Sep 1, 2016 Politics
Above: Phil Goff speaks at a debate in St Heliers Bay. Photo: Simon Young.
The mayoral front-runner shows off his political smarts.
If John Key thought he was going to sidestep the question of immigration in the next election cycle, he was obviously mistaken. Things are heating up with the appearance of a party in Auckland for immigrants, the New Zealand People’s Party. It aims to represent the Indian and Asian communities and intends to stand a candidate in the parliamentary by-election in Mt Roskill if Goff wins the mayoralty to press their concerns.
Feathers have been ruffled. Winston Peters is indignant the new party is race-based and Key thinks immigrants would be better served under the wing of the existing main parties. But he’s been rattled enough to send an open letter to ethnic communities in Auckland, reassuring them the government was focused on crime, after their concerns about burglaries were aired. And Judith Collins has announced police will attend every single household burglary.
A bigger headache for Key is that Goff has just made immigration a prominent part of his mayoral campaign. He has pointed out the bleeding obvious — that Auckland’s stratospheric house prices and transport woes are directly linked to the tsunami of newcomers flooding into the Queen City.
Many people will vote for him simply because he is saying what many citizens already know but John Key repeatedly denies — rampant immigration is strangling the city.
And there’s no one better placed than Goff to front the issue. His credentials are impeccable.
First, he’s the MP for Mt Roskill, a melting pot of over 50 ethnicities, and he has deep connections in those communities. Second, he signed the China-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement in 2008.
Consequently, there’s no way he can be painted as xenophobic or racist — and, significantly, he can’t be branded as anti-Chinese.
Nevertheless, he’s not going to let anyone misinterpret his message. When he officially launched his campaign for the mayoralty at Corban Estate in west Auckland in late August, he reminded the crowd his stance wasn’t “ethno-centric”.
The region was growing by 825 people every week, he said, and more than two-thirds were new migrants to New Zealand — “from Brits escaping post-Brexit to those coming from Asia”.
He’s far too wily to put a number on what sort of reduction he has in mind — echoing Labour’s policy articulated by Andrew Little: “The immigration tap needs to be turned down.”
Given that it is National’s expansive immigration policy that is funnelling so many people into Auckland, Goff is also aware that demanding the government stump up for infrastructure to help solve Auckland’s woes is a vote-catcher. The unpalatable alternative, of course, is even more eye-watering rates rises at some point.
And the logic of his demands is unimpeachable: if the government wants to stuff Auckland full of newcomers, then it can help pay for the infrastructure the city needs to cope.
It’s an easy argument for a city mayoral candidate to make since he doesn’t have to wear the national electoral consequences that Key will have to if he agrees to it. Demanding everyone in the country stump up for the behemoth in the north won’t play well in Southland or Taranaki, for example, where Auckland’s house prices and traffic congestion are of as little interest as The Real Housewives of Auckland.
It’s hardly going to appeal to Timaruvians, Nelsonians and Cantabrians either that huge wads of their taxes should disappear into the insatiable maw of Auckland given that the city’s infrastructure needs over the next decade alone have been estimated at $17 billion or more.
That’s the beauty of campaigning for mayor. You can be as parochial as you like in criticising government policy because the mayor’s role is limited to advocacy for the city.
But that’s the beauty of campaigning for mayor. You can be as parochial as you like in criticising government policy because the mayor’s role is limited to advocacy for the city. With respect to central government, the mayoral role is something like that of the Queen’s: to warn, to encourage and the right to be consulted. And, like the Queen, to go begging for a bigger state handout for running expenses.
Even though Auckland is a business-oriented city and his main rival, Vic Crone, has hands-on business experience, Goff’s experience as a parliamentary politician is his trump card. A well-connected mayor of the nation’s biggest city will be far from ineffectual in Wellington. The Queen City is home to a third of the nation’s population and if Goff romps home with an overwhelming mandate he will have been given a very big megaphone to broadcast Auckland’s woes to Wellington.
Given that a big part of his message will be cutting immigration as a way of reducing house prices and congestion, it’s difficult to see Key not bending in time. If he doesn’t agree to cut numbers, he will be under more and more pressure to fund infrastructure.
Demographia’s Hugh Pavletich has predicted the ratio of Auckland median house prices to median incomes — currently at 10.4 — will be 12 by the time the general election next year rolls around and he reckons housing will be Key’s Waterloo. Worsening traffic congestion won’t help either, given there’s likely to be another 40,000 cars on the city’s roads by then.
Key needs to win Auckland to remain in power. And while Goff may have dressed his campaign in blue to assuage those who loathe the red of Labour, he’s a born-and-bred Labour politician. If Goff wins, the Prime Minister will face a powerful new foe beating a loud drum over immigration.
The question is not when Key will bend on migrant numbers, but how soon.
If he doesn’t, Hawaii might become his St Helena.