Josh Van Veen: Efeso vs. Wayne: A different kind of mayor?

Josh Van Veen: Efeso vs. Wayne: A different kind of mayor?

The 2022 local elections have failed to excite Aucklanders. Early voting returns suggest turnout won’t be much different to 2019, when only 35.3% of eligible voters cast a ballot. But the contest for mayor is a fascinating case study in political leadership and the role of ideology. For the first time since 2010, the election is a contest between two candidates who are seeking to redefine the mayoralty.


A lot has been made of Efeso Collins’ affiliation with the governing Labour Party, and his support of Mayor Phil Goff. But there is an anti-establishment side to Collins that has, at times, seen him align with the so-called ‘B Team’ of disaffected councillors. In 2019, he voted against Goff’s Regional Fuel Tax, arguing that it was ‘grossly unfair’ and ‘regressive’. This is said to have caused a rift between the Mayor and Collins. He was also a fierce critic of the Ardern Government’s botched vaccination rollout in South Auckland during the Delta outbreak last year.


Perhaps that explains why Labour appeared reluctant to endorse his candidacy. In the end, Labour had no choice but to get behind the man who would be Auckland’s first Pasifika mayor. There is no question that Collins is the most eloquent and charismatic of the nominees to replace Goff. He has captivated the media and inspired left-wing activists. Until the last fortnight, opinion polls suggested Collins was on course to victory.


So what precisely is Collins’ appeal and what happened to his campaign? It has less to do with policy specifics and more to do with a conception of the mayoralty itself. The incumbent represents a political class fearful of new ideas and beholden to official advice. As mayor, Goff has been more of a figurehead than a leader. He lacks the political imagination to see a world outside of existing power structures. This is most evident when one looks at his approach to Council-Controlled Organisations (CCOs).


Since the establishment of the Super City, these entities have been responsible for providing around 75% of local services. Yet, despite a statutory framework giving elected members the ability to exercise democratic control over CCOs, Mayor Goff’s decision to remove ‘councillor-director’ roles from the Auckland Transport Board in 2016 was justified on the grounds that the bureaucracy should operate at arm’s length from democracy.


Goff’s outlook is that of a man who spent 15 years as a Cabinet minister and three decades in Parliament. A junior minister in the Fourth Labour Government, Goff would have been socialised in ‘New Public Management’, a theory that transformed the relationship between public servants and their political masters. In the past, there was often no clear distinction between policy-making and implementation. Politicians were expected to get “down in the weeds”. This often meant having an interest in day-to-day operations of a department.


But the willingness of politicians to intervene in operational decision-making, while ensuring democratic accountability, could nevertheless lead to inefficiency.  It ran counter to the ideology of neoliberalism, which held that market logic and competition should be the basis for public policy. Thus, state sector reform was intended to make government departments run with business-like efficiency. The career public servants who ran the Wellington bureaucracy were replaced with fixed-term chief executives who became responsible for introducing private sector management practices.


The relationship between chief executives and ministers was prescribed in law. While a minister would be responsible for choosing ‘outcomes’, the chief executive was responsible for delivering ‘outputs’. And never the twain should meet. In practice, the reforms gave autonomy to unelected officials to determine how resources were used in the pursuit of government objectives. The new model also gave ministers political cover when the state failed to deliver. Four decades on, it is inconceivable that we could ever go back.


Yet, the separation of policy-making and implementation has been catastrophic for local democracy. As academic Jean Drage argued in her book, A Balancing Act (2008), the 1989 local government reforms transferred power from elected members to an unelected chief executive, while reducing the role of councillor to that of board director. The elected council has oversight of plans and policies but councillors are discouraged from asking difficult questions of staff or having an interest in technical matters.


The problem was illustrated at an Auckland Council meeting earlier this year, when the Planning Committee debated a controversial paper submitted by Auckland Transport in support of a $306 million programme to develop the region’s cycling and micro-mobility infrastructure. In the meeting it emerged that Auckland Transport had reluctantly provided a copy of its draft business case to councillors the night before, having earlier told them it was a ‘technical document’ that they did not need to read.


Goff, siding with Auckland Transport, lectured councillors about their role as governors and the need to trust officials with the detail. “It’s good to have it there,” Goff conceded. “But you don’t have to have it there if you rely on the integrity of your officers to summarise it for you. That’s what their job is…But you don’t have to rely on it to make a vote on this paper today.”  It was an extraordinarily frank admission by the country’s most powerful mayor about the diminished role of elected members.


Indeed, Goff is the exemplar of a mayor who believes that his role is to set ambitious targets dreamt up by high-minded technocrats (e.g. a 64% reduction in transport emissions), and then leave it to the machinery of government; never mind democratic accountability for the real world implications. After all, the most radical idea Goff himself has come up with in six years is to politely ask the government for more money.


It isn’t obvious, but Collins seeks to be a different kind of mayor. He plans to spend the next three years advocating for a radical shift in priorities. He is determined to “Take Back Control of Auckland Transport”. Spending on private sector consultants and new road projects of questionable value would be reallocated to pay for ‘fares-free’ public transport. This would almost certainly involve a more hands-on approach than council officers have been used to under Goff.


Collins’ preferred leadership style is mayor-as-activist, rather than mayor-as-figurehead. Therein lies his somewhat populist appeal with the left. But despite a burning ambition to transform local government, Collins has been undermined by a perception that he represents the status quo. His endorsement by the Labour Party did not help; nor the idea of opening an advocacy office in Wellington. Opponents have successfully portrayed him as just another career politician.


As fate would have it, ex-Far North mayor Wayne Brown emerged as the change candidate. He doesn’t offer the progressive-left vision that Collins spent the past year articulating. But the two men have more in common than most people think. Brown promises a radical departure from the Goff era; with it, the ideological belief that elected members are just there to rubber-stamp plans and policies developed by highly-paid council officers who control the flow of information and resources. Those officers will find themselves under much greater scrutiny if Brown gets in.


Of course, no mayor can govern by decree. They must use the power of persuasion to reach a consensus around the council table, and work collaboratively with staff. But for there to be any meaningful political change in Auckland, we need someone who is willing to defy convention and push the boundaries of what a mayor can and cannot do. Collins may want to “Take Back Control of Auckland Transport” but he can’t do that with a softly-softly approach. Sacking the AT Board – as Brown says he would – might be the only alternative to business as usual.


Whatever the result on Saturday, Auckland will have a different kind of mayor. But the next mayor’s success or failure will depend on their ability to disrupt the established order. That is going to be much harder for Collins than Brown.  If opinion polls are accurate, then it looks like the electorate has worked this out.



Josh Van Veen is an Auckland-based writer and political analyst. He currently works as the Local Government Campaigns Manager for the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union and is a former member of New Zealand First. The views expressed in this article are his own.