Whenever I was asked during countless trips to Wellington over the years where I was visiting from, I could never quite bring myself to answer with a straightforward "Auckland". I would always mumble something like this instead: "Well, I'm based in Auckland these days for work, but I'm from the Bay of Plenty."
Does part of that stem from pride in my tūrangawaewae? Sure. You won't shut me up about the wonders of Kāwerau. But, in truth, for all that I have lived here for decades, I've never felt anything resembling pride of place when it comes to Tāmaki Makaurau. To give you an idea, my rugby team is the Chiefs followed by ABTB: Anyone But the Blues. Auckland is the location of my employer, my place of residence, but never home.
There was another factor in my reticence, specific to Wellington. For most of the years I've travelled between the two cities, the capital was just the cooler place. Auckland may have had the population and the booming economy, but only Wellington offered a truly cosmopolitan vibe. It always felt edgy and vibrant. The CBD left Auckland's for dead, cultural institutions that struggled up north somehow prospered there, the public transport system was streets ahead, even the comparatively gloomy weather added to the city's grungy-in-a-good-way vibe. And then there was Te Papa and the waterfront rebirth, a triumph of bold urban design that put Auckland's troubled Viaduct precinct to shame.
That was then, as they say; this is now. Ten years on from the Super City amalgamation, Auckland has finally come into its own while Wellington shows all the signs of a city in decline.
The capital's problems have come into sharp focus after a month of high-profile infrastructure fails - from the appearance of a mystery downtown sinkhole, a spectacular burst water main in Aro Valley, and millions of litres of sewage gushing into the harbour, some of it even finding its way on to city streets. Shocking, but hardly surprising when you consider one-third of Wellington's pipes are in "poor" or "very poor" condition, a legacy of decades of underinvestment. The inevitable deterioration is rapid and accelerating: according to Wellington Water, the number of leaks across its network spiked by 60 per cent to 16,000 between 2014 and 2019 alone.
When weighing culpability for this systemic failure, it seems pertinent to note that the city's current mayor, Andy Foster, was first elected to the Wellington City Council in 1992. When he faces voters next year, he will be entering his fourth consecutive decade on the council benches.
Foster's length of service is not a problem in and of itself - voters can choose whoever they like. But it does beg several questions Wellingtonians should consider asking the mayor before electing him again, including:
• How many times over 29 budget cycles as mayor or councillor have you demanded greater investment in underground infrastructure?
• When, if ever, have you advocated for significant additional investment in the pipe network to avert system failures like these?
• When and how often have you sought or received briefings on the state of the pipe network, and what action did you take as a result?
Blaming prior councils for the current state of affairs is simply not an off-ramp open to Foster. Nobody - literally not one person alive - bears more responsibility than him.
Instead of addressing the infrastructure crisis, Foster spent the last week deflecting another scandal - the future ownership of the proposed new public library. Scrambling to come up with some last-minute austerity measures before the council released its budget, Foster proposed part-privatisation of the new library building in a last-minute amendment circulated to council colleagues. It passed, strangely enough, with the support of two Greens. When Labour's Fleur Fitzsimons, quite rightly in my view, took issue with the process in a devastating letter to the Auditor-General, Foster sought to reclaim the high ground - and possibly pre-empt the appointment of a Crown Commissioner - by announcing an Independent Review into the council's governance.
Seemingly unable to get out of his own way, however, it soon came out that he'd only bothered to inform his council allies, cutting Fitzsimons and others out of a decision ostensibly designed to bring about greater unity and trust. You wouldn't expect such a rookie error from a first-term councillor.
Peter Winder, the former chief executive of the Auckland Regional Council named to conduct the review, is smart and capable. I wish him all the best. But it seems to me only voters can really fix this mess - and next October, they get their chance.
Rongotai Labour MP Paul Eagle, a former deputy mayor, has denied interest in taking on Foster - but surely circumstances have conspired to force a rethink on his part.
Eagle is a no-nonsense consensus builder who has forged constructive relationships over the years with bluer corners of the capital. Running as an independent with Labour backing, his candidacy could enjoy broad and deep support across all parts of the city.
To turn the council around, and bring the capital's mojo back, that's the kind of decisive mandate the capital's next mayor will sorely need.