Who holds the most political power in Auckland? Our power rankings list the 25 Aucklanders with the greatest influence on the political life and decisions affecting this city. Beware: most of them are not politicians. We've also listed 10 Aucklanders to watch, because their political power could be about to grow dramatically, and 5 more who are on the way out.
1. Jacinda Ardern
So the Prime Minister is not quite as popular as she was. It's nothing. Even despite some high-profile delivery failures, her party is polling better than it did on election night. Her coalition government has stuck together remarkably well, with all three parties having good reason to feel pleased. Each has achieved some core goals and they have a good chance of winning a second term. A lot of that comes down to Jacinda Ardern's skill as leader. True, they're climbing a mountain in Auckland, a problem grown from decades of neglect, and progress is slow. But she's not getting pushed around by ministers or officials and she's exercised some real power on the world stage too. Nor has she been swallowed up by collegial leadership: indisputably, Ardern is first among equals. And her key challenge this year? To grow the Auckland vote.
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2. Phil Goff
Phil Goff crushed it in last month's mayoral election and that gives him the authority to go hard in every direction: with a slightly anxious government over policy and budget support; with the council-controlled organisations that have been too wilfully independent; with his own councillors and with risk-averse officials. Goff's had a "zeitgeist" career, aligned to the mood of the day as a neoliberal Cabinet minister in the 1980s and then as a competent manager in the managerial government of Helen Clark. Now he declares himself an environmentalist. Will this be his finest hour? He has the popular mandate and the numbers around the council table to make the most of it, but see 3 below.
3. Stephen Town
The chief executive of Auckland Council, the city's top official, Stephen Town is an unflappable backroom operator whose influence is everywhere. Goff and the councillors set the agenda but they do it within a framework masterminded by Town, with key personnel largely chosen by Town, and he gets to decide how fast and how well policies are carried out. His principal sidekicks are head of finance Matthew Walker, a safe pair of hands, and infrastructure boss Barry Potter, who's made a long career of being cautious. They're both close to getting places on this list themselves. Town is about to enter his last year in office, before retirement.
4. Sir Brian Roche
The Government knows it has to pick up its game with transport in Auckland, and Sir Brian Roche, respected on both sides of parliament, has become the go-to guy. In 2016, Simon Bridges, then minister of transport, made him chair of City Rail Link Ltd. In June this year Phil Twyford, now the minister, gave him the chair of the NZ Transport Agency as well. He held the same role during the period of the Waterview tunnel construction. To a remarkably large extent, the Government's legacy in this city is riding on how well Roche does these two jobs. His former roles include CEO of NZ Post, senior partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers, Treaty of Waitangi Crown negotiator and chair of the NZ Rugby Union.
5. Desley Simpson
Councillor Desley Simpson has been promoted to chair the finance and performance committee, which means Mayor Phil Goff needs her support for his spending plans. It also means he trusts her to provide that support. Both of them believe in and claim credit for the council's moderate rates rises and controls on spending. But Goff is Labour to his bones and the sharp-minded Simpson is an influential member of the National Party, in her own right and as the wife of party president Peter Goodfellow. With election year looming, she now has a tightrope to walk: promoting the programme of the council while supporting her party line that Labour doesn't know what it's doing in Auckland.
6. Sean Topham
Sean Topham, former president of the Young Nationals, clearly decided some time ago that politics is more fun if you don't actually become a politician. So he turned himself into an internationally renowned digital strategy and social media campaign consultant through his firm Topham Guerin. Boris Johnson's Conservatives are a client; so was Scott Morrison's Australian Liberal Party; and there's a relationship with the NZ National Party too. Those Facebook attack ads, that relentlessly confident man of the people that Simon Bridges has matured into? National has been so much sharper this year, and the party knows social media will be immensely important in the 2020 general election. Expect Topham to be at the heart of it.
7. Phil Twyford
No longer Housing Minister, Phil Twyford still has the Transport and Urban Development portfolios and has picked up Economic Development too. All three make him the most important Auckland cabinet member after the Prime Minister, but lack of progress in both housing and transport have undermined some of Twyford's power. He'd have been second on the list two years ago, but his task now is critical to the Government's re-election prospects: he has to demonstrate they are making tangible progress. Twyford is still the Government's great optimist and he will do everything he can to satisfy.
8. Paula Bennett
National's deputy leader Paula Bennett is an effusive and widely admired public communicator, a senior MP with a wily political brain, and she has the key role of campaign strategist. Judith Collins makes headlines but her star in the party has waned. Bennett wins friends, influences people and glues them together. She's training up the party's new candidates now, a job that can only enhance her authority.
9. Pania Newton
Politics doesn't always happen in rooms. At Ihumātao, Pania Newton and her group SOUL (Save Our Unique Landscape) have rewritten the book on how to do protest now, as kaitiaki, or guardians of the land, and more generally. It's all there: Facebook to mobilise thousands of supporters, legal channels, international connections, the canny use of political concepts ("the new Bastion Point") to get the point across, and formidable negotiating skills. On the ground, it's all about education, cultural celebration and building the Ihumātao community, plus an extremely well-organised machine to keep people fed, busy, warm and dry. You think we've had a lot of rain recently? Imagine it at Ihumātao. But on they go, staunch as. With the rise of Pania Newton, inspirational and uncompromising, the korowai of Māori protest leadership has passed to new shoulders. That's a really big deal.
10. Chloe Swarbrick
Chloe Swarbrick is not on this list for her nonchalant ability to agitate snowflake boomers, although that is a certain kind of power. Her bid for the Auckland mayoralty in 2016 inspired young candidates everywhere in the local body elections just gone. As an MP she's led cross-party work on mental health, won concessions in the Medicinal Cannabis Act, been prominent in the campaign over climate change and instigated the 2020 cannabis referendum with almost no support from Labour. A clear mark of the ability of this first-term MP: National has assigned its deputy leader to lead the opposition on that referendum. The Greens are critical to the Government's re-election chances, the Auckland vote is critical to that, and Swarbrick will be their totem.
11. Matt Lowrie
Most people who write about transport produce long and unreadably technical treatises or semi-coherent rants. Not Matt Lowrie. He's the founder and lead writer of the website Greater Auckland and his prose is chatty, well informed and cleanly reasoned. He inspires lobby groups like Generation Zero, he's read by every transport official and politician in the land and he has an enormous popular readership too. The Congestion Free Network, created under his leadership, is such a compelling piece of urban design, it has become the template for mass transit planning in this city. Very few proposals from outside official channels are so well accepted by either the council or Government.
12. Matthew Hooton
Experience, good research and clarity of thought make Matthew Hooton the most influential right-wing political analyst in the country, even if he does have an absurd fondness for comparing social democrats he doesn't like to dictators. A regular columnist in the NZ Herald and Metro and frequent commentator on Newtalk ZB, RNZ and elsewhere, Hooton provides a wellspring for anyone in search of arguments about what the Government is doing wrong. Not that he always believes the Opposition is doing it right.
13. Paul Majurey
Paul Majurey (Ngāti Maru/Marutūāhu) was called "a modern-day Te Rauparaha" last year, using the law instead of the musket and mere to win Treaty claims, but that's a touch romantic. He's a treaty rights and environment lawyer who chairs the Tāmaki Collective, the grouping of 13 iwi (including the three iwi of the Ngāti Whātua rōpū), recognised by the Crown as having legitimate claims on Tāmaki Makaurau. The Tāmaki Collective is the lead voice for Māori to both government and the council. Majurey also chairs the Hauraki Collective of iwi and the Tūpuna Maunga Authority, the body that administers 14 sacred volcanoes in the city on behalf of their owners, the Tāmaki Collective. He's been in the news this week, with some locals upset at the TMA's plans to remove exotic trees and restore native bush on Ōwairaka/Mt Albert.
14. Matt Whineray
Many business leaders influence politics but few do it at the scale Matt Whineray is engaged in right now. The chief executive of the NZ Superannuation Fund leads a bid to take over the Government's entire light rail project in Auckland: build, operate and own. It's a role sovereign wealth funds play all round the world, but on this scale it would be a first for New Zealand. Infrastructure is core government business: even if the Super Fund fails on this attempt, the sometimes Tiggerishly effusive Matt Whineray has shifted the world of big-build funding off its axis.
15. Tony Gibson
There's no integrated plan for the downtown Auckland waterfront, largely because Ports of Auckland (POAL) has its own ideas, especially about the finger wharves, and those ideas have prevailed. Cruise ships and car imports are organised the way POAL wants them, and that's largely down to its tough guy CEO, Tony Gibson. The Government has signalled the port operations will shift ("It's not if, but when," says the PM) but Gibson is committed to automation and other modernising practices, which will help embed it on the existing site. While he's professionally neutral on political matters, his influence on the intensely political issues of waterfront use and Northport growth is heavy. Don't hold your breath. Gibson is the only boss of a council-owned agency powerful enough to make this list.
16. Ngarimu Blair
The billion-dollar man. Ngarimu Blair is the most prominent member of the Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei Trust Board and a board member of the iwi's property and investment company, Whai Rawa, which controls over $1 billion worth of assets. Michael Stiassny chairs that board, but more often than not it's Blair out front. He's also been instrumental in iwi ventures such as the papakainga (iwi housing) project on Kupe St near Bastion Point, he was a member of the council agency Waterfront Auckland and he remains a key participant in any planning on the future of Auckland's waterfront. A smooth operator.
17. Bill Cashmore
Deputy mayor Bill Cashmore has been given the job this term of sorting out the council-controlled organisations (CCOs). Few people are better equipped to the task: Cashmore is a gruff man, experienced in the ways of officialdom, very likeable but very intolerant of being mucked about. The CCOs are supposed to be operationally independent of the council but guided by the council on policy and direction: Cashmore will push right up against the limits of what that means. Think of him as Mayor Goff's consigliere.
18. Adrienne Young-Cooper
Adrienne Young-Cooper chairs the council development agency Panuku, which has just witnessed the early but very smoothly managed departure of controversial chief executive Roger MacDonald. As a former chair of Housing New Zealand and former board member of the NZ Transport Agency, Young-Cooper has become a key figure in Crown and Auckland governance. The job of chairing the Auckland Transport board - possibly the most difficult in all of council - is now vacant and a decision is expected within weeks: her name is on the list.
19. John Hong
John Hong stood for mayor of Auckland this year and came fourth. Not bad for a candidate most people still know little about. Hong chairs the New Zealand committee for the Belt and Road Initiative, China's global programme for economic and diplomatic influence. He's also "government relations adviser" for the Chao San General Association, which is part of the United Front, the Chinese Communist Party's outreach movement among expat communities. Last year Chao San members were revealed by MP Jami-Lee Ross to have made a $100,000 donation to the National Party. Until recently, Hong worked for the council, as head of "investment and international relationships" with the council agency Panuku (formerly Waterfront Auckland). Translation: coordinating trade missions and setting up deals in China. The soon-to-open Park Hyatt Hotel for the Wynyard Quarter is one of his projects.
20. Winston Peters
If the Deputy Prime Minister achieves a firm commitment to move the Auckland port to Whangārei starting soon, he will shoot much higher on this list. But it's a mammoth task: in cost, logistics and political will, and it's quite likely rhetoric will trump actual plans. Winston Peters has succeeded many times in bending government policy to his will, which demonstrates real clout. But his influence in and on Auckland is low. And as the Zero Carbon Act and other measures have shown, he is not, despite what some like to think, running the Government.
21. School Strike 4 Climate NZ
Political power doesn't always happen in rooms, #2. The only non-person on this list makes it because the group has no one leader to single out. Extinction Rebellion may become the more influential political force in years to come, but the achievements of School Strike 4 Climate this year were massive. They made mass protest in the streets a thing again, inspiring teachers and others along the way. Perhaps most remarkably, they did it with widespread goodwill. Parliament needed to know how New Zealanders felt about climate change and it turned out to be school students who made that happen.
22. Chris Darby
Chris Darby is chair of the council's Planning Committee, which gives him charge of most of the urban development plans for the city, including transport. Councillors are less powerful than they perhaps should be, but Darby is experienced, knowledgeable on the details and committed to the big picture. He failed to get climate change included in his brief, but that won't stop him pushing hard for material progress this term.
23. Paul Goldsmith
Paul Goldsmith just might be the driest MP we have, speaking economically, but we live in an age of mixed economies and hands-on government management. Next year, as National's spokesperson on finance, which way will he jump? Goldsmith's prescription for the economy and therefore for Auckland could provide the city with one of the biggest choices we've had in decades. How does an enlightened conservative in the 2020s manage a small economy whose traditional strengths are coming under increasing global threat?
24. Brett O'Riley
With the retirement of Kim Campbell from the Employers and Manufacturing Association, his replacement Brett O'Riley has become the rising star among Auckland business lobbyists. Formerly the CEO at the council's tourism and economic development agency ATEED, O'Riley is an affable enthusiast for the modern city and a nimble-minded counterpoint to the long-established, more traditional and equally affable Michael Barnett, head of the Chamber of Commerce.
25. Sir John Key
He's still with us and he's still got it. As chair of the ANZ board, Sir John Key displayed his ruthless streak this year in removing the bank's CEO, David Hisco, after news of monetary impropriety came to light. That decisive gesture largely eliminated the risk New Zealand's banks and the Government with them would become embroiled in a destabilising, potentially scandalous inquiry. More recently, in National's selection process for a new Botany candidate, Christopher Luxon cited him as a close friend. It wasn't hard to see the hand of the old master in what happened next: the voting delegates overwhelmingly choose Luxon as their guy.
10 TO WATCH
Aucklanders who are or could soon be on the rise in the political power stakes.
1. Richard Hills
Councillor Richard Hills, in his second term, has been handed the chair of the council's new Environment and Climate Change Committee. With the arrival of Waitākere's Shane Henderon he's not quite the youngest councillor any longer but, at 33, Hills has suddenly become a critical senior member of Goff's team. And with a comprehensive city-wide climate-change strategy to develop, he will be busy. Hills got the nod after winning a strong majority in his North Shore ward, despite a concerted campaign against him. His colleague Alf Filipaina, of Manukau, will chair the new Community Committee, giving him the chance to bring much-needed material improvements to the south.
2. Viv Beck
Chief executive of the central city business association Heart of the City and chair of the council's City Centre Advisory Board, Viv Beck has gained the clout to demand more and better from the council, and is very likely to use it. Whispers have started that she might make a run for office herself.
3. Daniel Newman
If there's a leader of the opposition on the council, it's Papakura's Daniel Newman. He scored wins over Mayor Goff last term and remains outside the Goff tent. He'll be assessing his strategy for the new term right now.
4. Deborah Russell
Labour's MP for New Lynn has rare and much-needed expertise in the caucus: she's a tax accountant. If they win again, expect to see Deborah Russell as a minister. Expect that for Mt Roskill MP Michael Wood too.
5. Nikki Kaye
On the other hand, if National wins the election, there'll be a very high place on the front bench for education expert Nikki Kaye. Watch for East Coast Bays' Erica Stanford to move up too.
6. John Tamihere
The failed mayoral candidate and former cabinet minister John Tamihere has hinted strongly that he may make another run for parliament. He has his eye on Tāmaki Makaurau and the Māori Party, but they haven't said they want him yet.
7. Josephine Bartley
Maungakiekie-Tāmaki councillor Josephine Bartley is valued by colleagues for her heartfelt approach to politics and a delicious wit. She'll be prominent this term.
8. Angela Dalton
New councillor Angela Dalton of Manurewa is close to Daniel Newman, but she's also committed to constructive engagement. Winning her respect and support will be a key to stability for Mayor Goff this term.
9. David Seymour
Act came close to winning a second seat in the 2017 election and next year, for party leader and sole MP David Seymour, it will be all or nothing. He displayed tremendous skill to shepherd his End of Life Choice bill through Parliament. Now, if party deputy Beth Houlbrooke joins him in Parliament and that helps National over the line, he's a shoo-in for the Cabinet. If he wants it.
10. Chris Luxon
He's not going to take over the National Party leadership, at least not anytime soon, but he's a born leader, he has a safe seat, and he's going to shake up that caucus. To what end, we don't yet know.
5 ON THE WAY OUT
Aucklanders who are a lot less powerful than they used to be.
1. Lester Levy
The hospital administrator who became a darling of neoliberal reformers in the 1990s, Levy was until recently chair of all three Auckland district health boards and Auckland Transport. He retired from the health boards in 2017 and has just stepped down from AT as well. In all those roles, he may feel he achieved less than he had hoped.
2. Judith Collins
It's hard to see a path to the National Party leadership for Judith Collins now. Simon Bridges has maintained National's party vote and performed well, and even if they don't win the 2020 election it's not likely they'll be crushed. Collins' position on climate change – at odds even with most farm lobby groups – marks her as a fringe player, out of tune with the mainstream.
3. Don Brash
Don Brash loves the spotlight and continues to attach himself to causes that might get it shined on him. Even transport and road safety (he opposes plans to slow speeds on dangerous roads). But history's moving on.
4. Ludo Campbell-Reid
The council's "Design Champion" (yes, actual title) for the past 13 years, the instigator of "shared streets" and tireless promoter of many other urban design reforms, Ludo Campbell-Reid has resigned and is off to a bigger job in Melbourne. No word yet on whether his role or even his department will survive: the power of Stephen Town (see the top 25, number 3) is in play.
5. Jami-Lee Ross
The now-independent MP for Botany will enliven the 2020 election, there's little doubt of that. But it's hard to pick up any signs of support for him at all in the electorate. They feel betrayed.