COMMENT: Auckland Mayor Phil Goff will announce within weeks if he will seek a second-term – a decision that was once a no-brainer but has instead been the subject of real speculation among some political allies.
One view is that Goff’s health scare in the middle of this term may have given him and his family pause in signing on for another bid for the Super City mayoralty.
Others believe a fractured council, which seems to have split into a mayoral A team and a B-team of the rest, does not inspire much confidence for Goff to carry on grappling with the city’s big problems.
Then there is a high-profile, if high-on-hope, mayoral challenge from a fellow Labour-ite John Tamihere who has linked with B-team councillor and former National MP and Auckland City mayor Christine Fletcher.
And as late as yesterday, more rumours of former National finance minister Steven Joyce throwing his hat in the ring were aired on social media by former National MP Tau Henare, a member of the Auckland Council’s Independent Māori Statutory Board. Joyce did not comment.
Serious political people have wondered if Goff will step aside for personal rather than any looming political reasons.
The man himself remains quiet on his future until a planned announcement early in March.
Being a one-term wonder would seem out of character for a politician who served a total of 32 years in Parliament. His ambition, work ethic and stoicism saw him step up to lead the Labour Party after the devastation of the 2008 election loss. After resigning the leadership following the 2011 election humiliation, he then stayed on as an MP for five years.
He won the mayoralty in 2016 with 47 percent of the vote, and an 80,000 vote majority over Victoria Crone.
Goff suffered a heart attack in April last year and had an angioplasty procedure to clear arteries. He returned to work at his usual full-speed and has negotiated several complex policies through the council, including a hotel bed tax, regional fuel tax, the 2021 America’s Cup Village, further plans for housing and transport projects and funding talks with the central government.
He has got things done but has alienated some councillors along the way.
While the council can point to near unanimity in approving the major budget programmes and Goff can claim to have kept the general average rate rise to his campaign promise of 2.5 percent, few issues come without a battle of wills behind the scenes. There are also conflicting council strategies to resolve.
The debate right now about bailing out Eden Park to the tune of $100 million is an example. The council-controlled organisation Regional Facilities Auckland has been working on a strategy for stadiums for some time. Eden Park, which it doesn’t run, comes up with a parallel need for funding and politicians and officials in the council organisation are lured both ways.
For Goff, nothing comes easy. There are reasons for him to think twice.
The looming cost blowout on the City Rail Link, a core transport innovation championed by former mayor Len Brown and Goff alike, is another ugly problem, made worse by the debt ceiling under which the council and all its spending, its hopes and dreams, must live. It cannot borrow a whole lot more without risking breaching that ceiling and offending the international ratings agencies.
The mayor could be forgiven for thinking he has an impossible job, hamstrung by the way the Super City was set up and by political differences on the 20-member council. He also faces a latent resistance within important, Wellington-based, government ministries to what officials see as arguments for ‘Auckland exceptionalism’.
Yet there are reasons for real confidence when he looks in the mirror and asks “Should I go for it again?” He has a central government of the same hue, led by his former colleagues in Labour, an advantage not enjoyed by Brown. He is broadly regarded as a reputable and hardworking, if a bit earnest, ambassador for Auckland. He has obvious and proven name recognition, vital in the Auckland-wide contest, but so does a Joyce or a Tamihere.
If Goff has indeed been seriously questioning whether a second term is for him, he has been careful to keep his options open and his profile out there on social media.
On Twitter there’s a photo of Phil and wife Mary on their wedding day 40 years ago with a “Happy Anniversary Darling.” There’s a shot of Phil and his son and friends finishing up after a long hot day of bringing in the hay bales on the farm near Clevedon. An obligatory photo at the Big Gay Out and one at the cricket at Eden Park; An old photo as a long-haired student supporting Ngati Whatua protesters at Bastion Point in the 1970s; holding a kokako, holding a puppy, eating an icecream after a meeting, and fishing with Mary.
It is probably the best indicator of all that he hasn’t given up on seeking your vote.