10 Dec 2020

Goff refuses to express confidence in Auckland port boss over safety issues, delays

From Checkpoint, 5:07 pm on 10 December 2020

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff is refusing to express confidence in the chief executive or leadership of the Ports of Auckland, following major delays clearing cargo and a spate of serious accidents including deaths.

The port says Covid-19 and interruptions to supply chains worldwide have contributed to its problems, but it concedes staff shortages and problems with its automated unloading system are also to blame.

Last week it was fined more than half a million dollars for its role in the death of a man who was crushed when the straddle carrier he was driving toppled over.

Goff has declined to publicly back port chief executive Tony Gibson, and says the company needs to take responsibility for the things it can control.

"There are two things specific to the Ports of Auckland: one is that they have a shortage of stevedores at the moment, which means that they're not able to operate all of the cranes 24/7 as we would want them to," he told Checkpoint.

"They need to explain why this situation has arisen. They will undoubtedly say they didn't anticipate the surge in demand, and I'll be cross examining them further on that.

"The second is the process of automation, which has been interrupted partway through implementation and that clearly is slowing down the operation on the ports. I asked of the ports in committee of the council the other day what was the processing of containers compared to this time last year, because notwithstanding the extra pressure of demand, you would have expected that they'd be doing the same as they were doing last year. They're not.

"They are processing fewer containers, and they put that largely down to the fact that they are partway between a manual system and an automated system.

"What I've told them is whatever their explanations, I want to see the situation improved as quickly as possible, and within their capability to do it.

"I'm not holding them responsible for international factors. I'm not holding them responsible for the fact that we've had a huge drop in the air freight capacity for goods being imported, but they need to be responsible for the things that they do have control over."

When asked if he still has confidence in the leadership at Ports of Auckland, Goff said he is waiting and seeing. He said that question would be best answered when the new automation process is running efficiently and reliably.

"I'm happy to be proved wrong about any doubts I have about the automation process by them demonstrating that it delivers what they've promised."

Goff said he would also like to see the port do right by Auckland ratepayers and return the former dividend payments to the council-owned organisation.  

He is expecting the automation process to be working fully in the first half of 2021.

Ports of Auckland has had systemic failures in terms of monitoring and enforcing safety rules, Goff said.

"Those accidents and the most recent fatality was another factor that slowed the port down.

"I've said in no uncertain terms that has got to change. I've set up an independent inquiry into health and safety on the port. That will be paid by the port but done independently of them.

"I've just appointed to the board of the Ports of Auckland a woman called Hazel Armstrong, she's probably the foremost lawyer dealing with health and safety issues in the country. And she'll be casting a steely eye on everything that the port is doing."

The Port Companies Act limits the amount of power Auckland Council can wield over the operation, but Goff said he is doing everything he can to improve the port's performance.

"The decision about the employment of the chief executive is wholly within the hands of the board of the Ports of Auckland. I've contributed to two new ports board directors in the last month and I expect both of them to have an impact in terms of how the port is operating."