council a much stronger business and Wellington will have to take it seriously. Palino says his grand plan will be so amazing that Government will be sold.

Goff says he can do it better because he's done it. He knows exactly what's required to twist a Finance Minister's arm.

In the end you have to convince them there is an electoral cost to not spending the money, he says.

It's a candid admission.

The ex-Labour leader is ready to tell Bill English where he needs to spend more money if he wants to avoid getting turfed out by Auckland voters.

Never mind the blue billboards, there's no clearer sign that Goff is out from beneath the Labour umbrella and ready to be a centrist mayor.