“I came in, just as dawn was breaking over the city and looked out and thought: ‘Jesus. This is a ghost town.’ Nothing was happening.”
That was Auckland Mayor Phil Goff’s reaction from his 27thfloor office on the first day of the nationwide lockdown, a memory he says has stayed with him because of how scary it was to see his city closed down and abandoned.
Throughout the pandemic, Goff says he has been in constant contact with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
His first difficult decision was made back when New Zealand had just five recorded cases of Covid-19. That was to cancel the Pasifika Festival in mid-March — a decision made even harder since it was also cancelled in 2019 following the Christchurch mosque shootings.
Ardern was worried from a foreign affairs perspective that the festival, which celebrates Pacific Island communities, would spread Covid-19 back to the Pacific Islands when performers and stallholders returned. Goff knew the scale of the event would make it impossible to enforce social distancing. Just two weeks later, Auckland was in strict lockdown.
Goff says, in hindsight, that was absolutely the right decision to make — noting that it had a very real chance of becoming a super-spreader event.
“What was really important was that one message was going out to the community, so the Prime Minister wasn’t standing up saying one thing and the mayor of the country’s biggest city saying something quite different.”
Goff says the government’s leadership and communication has been pretty good throughout the response, though he jokes that he hates answering phone calls from Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield.
“Because it usually means that we’re headed for a bloody lockdown!”
But he also acknowledges that he has had concerns with aspects of the response: “I indicated before the last two lockdowns what some of those worries were and raised them, and had discussions with Ministers about how I think we might be able to do things better.”
Back in January, before the Northland scare, Goff wrote to the Minister of Covid-19 Response, Chris Hipkins, and Health Minister Andrew Little urging the Government to bring local councils to the table when a local outbreak occurs.
“But everything is relative,” Goff says. “Just because we’re among the best in the world doesn’t mean to say we can’t continue to do better.”
Goff says that when New Zealand was plunged into level 4 lockdown, top of mind for him were the city’s most vulnerable.
Auckland Council set up a food distribution centre at the unused Spark Arena to keep up with demand. Those unable to get to the supermarket or suffering financial hardship were eligible for food parcels, which were couriered to people’s homes.
When Auckland City Mission was overwhelmed by the unprecedented demand for meals, Auckland Council’s cafeteria staff stepped in, “working all the way through the lockdown preparing thousands of lunches for people,” Goff recalls.
Auckland Council worked closely with Carmel Sepuloni — the minister appointed as the liaison between Goff and the Government — to ensure the homeless were housed during the lockdown.
“We couldn’t leave them on the street, those sleeping rough would be among the most vulnerable because so many have co-morbidities,” Goff says.
They managed to get all but about 20 into motels and provided wraparound services to help with associated social problems.
Another group that was identified as at risk were those that were living alone. Goff says, “no one knew how they were getting on”.
The city’s librarians — unable to work with libraries closed — were put to work phoning the most isolated in the city. “We couldn’t contact everybody, but we singled out those people that were living alone and weren’t connected to the internet — and we called 17,000 of them,” Goff says — adding that on the whole they were coping well, “the only problem was how to end the conversation!”
Goff formed a business advisory panel to help work through issues and assist with the city’s transition back to normal economic activity when the lockdown was lifted.
The panel met regularly, acting as a conduit back to government and to provide feedback to the business community.
With hopes that events including the America’s Cup and Apec would create a boom year for Auckland in 2021 dashed, then-economic development agency Ateed (now merged with Regional Facilities Auckland to become Auckland Unlimited) brought business and political heavyweights together at an emergency economic summit to discuss what should come next.
The “Auckland’s Future, Now” summit held following the first lockdown, provided a forum for an Auckland-specific, business-focused discussion by business leaders and stakeholders to address the economic challenges the city was facing, resulting in a plan to grow the economy from the hit it had taken.
Speaking to a business audience last week, Finance Minister Grant Robertson said discussions at the Auckland Summit and other forums had fed through to the government’s economic development strategies.
“We are looking at a new and different approach to regional development, which we’ll have more to say about when we get to the Budget,” Robertson said.
With borders closed and unemployment expected to spike, it was clear Covid would have a savage impact on Auckland’s finances.
“We knew we could well get double-figure unemployment,” Goff says. “I remember during a meeting, one councillor was in tears because they’d never seen anything so grim.”
An emergency budget was developed to respond to the impact of Covid-19 on Auckland Council’s finances – Goff notes how well councillors worked together on it, requiring many long hours.
Growing up in a family that suffered heavily because of the Great Depression, Goff says this experience showed him that the then-government’s focus on balancing the books back then made the Depression deeper and longer.
“If we cut everything back, we’d be part of the problem — not the solution,” he says. “We knew we had to maintain core services and make sure rubbish continued to be picked up, water supplies weren’t failing and the grass was cut at parks.”
The decision was made to suspend the accommodation provider targeted rate, and give ratepayers the option to defer rates payments.
Goff says the uptake of the option to defer rates has been quite small — “an indication of how quickly the recovery has happened.”
But elected members had to make some difficult decisions.
Staff numbers were reduced and lower-priority projects deferred to achieve savings of $120 million.
“We also started selling off surplus property that the council had previously resisted doing,” Goff says.
“We knew what we needed to do was invest in infrastructure.”
Construction was seen as the obvious solution to reinvigorate the economy, create jobs, and achieve long-term goals for the city.
“We were facing a crisis, but longer-term we needed to keep infrastructure going, keep up the response to climate change and keep environmental projects going,” Goff says.
The emergency budget has now evolved into the 10-year “recovery” budget. It puts back $900m that was cut, including $550m for transport, $145m for water infrastructure, $54m for stormwater and $65m for community facilities.
It proposes a one-off rates increase of 5 per cent, which Goff says is not extravagant compared to Wellington’s 14-17 per cent — “and their infrastructure is just collapsing all around them because they haven’t done the renewal work.”
He says the 10-year budget has preserved the critical things that are really needed, although “a little bit of icing on the cake has been lost” in areas like town centre rejuvenation.
“There are things that we’ve had to put off that would have been good to do, but the essential things will be done.”
One area that Goff would have loved to go further with is climate change.
The 10-year budget puts an additional $150m into climate change initiatives, however the discussion document shows an alternative investment package of $320m was rejected that would have allowed more significant climate action work.
Goff says the initiatives will still have an impact: “We will lower emissions, and significantly lower them on a per capita basis,” he says.
“The challenge we have got is that the prediction of population growth is about 22 per cent. That’s more people using all the things that create carbon emissions. We are working really hard with the government and the Climate Change Commission to look at how we can bring forward some of the projects.”
He wants the adoption of electric cars sped up, acknowledging that the current price differential makes the decision difficult.
Another area Goff says central government can help with is cycleways.
Cyclist numbers are significantly up — in 2014 Auckland had 800,000 cycle trips per year, the figure now stands at some 3.7 million. But there is criticism from some that cycleway progress is painfully slow — and Goff agrees.
“We want to work with central government to maximise the programme,” Goff says. “Neither the Transport Minister Michael Wood nor I are satisfied with the speed at which we’re able to put cycleways in place.”
Vision for Auckland
Goff’s vision has always been for Auckland to be a world-class city where talent wants to live. Covid hasn’t changed his view.
He is proud of the progress made toward the infrastructure deficit he inherited, pointing to the recent opening of Te Komititanga square outside Britomart Station, the Quay St precinct that is close to completion, and his insistence that Watercare bring forward its programmes:
“When I saw their response to last summer’s drought, I said it’s just not satisfactory that a city might be placed in a situation where we would have to limit the number of days a factory could operate because of water shortage — we will fix that.”
When asked how he keeps a smile on his face, Goff says he’s a perpetual optimist, “which I think you have to be to survive in politics”.
“I think we have got the glass half full here. I can see so much around the city where there is decent progress being made,” he says.
“Those are the things that keep you smiling — not the comments you see on your Facebook page.”