new auckland

Auckland’s election within an election

Forget the mayoralty. The power and the prize from this Auckland Council election will emerge from a clutch of council seats that are tantalisingly in play.  

Phil Goff and John Tamihere will get all the headlines, star in public debates and pull policy rabbits from hats in this Auckland Council election campaign - but a small number of voters in three or four battles for simple council seats hold the keys to real political power.

In Goff's first term as mayor, he presided over a divided council of 20, and in the past year he was occasionally on the wrong end of votes like 10-9 or 11-9 against the policies he was backing.

The mayor has one vote. While the office carries the power to propose budgets and offers ceremonial and civic leadership, the Super City mayor can still be stymied if he or she does not have the backing of the councillors representing the 13 city wards.  It's always been so. But the standoffs in the past year mean the key councillor fights are more vital than in most elections.

Neither Goff nor Tamihere - even with two possible challengers John Palino and John Banks now out of the race - would be able to follow through on their big campaign promises without a reliable majority of firm or likely backers on the council. 

And the composition of that group of 20 councillors is being acutely felt in this campaign. Healthy majorities for those currently holding seats from Albany, North Shore, Manukau, Franklin, Howick, Orakei and Rodney mean only a clutch of seats in a small number of Auckland's other wards are in play.

Here's a guide to the battles to watch. Remember, the status quo is not enough to improve Goff's chances of getting policies through:


Left-leaning former deputy mayor Penny Hulse, is retiring from the Waitakere ward. She most likely will be succeeded by Shane Henderson, the Henderson-Massey Local Board's Labour chair. Hulse wasn't always in Goff's camp and the younger Labour Party man might be considered more likely to back the former Labour Party leader. Standing in Tamihere's backyard - the home of Te Whānau o Waipareira Trust - creates a possible dilemma for Henderson but he is proudly party red and Tamihere isn't even allowed to join the Labour Party right now. National-aligned Linda Cooper holds the other Waitakere seat but only narrowly held off Labour's Greg Presland last time.  Status quo for Goff


A second councillor, Sir John Walker from Manurewa, is expected to be absent from the nominations when they close this Friday, but has not responded to queries over his intentions. Walker was more often than not a Goff supporter. A possible replacement, the Manurewa Local Board chair Angela Dalton, is on the Manurewa-Papakura Action Team ticket with incumbent councillor Daniel Newman, who became a leader of the 'B' team of councillors supposedly sidelined by Goff this term.  For Labour, former cabinet minister Peter Neilson is standing. One for the B team?


One target C&R has set is councillor Cathy Casey of the Labour-aligned City Vision ticket. She is one of two councillors, with Tamihere's running mate and former Auckland City mayor Christine Fletcher, in the Albert-Eden-Puketāpapa ward. C&R has put up former National parliamentary candidate and a mayoral contender from 2016, Mark Thomas, to try to shake Casey's hold on the ward. Last election she won, 3000 votes ahead of Fletcher, and well ahead of a third-placed candidate. But Thomas has a profile and is nothing if not energetic and enthusiastic in matters civic affairs and city development. Most likely, a hold for Casey and status quo for Goff.


At the last election, Denise Lee won Maungakiekie-Tāmaki before graduating to Parliament as a National Party MP in 2017.  In the ward byelection, Labour's Josephine Bartley a charismatic local, took Lee's council seat by fewer than 1600 votes ahead of C&R's Josh Beddell. There have been changes to boundaries since then (two big chunks of blue-tinged Ellerslie and St Johns are now included from the Orakei ward area) and the blue-red switcheroo in the past three years has inspired hope on the Centre-Right that Beddell might pip Bartley and deliver a change in the council's political tinge. A crucial contest.


Veteran councillor Mike Lee, often an opponent of Goff despite their left origins, faces a challenge from City Vision's Pippa Coom in the Waitematā-Gulf ward - and they both face a C&R hopeful, businesswoman Sarah Trotman, who must be relishing the possibility of coming through the middle. Coom, the Waitematā local board chair is a Goff fan, Trotman is on the same C&R team as Tamihere's running mate Fletcher. Lee is a wily operator with a huge political record and loyalty from Waiheke and the Gulf. A win by Coom would alleviate some discomfort for Goff, either other candidate means status quo


So tactical is the perceived battle to cauterise Goff's power if he wins the mayoralty, that some on the centre-right are pushing the prospects of C&R's Tracy Mulholland in the Whau ward. It is held by Goff's finance committee chair Ross Clow, who won in 2016 for Labour with almost double the second place-getter's vote. While it would be hard to see a newbie dislodge that kind of support, Mulholland has been the Whau Local Board chair and has her own profile in the inner west. Likely status quo for Goff.


So, if Goff defeats Tamihere, his chance of winning more support in his second term rests on the ousting of Mike Lee in Waitematā-Gulf, hanging onto Josephine Bartley in Maungakiekie-Tāmaki, and finding a supporter in Manurewa if Sir John Walker bows out. 

Goff's room for manoeuvre narrows if Lee or Trotman win in Waitematā-Gulf, if Bartley loses, if Manurewa goes to a B team sympathiser and if the ground shifts on either Casey or Clow.

If Tamihere somehow undermines Goff at the ballot box, his prospects of support on the council for his term are less clear. Fletcher is from the B team and Newman's ticket in the south includes former MP and Papakura Mayor George Hawkins who appeared with Tamihere on a campaign video. So you could assume they'd bring him support. Those who win for C&R might not be as predictable as allies given Tamihere's fluid political colours (Michele Boag from National, Matt McCarten from the Alliance and Labour being his campaign strategists). 

The mayoral contest sees city-wide personal votes which can number as high as 237,000 (Len Brown in 2010) and Goff pulled in 187,000 last time. But the fate of big calls for the city will more likely fall to the voting papers of a few thousand people in these three or four wards.

The result of the postal votes will be known on October 12.

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