Simon Wilson: Could Paula Bennett become the next mayor of Auckland?


Paula Bennett for Auckland mayor? Bet that focuses the mind, on both sides of the political divide.

Or Sir John Kirwan? Never won a championship as a coach, but he’s everyone’s winner really, isn’t he? And hey, maybe when Grant Dalton gets sick of messing about in boats he’d like a proper challenge?

Maybe not. Besides, if we need a sports star, why go past Dame Valerie Adams? A community champion, tougher than her brother, Steven, and far more friendly.

It’s time to find the next mayor of Auckland. The election is not till next year, but the contenders will be in place by the end of this year, which means the search starts now.

The incumbent, Phil Goff, has implied, without quite saying it directly, that he won’t be standing again. He’ll be 69, which is younger than new US president Joe Biden, although that’s not exactly saying a lot.

What’s the job? It’s not a retirement sinecure. We need a mayor who grasps the potential of this city.

Auckland could become – here’s a quick list – an innovative, prosperous, low-carbon, inclusive, people-friendly, climate-adapted, culturally rich, design-led and much funner centre than anywhere else on the planet. The very model of how a city can flourish in the 21st century.

We’re not really on track for all that, but is it too much to ask? If we could be that city, shouldn’t we try?

We need an activist mayor. And it is surely not too much to hope for someone who is not a Pākehā man in late middle age. What a shame that rules out Chris Liddell.

The model is Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, which has a population of 2.1 million: it’s not much bigger than Auckland.

Under Hidalgo, planning rules focus on climate action and a liveable city. Social housing has been expanded, new buildings must be carbon positive and the tram, metro and cycling networks have been vastly improved.

Famously, Hidalgo has pedestrianised the quays that run beside the River Seine. She’s faced relentless opposition but she has not wavered. Paris has a mayor with vision, courage for the battle and skills persuasive enough to win it. Who have we got?

First up, there’s Goff himself. He could stay on and be the new mayor we need. All he’d need to do is abandon his natural instinct to smoothly manage the status quo and become instead a champion of innovation and change. It’s not impossible.

Goff is the second mayor of Auckland the supercity. Both he and his predecessor, Len Brown, were supported by the Labour Party machine and won two elections each, always with big margins.

From that, it’s tempting to think the Auckland mayoralty is Labour’s to decide. But it’s not so simple.

Labour usually wins the west and south; National the east and north. The central isthmus can go either way.

It’s not that the centre-right is excluded. Rather, it’s unlikely an old-style right-wing campaign against rates rises will have much appeal beyond the entrenched voters of the wealthy suburbs. Despite the noise those voters make.

But a popular centre-right candidate with good ideas for transport, housing, race relations and climate action should be able to win. Nikki Kaye, anyone?

She might have been a shoo-in, until she became Todd Muller’s deputy in the National Party and her leadership skills collapsed. She blew it. So maybe not Nikki Kaye.

It also seems unlikely those other casualties from 2020, National’s Paul Goldsmith and Labour’s Phil Twyford, will seek a new career on the ratepayer tab.

But Paula Bennett’s still in the hunt. She’s capable and a genuinely popular Westie, which gives her crossover appeal. But does she have any kind of vision for Auckland?

Cities are where it’s at. Councils don’t control taxpayers’ money but the things they can get done often make a real difference to people’s lives.

The Bloomberg Cities Network, a foundation set up by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, has just launched the “Mayors Challenge”. They’re looking for “50 leading urban innovations that were imagined or launched in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic” and that “have the potential for meaningful impact and the ability to spread to other cities”.

We need a mayor filled with the spirit of that kind of thinking and with the desire to act it out.

None of the current councillors has the profile and the skills. Flamboyant National Party doyenne Desley Simpson, the finance committee chairwoman, is popular in only the eastern suburbs. Planning committee chairman Chris Darby, an independent, has a fine grasp of the big challenges facing council but he keeps telling the other councillors off and they don’t like it. Nor would voters.

Manukau’s Fa’ananu Efeso Collins, in contrast, is a gifted orator, a Labour member, and could have become a serious candidate for the top job. But speaking well seems to be his only leadership skill: his colleagues question his commitment, work rate and lack of teamwork. You can’t be a leader if no one will follow.

If Goff does have an heir apparent on council it’s Richard Hills, chairman of the climate change and environment committee. He’s in his early 30s, hard-working and well liked: a rising talent in the Labour Party. But if he wants the top job one day he’ll need to build a much higher profile, be more dynamic and, frankly, a little less beholden to the boss.

The drums always beat for business leaders, but their big problem in politics is that they can’t choose their own team and just tell everyone what to do. So they can end up lost: ask Tenby Powell in Tauranga.

Auckland councillors don’t caucus and even those in the same party often don’t agree. The mayor basically has learn how to work with whichever 20 randoms get elected to council.

The business leader with a terrific in-depth sense of both the economic and cultural lifebloods of Auckland is Chapman Tripp chief executive Nick Wells. But he doesn’t have a high profile and he’s probably quite happy where he is.

Viv Beck, chief executive of the business group Heart of the City, used to be widely regarded, but she burned her bridges last year by pushing, in effect, for a halt to urban development on Queen St.

Where the hell are all the mayoral candidates?

The biggest problem is that the job looks awful. People complain all the time, much of the work is trivial, Wellington has most of the power and the councillors and officials are not always good enough.

But the job is actually splendid. You’re mayor of this great shining city by the sea!

Maybe we should choose an entertainer. How about the newly knighted Dave Dobbyn, whose songs make manifest the soul of the nation? Or Hilary Barry: she could get all frocked up, with the tiara if she wants, and she’s actually brilliant at telling people what to do.

Or, wait for it, what about our most experienced politician, that admirably outspoken advocate for progress Helen Clark!

I know, she has bad thoughts about Eden Park concerts. But in all other respects what’s not to like? She’d take a red hot poker to all those council ditherers and in 2022 she’ll still be only 72.

Helen Clark vs Paula Bennett. One for the ages, so to speak. Although, tbh, better ideas are welcome.

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