How the leading campaigns won and lost the Auckland mayoralty

7:26 am on 9 October 2022

By Todd Niall, senior Auckland affairs reporter of Stuff

Auckland Mayor-elect Wayne Brown with his wife Toni at their campaign event in Ponsonby today.

Auckland Mayor-elect Wayne Brown with his wife Toni at their campaign event in Ponsonby yesterday. Photo: RNZ / Lucy Xia

Analysis - In the end it was a trouncing. Aucklanders had a clear choice between two distinctly different mayoral candidates in Wayne Brown and Efeso Collins, and resoundingly went Brown's way.

While voter turnout was again low, Brown's 144,619 votes easily eclipsed Collins, who tallied 89,811 in the provisional count. So much for a tight race.

If you had attended Wayne Brown's Auckland mayoral campaign launch at the end of March, you would never have picked him to be the runaway winner just over six months later.

Brown couldn't work the PowerPoint remote, his team was squabbling over whether copies of his speech should have been printed, and when Stuff tried to find the campaign contact, no one would own up.

The former Far North District mayor, property developer and professional director had played down talk of an impending launch, telling Stuff just days before his public bid that he hadn't yet decided.

The launch showed that to be clearly untrue. While the Brown-technology interface was wobbly, it was clear that serious money had been spent on the digital presentation, website, and campaign design.

Shortly before 2pm on Saturday Brown won a resounding victory, taking perhaps 40 percent of the mayoral votes, almost as big as the margins enjoyed by his left-leaning predecessors across four elections.

"This is a mandate for Auckland to decide what it needs," he told onlookers, thumping the podium.

"Wellington's job is to listen to what Auckland wants, and to fund it, not to impose ideological schemes like billions of dollars on light rail, Three Waters, and unwanted housing intensification," he said.

Brown is likely to enjoy backing from a council, which pending the outcome of some close provisional results, appears to have swung away from the majority backing its past progressive path.

It remains unclear how he will pursue some headline campaign policies, like extracting a $400 million dividend from the council-owned port company.

Brown will need to be a quick learner - he didn't even know there was a mayoral car, which he won't be using.

His road to the most-elected role in New Zealand politics - 1.1 million Aucklanders can vote - had its origins in talks he gave in late 2021-2022, which his camp said prompted people to encourage him to think bigger.

Political strategist Matthew Hooton was an early advisor, research was commissioned, and at the March launch was Tim Hurdle, campaign director for National at the 2020 election.

A self-styled "fixer", Brown became the last of the major contenders to enter the race, with a simple message that Auckland was broken and needed his skills as a civil engineer and experienced board chair to fix it.

Some of his launch speech claims were plain wrong, such as light rail being an idea cooked up in Wellington and foisted on Auckland, but he stuck to it, repeating it in his victory speech.

Like other erroneous claims, most people who heard them were hearing what they wanted to believe, and Brown's sticking to the original script was part of what made his disciplined, targeted campaign a winner.

"Wayne Brown was touching all the right touchpoints - it's nothing more complicated than that," said Mike Hutcheson, a respected advertising veteran, who helped steer four winning mayoral campaigns for Brown's two predecessors, Len Brown and Phil Goff.

Hutcheson acknowledged Brown fronted a "simple winning recipe" for a political campaign - what he called the three Ms; mission, money and machine.

The ad man quoted 1960s US political scientist Dr Philip Converse​ who believed fewer than 10 percent of voters had real knowledge of the issues. Brown didn't need to be correct, just on target.

Brown was open about his campaign targeting property owners and those aged over 50, because as all the research shows, they are the most likely to vote.

Expense declarations in December will reveal whether he did spend the $500,000 of his own money, which he regularly talked about.

In Hutcheson's "Three M" test, fix-it was the mission, the money was obvious, and the machine was the paid advertising and a big appearance diary claiming more than 250 private and public appearances.

Brown's disciplined, repetitive message out-lasted two "centre-right" rivals, Leo Molloy who pulled the plug after a big early campaign that polls showed was fading, and Viv Beck whose campaign imploded through infighting over bills.

He seemed disinterested in questions about, and media reports on, controversy which surround some of his time as Far North mayor, and as chair of the Auckland District Health Board.

Fa'anana Efeso Collins

Efeso Collins' defeat in the Auckland mayoralty race was crushing (file picture). Photo: Supplied / Efeso Collins

Two days before election day, Brown's remaining main rival Efeso Collins and a dozen supporters were waving placards, outside Te Matariki Clendon Library in one of the poorest parts of Auckland.

The two-term Manukau ward councillor and one-term chair of the Ōtara local board put a lot of emphasis on trying to lift the turnout in his southern stronghold, which in Ōtara was 22.7 percent in 2019.

It was an important statement about the disconnect in poorer communities, but in terms of trying to swing what the last poll showed to be a 6 percent deficit behind Brown, it was a drop, if that, in the electoral bucket.

Collins' defeat was crushing. Len Brown and Phil Goff in four elections from 2010 had won a share of the mayoral vote approaching 50 percent, Collins may be half of that once the numbers are finalised.

The fate of the centre-left effort to continue its 12-year hold on the amalgamated Auckland mayoralty can be partly traced to how two-term mayor Phil Goff managed his decision to retire.

Mayor Phil Goff said Auckland was experiencing its worst drought on record.

Phil Goff announced he would retire as mayor in February (file picture). Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

Len Brown in 2010 had a year of campaigning to secure his victory, Goff in 2016 declared his hand with 11 months to go. He announced his retirement in February, leaving a left-leaning successor just seven months.

Goff said on two occasions that the seven months he made available for his successor to mount a winning campaign was plenty of time, but no one from past campaigns agreed.

The late announcement had allowed two potential successors to scope out campaigns, Collins and North Shore ward councillor Richard Hills, who eventually dropped the idea to focus on his new role as a father.

Collins had formed his own team, none of whom had worked on the winning Goff or Len Brown efforts, and there was little sign of early funding on a scale to match the paid advertising splash by Wayne Brown.

The left-endorsed candidate had fare-free public transport as his flagship policy, and it appeared to resonate. In an Auckland Ratepayers' Alliance poll, there was more support for the policy than for Collins himself.

Hutcheson, and other mayoral campaign veterans spoken to, said Collins did not manage to overcome the handicap of lower name recognition, outside his core constituency.

Commentators thought he had too many messages, and his early stance on rates - a formula based on "affordability" - was almost impossible for a layperson to grasp.

Collins opted to maintain a positive campaign, focussed on his policies and messages, and avoided tackling Brown in debates over contentious statements.

It was only in the last weeks that Collins contested Brown's claim that he might "de-fund" the council culture and economic agency Tātaki Auckland Unlimited.

Forcing it to be self-sufficient would potentially imperil major and popular institutions it runs such as Auckland Zoo, the Art Gallery and stadia. Collins, though, focussed on the impact on the screen sector.

In assessing campaigns, though, it is important to add the mood for change, which swept not only through the mayoralty, but the council, some local boards and even licensing trusts.

This story was originally published on Stuff.

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