When Michael Wood was made Minister for Auckland, Wayne Brown was among the first to congratulate him.
But the Mayor of Auckland was adamant he wasn’t going to be trekking down to the Beehive. The Government would have to come to him.
Ten weeks on, the decision by Prime Minister Chris Hipkins to put a Cabinet minister in Auckland is bearing fruit.
The mayor is firm that Government should stump up a bigger share of Auckland’s costs. Cost overruns with the City Rail Link (CRL) which currently sit 50:50 between Auckland Council and Government have been an issue.
But Wood indicates the pair have formed a good relationship.
“Clearly, there are particular priorities that he’s come into office with and they are strong priorities for the Government that are a part of our programme as well,” says Wood.
“The relationship is very pragmatic at the political level and the level of officers and officials. We’re just trying to work things through in a constructive and adult way.”
Wood was catapulted to seventh place in the Cabinet rankings and awarded the new Auckland portfolio in Hipkins’ January 31 reshuffle.
As MP for Mt Roskill, he’s highly connected in Auckland. His spouse Julie Fairey is an Auckland councillor. His transport and immigration portfolios put him at the sharp end of business concerns.
Hipkins had been clear: “When Auckland succeeds, the country succeeds.” In fact, there are a lot of shared interests.
Brown campaigned for the mayoralty stating he wanted the Ports of Auckland to vacate its current position to make space for development.
Says Wood: “Wherever we get to with this question of timing around the Ports of Auckland — wherever we get to with it — there’s a shared interest in making sure that more freight shifts on to rail. Part of the way we work together is to try to find those things where there is a shared interest. And it’s a win-win, whatever you might think of other things. It allows you to move things forward.”
Wearing his transport hat, he says the Government expects to release a draft freight and supply chain strategy “very, very soon”.
“It doesn’t answer specific questions about the Ports of Auckland. But it sets up a broader framework for how we deliver an efficient, effective, low-carbon freight network.”
The Government is also moving forward with a technical study into the feasibility of using Manukau Harbour as a port. If it’s not technically viable, the option will come off the table.
“It’s enormously significant, not just for Auckland but for the whole supply chain. It needs to be worked through very, very carefully,” says Wood who stresses the importance of making sure broader economic and social interests in Auckland are involved.
“Everyone is of the view that it’s likely the Ports of Auckland transitions away from its current location. “[We need to] make sure that we do that well, and that we do it in a careful, careful way.”
The Government is also starting discussions on the future of the Avondale-Southdown corridor, which will enable more freight to be shifted from the ports by rail.
“It’s also about the fact that once the CRL comes online, the commuter rail network is going to get significantly busier, particularly on the isthmus. And at the moment it is very mixed with freight which starts to create some compromises in the network.
“Avondale to Southdown potentially provides a pathway for effectively separating out more of the freight and commuter networks to the benefit of both.”
As Minister for Auckland, Wood’s core function is to co-ordinate what the Government is doing such as delivering on infrastructure.
“We have to work closely with Auckland Council. And as much as possible, we want and need to be pulling in the same direction.
“My job doesn’t replace the job of the Minister of Housing, or the Minister of Health or the Minister of Transport,” he says. “Auckland Council still has its functions. But my job is to get both parties around the table.”
A recent example is the role Wood played in convening the various parties to work through solutions to issues of reliability around Auckland’s ferries.
“I’m in a position to be able to get the parties around the table, identify particular problems and constraints, and get things moving.
“And so that’s an example of the kind of role that I’ll be playing over time.”
Right now a major issue Wood faces is how Auckland recovers from the Auckland Anniversary weekend floods and Cyclone Gabrielle.
As the lead co-ordination minister on the Emergency Weather Recovery Committee, he is working through issues that are significant to Auckland, such as the rebuilding of physical infrastructure.
Some of the complex issues around managed retreats are also being worked through with Auckland Council.
“Now we still have about 650 homes which are red-stickered and those homeowners have uncertainty.
“So, I’ll play a particular role there.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly for a Government that will soon face an election campaign, Wood has been tasked with supporting the city to rebuild confidence.
“We’ve had a couple of difficult years as we’ve dealt with Covid, the lockdowns and all the economic and social impacts there,
“I think over summer, the city was feeling good. We’ve then been really hit for six by the floods and Cyclone Gabrielle again, and so my role is to bring people together to inject some positivity into things and to deal with some of those problems and issues that might be holding us back,” he says. “Whether it’s transport infrastructure, whether it’s some of the concerns around crime and community safety.
“Or whether it’s getting some of those basic services like public transport to work really well.
“And I think those steps will help us to build the confidence that we need to protect positively and confidently externally. We’re New Zealand’s only international city.
“We need talent and investment to come here and we need a positive message for the city and so I’ll be working with others on that.”
Wood’s ‘eyes and ears’ on Auckland
Former Auckland deputy mayor Penny Hulse has been co-opted by Wood to chair a Tāmaki Makaurau advisory group which will informally advise him on issues affecting the city.
“Penny Hulse is an exceptionally skilled and experienced operator and leader with Auckland,” Wood told the Herald, explaining he wants the group to give him really good advice and present ideas on how to deal with burning issues.
While Wood has ministerial responsibility for Auckland and holds the Mt Roskill seat, much of his Cabinet work is based in Wellington.
The upshot is his advisory group will effectively serve as his “eyes and ears” in Auckland.
“I deliberately convened that with a really wide range of different views and people on there,” Wood explained.
“It’s not a super-formal group and it’s not going to have agendas of hundreds of pages and officials reporting. It will really focus on some of the things we can do.”
After 27 years in local politics, Hulse retired as an Auckland councillor in September 2019, having earlier served two terms as former mayor Len Brown’s deputy.
Former Waitakere Mayor Sir Bob Harvey (a “great visionary over successive decades in Auckland”) is also on board.
“If you want excitement and ideas, he has his head and heart in it,” Wood enthused.
Among others shoulder-tapped are former All Black Sir Michael Jones, who Wood said has an incredible connection to Pacific communities and the grassroots.
“He is a doer who just gets things done at the community level.”
Dr Jin Russell, a consultant developmental paediatrician at Starship Children’s Health, will bring a perspective around public health, children and young people.
The business sector is represented by EMA CEO Brett O’Riley and Auckland Business Chamber CEO Simon Bridges.
“I have been clear with the group that I want to find a small number of things to do well, in the remainder of this parliamentary term, rather than a big laundry list of many, many items.
“And I will be shaping it up with more specificity in the coming weeks.”