The Auckland Mayor's tenure has so far been characterised by hard work and relentless positivity — but not consensus. Simon Wilson takes a look at how other civic leaders rate his performance.
Last Saturday was a good day for Phil Goff. The mayor, who has just marked the end of his second year in the job, had only three engagements, none of them taxing, all of them pleasant. And he did the exact same thing at all of them: he worked the crowd.
He doesn't stop. In Papakura that morning he attended the Government's handover of the first 18 KiwiBuild homes, but he didn't make a speech. He left that to the prime minister and the minister of housing, choosing instead to hang at the back of the crowd talking to locals.
He turns the chat to who you might both know. At a certain point in the career of a politician with good local roots, it always works.
In Aotea Square at lunchtime for Taiwan Day, he did make a speech, greeting the crowd in Mandarin and the Taiwanese Hokkien dialect. He'd even changed from slacks and casual jacket into a proper suit to do it. Then he went round every single stall to chat. Same thing.
In the afternoon, back in the slacks, he worked the Eden Park members' lounge at the provincial rugby final between Auckland and Canterbury. No speech here either. He's the mayor and he could have insisted – John Banks would have, Len Brown might have – but Goff doesn't need everything to be about him.
At 3.30 or so he got himself a nondescript roast dinner and called it his lunch and dinner, because he hadn't eaten since breakfast and his wife was away so he didn't expect to get an evening meal.
He wasn't going home to cook some favourite dish?
"I'm not much of a cook," he said. He gobbled the food. "Okay," he said, "I'm off to say hello to people," and that's what he did.
After the game, when I said goodbye, he said he'd follow me out, but he didn't. He went back to working the room. He genuinely likes meeting people. It tends to be a politician's one-sided conversation, him telling his own stories, always good news stories, but people seem happy to listen. And it seems to make him happy.
Goff puzzled the city's movers and shakers when he became mayor: they thought he might want to get to know them. Lunch, perhaps, maybe a dinner invite? But Goff doesn't do that.
He'll work every room he's in, but he doesn't work the town.
He doesn't have a party caucus, either, although he does enjoy the support of councillors across the broad middle of the political spectrum. There's a skill to that. His inner circle, comprising deputy mayor Bill Cashmore and the chairs and deputy chairs of the big three committees (finance and performance, planning, and environment and community), is bipartisan.
Of the seven, three are Labour (Ross Clow, Alf Filipaina and Richard Hills – who took over from National's Denise Lee when she became an MP), two are National (Desley Simpson and Cashmore) and two are independent (Chris Darby and Penny Hulse). It's a model of which they are all rather proud.
Simpson told the Weekend Herald, "I haven't agreed with all his ideas, but when I don't agree, I tell him in an open and transparent way and explain why. He has always been respectful (even if not happy) of my position. We come from very different political backgrounds but I've found him better than I expected to work with and I think he'd probably say the same about me." He does.
Outside of the broad middle, however, Goff has enemies on council on both the left and the right.
We asked the councillors what they thought of Goff. Greg Sayers from the Rodney ward called him "a crafted political leader who is able to exercise a mesmeric influence over many of the councillors". Sayers is Goff's staunchest critic on the right.
He said Goff's greatest achievement has been "persuading Bill Cashmore and Desley Simpson, councillors from two of the bluest areas of Auckland [Franklin and the eastern suburbs], to back his heavy-spending programmes and left-wing agenda while they represent wards that are ideologically opposed to Goff's plans for Auckland".
There's no criticism as wicked as supposed praise. And he had more. Goff's second main achievement was "avoiding being held to account for his election pledge of 4-6% savings across council's budget".
In an interview this week Goff rejected that. He said he had met that pledge, with a 5 per cent annual saving, or $61 million, in discretionary spending in the 10-year budget. It will be in place by 2021.
Simpson backed him on that claim. And while she accepted that "the perception council could be leaner isn't wrong", she noted they had made accumulated savings of "over the quarter of a billion dollars" since the supercity was formed in 2010. And, she added, they were continuing to cut costs even while the population of the city grows at more than 800 a week.
The third "praise" on Sayers' list was the "masterful" way Goff has kept rates rises under the promised 2.5 per cent while "dramatically increasing" the amount of money that comes out of ratepayers' pockets anyway. He was referring to the targeted rates for water and the environment and the regional fuel tax.
"Any principled right winger has to criticise him for failing to cut council waste or reduce the cost of council for Auckland ratepayers," he said. Sayers rated Goff's performance with a surprisingly generous 5/10.
Simpson probably regards herself as a principled right winger. She called the 2.5 per cent rates rise a "most welcome" achievement and added that rates now comprise a smaller proportion of the council's total income than they used to.
She's deputy chair of the finance committee so she knows this stuff. The mayor's value-for-money programme is the best thing he's done, she said, and had accounted for around $400 million savings in procurement and Watercare capital expenditure over the last two years. She declined to give Goff a score.
Meanwhile, over on the left, long-serving Waitematā councillor Mike Lee initially told the Weekend Herald that introducing the Living Wage for council employees was the only good thing Goff had done that he could think of.
The next day he added that Goff "has appeared to have gone out of his way to marginalise me as a councillor" so "any criticism of his failings as mayor I could make would seem biased". He also declined to give Goff a score. Lee, like Sayers, opposes almost every initiative proposed or supported by Goff at council.
Deputy mayor Cashmore has not been impressed. "Negative politics is easy," he said. "You can just slag off but not provide any solutions or leadership ... Populism is a pastime for some who jump on any wagon and ignore facts, solutions or integrity."
"If Phil has a weakness," he added, "it is putting up with this behaviour. But then he has the political experience to handle it." Goff gets shouty sometimes, but he rarely stops grinning. The glass is always half full. Cashmore scored him 8/10.
Nobody doubts that Goff works hard. Even when he had a heart attack earlier this year he was back at his desk within days. He reads everything and has a thousand statistics stored in the front of his brain.
He's not afraid to argue for the things he believes in. During the last election he routinely told voters in meetings that if all they wanted was cost control they should vote for someone else. He'd be tough on spending, he said, but he was not going to rob communities of decent libraries and bus services.
There's a consensus about his achievements, among most councillors and sector leaders asked to comment for this story. Mostly they agreed on his weaknesses too.
The 10-year-budget topped the lists of what Goff's done well. It's a $26 billion plan adopted in June this year that holds those rates rises to an average 2.5 per cent and includes the regional fuel tax, a massive spend on public transport, targeted rates for water and the environment and the "bed tax" on hotels, Airbnb and other accommodation suppliers.
They argued it hard, over many months, and for a while it looked like Goff would lose on the bed tax. But he didn't. That was skilful. He listened to complaints from the sport and recreation sector, adding a $120 contestable fund. He listened to the Auckland Art Gallery lobby and added a desperately needed $2 million per year to its budget.
Most councillors voted against parts of the budget but in the end only Greg Sayers and Sharon Stewart of Howick opposed the whole thing. Mike Lee was absent that final day, as was Albany councillor Wayne Walker, another of Goff's most frequent critics.
Chris Darby, from North Shore, highlighted the $28 billion transport accord with the Government. "The scale of the change is huge. For the first time, a rapid-transit harbour crossing to the Shore is identified in plans." It's set down for the second decade, starting in the late 2020s, 10 years earlier than the previous Government had expected. Darby scored Goff 7.5.
We asked Opposition leader Simon Bridges what he thought Goff had achieved, and he also named the transport accord, which came about by "working with central Government, including the previous National-led Government".
Bridges scored Goff 11.5, but not out of 10. He said 11.5 was "the number which defines him" because it's "the additional cost per litre of fuel in Auckland thanks to Phil Goff and the Government's unnecessary regional fuel tax".
But Infrastructure New Zealand's CEO Stephen Selwood disagreed. He said the regional fuel tax was a top achievement "so far this term", for its record investment in transport. He also cited "the water quality targeted rate to clean up Auckland's waterways and beaches".
Waitakere's Cr Penny Hulse was with Selwood. "Phil really put our treasured environment back in focus," she said. Hulse gave Goff 7.5 too.
The 10-year-budget channels over $311 million into fighting kauri dieback and other threats to Auckland's biodiversity. And with the $452 million targeted water rate Goff became the first mayor in decades to address seriously the problems of stormwater flooding and shit on the beaches every time there's heavy rain.
Ross Clow, of Whau: "Introducing comprehensive water quality and environmental programmes, that will achieve in 10 years what previously would have taken 30 years, may well be the Goff legacy."
Clow suggested that was "way more important than a new stadium" and rated the mayor 8/10.
Cashmore also mentioned the Mayor's Housing Taskforce, which has brought the whole industry together. Cr Linda Cooper of Waitakere put in a plug for the council having achieved "the highest number of building consents ever": it's now up to 13,000 per year.
Cr Fa'anānā Efeso Collins from Manukau also singled out housing, but from a different perspective. "The standout Goff project for me has been the homelessness count," he said. "Lifting people's sense of hope is vital for our city and that project and associated efforts has been good."
Cooper scored Goff at 7.5-8 but Collins didn't want to do that. He preferred the NCEA approach and graded Goff as Achieved.
Viv Beck from Heart of the City was also impressed that Goff has "stood up for the homeless", with the council's funding support for the City Mission and other agencies representing "the best example of collaboration between the public, private and not-for-profit sector".
Goff is proud of that. "We're transforming housing," he said, "and part of that is putting 700 formerly homeless people into the Housing First programme."
He added that not only are there record construction figures, but 83 per cent of the newly consented dwellings are within the city's old urban boundary. "That shows the policy to build a more compact city is working."
"And Weymouth Beach is swimmable for the first time in 18 years," he said. Weymouth, tucked away in the southwest, is one of the poorest suburbs in the city. "Just think about what that means."
So what does
Goff get wrong? Ross Clow said, "He needs to be more inclusive. Less of the I. More of the we." Desley Simpson said, "I've told him to his face, there's no I in team."
They're the chair and deputy chair of the finance and performance committee, so that's a reminder Goff's considerable financial achievements are not all Goff's.
Lester McGrath, managing director at the Auckland Theatre Company, said, "I would like to see creativity championed as a defining feature which will shape the future of the city and bring communities together."
Goff is rarely, very rarely, seen at cultural events. He doesn't care about the arts, which isn't a sin, but he doesn't seem to care that they're important to the city either. McGrath gave Goff 7/10.
He's "risk-averse". That's the phrase that came up most often. The managerial skill that delivered a complex, change-oriented and in the end widely supported 10-year budget is part of a mindset that knocked the edge – the risk, the difference between good and great – off every idea in it.
We'll have cycle lanes, but they'll be clumsily implemented. Some wonderful new libraries, but not enough money to run them properly. A 2.5 per cent rates increase when many argued it needed to be 3.5 per cent and he could have won that.
On the roads, said Matt Lowrie from Greater Auckland, "he's unwilling to endorse anything that might slightly upset drivers. It's felt like he's only reacting, not leading."
The Weekend Herald asked Goff directly what he thought should happen on Queen St when light rail is in place. Should it be pedestrianised? It's possible, he said, but then he went on to extol the virtues of shared spaces, such as in Elliott St and Fort St.
Lowrie added that Goff "has still set no real strategic direction to align and make better use of the CCOs [the council controlled organisations like Auckland Transport]". Lowrie gave him 6/10.
Astonishingly, eight years after amalgamation, city officialdom still has silos that don't or can't work together. This year a Panuku housing project on Dominion Rd, which should have been the very essence of the council's desire for a more compact city, was shot down in the Environment Court by the council's own planners.
Expensive, time-wasting and demoralising for all. Goff said he has spoken to the heads of the outfits concerned and made it clear that can't happen again. But he really should have seen it coming.
Christina van Bohemen, president NZ Institute of Architects, said Goff showed "lack of leadership" in not trying to stop the dolphins – new "temporary" structures that will be built out from Queens Wharf to allow super-cruisers to dock.
Goff campaigned on no more incursions into the harbour but, she said, that showed "a lack of commitment to the value of the waterfront. The cruise industry has hoodwinked the council again." She found it too hard to score Goff.
Goff also got hoodwinked by council development agency Panuku over the America's Cup bases. They persuaded him he had to accept Team New Zealand's demand for new wharves that would push substantially into the harbour – until Economic Development Minister David Parker brokered a solution that works for TNZ and is both cheaper and environmentally better.
Then there's the proposed new waterfront stadium.
"I love the design with those steps leading down to the water," Goff told the Weekend Herald, "but I'm cautious about the cost and the engineering challenges, and I want to listen to the public, give them the opportunity to have their say. I don't want to just assert myself over that."
Public input is essential, but so is leadership. Will Goff assert himself over anything?
"We are yet to see," said Viv Beck of Heart of the City, "great leadership that pulls the council group out of its silos, lets talented people shine, sees a great vision for the waterfront that includes the port land, and leads the stadium debate as a chance to think big and longer term." She gave him a 6.5.
Perhaps Goff could insist Ports of Auckland invent a better solution for handling the car imports – and not let the port company treat him like Panuku did over the America's Cup bases.
Goff's approach to politics has elements in common with the John Key playbook. He doesn't want to lead. Relentlessly positive, he'll keep the wheels turning. He knows that for a lot of people, 6.5 is good enough.
It's not good enough in a crisis, though, and that means right now it's not good enough for the Government. Phil Twyford, the minister in charge of transport, housing and urban development, has announced they will set up an Urban Development Authority to control the light rail projects and all the big new housing developments. The UDA will do the consents and be in charge of construction and placemaking.
Clearly, he doesn't think the council is up to it.
Does Goff get on with Twyford? "Oh yes, I like to say I see him more than I see my wife," said Goff.
They probably do get on. But it's Twyford in the driving seat.
Will that make Auckland business happy?
"Business has been good and we will continue to do well," said Chamber of Commerce head Michael Barnett. But he complained about the fuel tax, a lack of cost savings in council, and how Goff has "talked too much of what Auckland could be instead of driving action that would help us deliver on what we need".
Is there no pleasing some people? There are more cranes in the Auckland sky right now than in any city in North America. This is boom town, baby. Barnett gave Goff 5/10.
At the KiwiBuild launch last weekend the Building and Construction Minister Jenny Salesa was there with her daughters, one of whom wore a t-shirt with Jacinda Ardern as Princess Leia and the words "A new hope".
That's the world we're in now, glamour politics and all, and Goff is not that kind of politician. Is he vulnerable to a high-profile charmer sweeping the electorate off its feet? Of course he is. But who's that going to be?
In the meantime, there he is, grinning away, the glass always half full. Less new hope, more Old Mr Hopeful.
"I don't feel I've finished the job," he said. "So yes, I'm seriously considering standing again."
What others think of Phil Goff
Auckland MP Judith Collins:
His best achievement is that "he hasn't yet caused Aucklanders major embarrassment". But his "tribal allegiance to the Labour-led government" stops him bringing all councillors together and being a truly effective mayor. She scores him 4/10.
Deputy mayor Bill Cashmore, a National Party member and Goff loyalist: "I didn't know Phil that well before he was elected. I have found in him a man of integrity, good humour, hard-working and a decent person." Top achievement: landing the 10 year budget with the support of almost all councillors. Score: 8/10.
Cr Mike Lee, a regular critic on the left: "Goff did deliver on the Living Wage but I can't at this time think of any other achievement." No score.
Cr Greg Sayers, a regular critic on the right: "Phil Goff is a crafted political leader who is able to exercise a mesmeric influence over many of the councillors. I have watched him in awe for the last two years as he has completely dominated a council that should be far more fiscally conservative." Score: 5/10.
Retiring Cr Penny Hulse: "He is a little risk averse, due mainly to ongoing 'white anting' by a few councillors." Score: 7/10.
Christina van Bohemen, president NZ Institute of Architects: Goff's "lack of leadership" in not trying to stop the dolphins on Queens Wharf shows "a lack of commitment to the value of the waterfront. The cruise industry has hoodwinked the council again." Score: "hard".
Stephen Selwood, CEO Infrastructure NZ: Approves of Goff using the regional fuel tax for "record investment in transport" and also of the targeted water quality rate "to clean up Auckland's waterways and beaches". But Goff "will need bold ambition and a step change in policy on congestion and affordable housing supply". Score: 6/10.
Viv Beck, CEO Heart of the City: "Top marks for the focus on transport and infrastructure, getting the 10-year budget approved, expanding the City Rail Link capacity and standing up for the homeless." But we are "yet to see great leadership that pulls the council group out of its silos, lets talented people shine, sees a great vision for the waterfront that includes the port land, and leads the stadium debate as a chance to think big and longer term." Score: 6.5/10.
Who is Phil Goff?
•Aged 65, married to wife Mary since 1979, with three adult children. They live in Clevedon on an 8-hectare farm.
•From a Catholic working-class family, left home at 16, worked in freezing works, put himself through university, gained MA with first-class honours in Political Studies from University of Auckland.
•Joined Labour Party in 1969 and elected MP for Roskill in 1984.
•Represented Roskill, New Lynn and Mount Roskill until 2016, except 1990-1993.
•Minister of Housing, Employment, Tourism, Youth Affairs and Education in fourth Labour Government, 1984-1990.
•Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Justice, Defence and Disarmament in fifth Labour Government, 1999-2008.
•Leader of the Opposition, 2008-2011, MP until 2016.
•Elected Mayor of Auckland in 2016 with 187,622 votes (47.3%), against Victoria Crone with 111,731 (28.2%), Chloe Swarbrick with 29,098 (7.33%) and 16 others.
•Suffered heart attack in April 2018 but was back at work days later.