May 29, 2023

Desley the deputy steps into the breach

Desley the deputy steps into the breach

The country’s seen a bit of Desley Simpson over the past fortnight, stepping up to communicate with the public over Auckland’s historic floods. But who is this savvy political operator?

In east Auckland, if you want something done, you just message Desley on local Facebook groups.

If you have an example of Auckland Council acts of madness to report? Maybe the council watering systems activating at the Madill’s Farm football fields during the epic January rainstorms?

Or a public safety issue like Pohutukawa branches on Tamaki Drive hanging too low for passing trucks at Kohimarama, forcing them into oncoming traffic?

Or a grizzle about one Auckland Transport inconvenience or another? 

Desley is your woman.

She’s also your ward councillor, one of 20 on the Auckland Council, and, this term she is also the Deputy Mayor to Wayne Brown, widening her zone of responsibility and bringing her communication and people skills to a wider audience.

On the local Facebook group chats, Desley springs into action. “Right, onto it” she says to one. “Raising this now with council” she zaps back to another. “Can you help on this?” she reaches out to a local board member.

And she’s back, within very short timeframes with answers: the watering system was on during the bleak wet days because parks staff had spread fertiliser to save the playing fields and that needed to be soaked into the turf; the tree branches would be reported, and the footpath on the causeway between Ōrakei and Parnell was being removed and replaced for essential safety reasons.

She’s nothing if not a good communicator, someone who sees looming public or political issues, however minor, and gets onto them.

Which brings us to January-February 2023 and her wider domain and recent national profile.

On the evening of January 27, when Mayor Brown was unwilling or incapable to step up and front an anxious Auckland public as the heavens opened and homes and lives were seriously upended, Simpson was one of the councillors most prominent in listening and talking to the people on social media and elsewhere.

It was Simpson, remember, who told media almost half an hour before Brown and the city emergency team made it public, that he had finally signed a declaration of a state of emergency.

It was Simpson who for the first few days, as Brown and his team recalibrated their view of the mayor’s ‘public’ functions, spoke on TV and radio with clear emergency information and reassurance that everything possible would be done to help those most in need.

She is no usurper, having been deputed by Brown to perform these tasks, and she backed him publicly even to the point of mis-speaking on a breakfast TV show in saying the mayor “is part of the problem. … and the solution”. Interestingly, that obvious mistake was walked back in a statement issued by Brown’s office reassuring people the deputy mayor’s intention was that Brown was part of the solution and those words had been subsequently used out of context. The statement included a quote from Simpson.

When someone rightly complained on social media about Auckland Transport parking officers ticketing vehicles in the flood zones of Brown’s Bay, Desley was onto it, raising it direct with AT and in a short time the council-controlled organisation had rescinded all 200-plus tickets. 

Many other councillors have communicated carefully and often in the emergency, the Maungakiekie representative Josephine Bartley, North Shore’s Richard Hills and Waitakere’s Shane Henderson standing out on social media in particular. Most councillors have been heavily involved in community efforts to help.

But Simpson has almost had to act as Mayor-by-Default.

In the council’s last term, then-Mayor Phil Goff appointed Simpson as the chair of the influential finance committee and the second-term councillor led the council through an emergency budgeting process in 2020 – after the Covid pandemic crippled revenues – that patched an almost $450m hole. 

Simpson is a C&R councillor, her husband is former National Party president Peter Goodfellow and ex-husband is National’s Coromandel MP Scott Simpson. Yet Goff was confident reaching across any party politics on the council to have her drive that vital committee.

During the 2022 mayoral contest, the defeated candidate of the left, Efeso Collins, frequently spoke of his special connection to Desley Simpson, recounting how he moved seats around the council table to learn from her and to exchange ideas from his vastly different ward community in South Auckland.

Wayne Brown also recognised Simpson’s standing and profile during the campaign and it became clear that she would be a leading contender to replace departing Deputy Mayor Bill Cashmore, whatever the result: “A Simpson deputy mayoralty would seem probable if she wants it, whomever becomes mayor,” we reported in September. “And Simpson is a networker and influencer within groups so would be a vital player in marshalling support and perhaps stopping less palatable proposals before they might head for defeat.”

Even before she was elected to the council, in 2016, people out east requested at a public meeting in Meadowbank that Goff, Victoria Crone and each of the other leading candidates back her for the deputy mayoralty after that election. Simpson had been chair of the Ōrākei Local Board of the council for two terms from the formation of the Super City in 2010, and before that had chaired the Hobson Community Board for the old Auckland City Council in the days of John Banks’ mayoralty.

In a 2016 campaign story, I labelled her ‘the Queen of the East’ given the almost reverential praise and acknowledgements she garnered from candidates from Phil Goff down when they campaigned in her territory.

Simpson’s great uncle Sir Henry Brett was, no surprises, Mayor of Auckland in 1878, and her grandfather chaired the Auckland Harbour Board in the 1940s. 

Chairing things is in the blood.

Before politics, Simpson ran the Yamaha Music Foundation, and for years co-ordinated a mass Auckland primary schools choral event at the Town Hall with uncommon poise, giving the lie to that old entertainment maxim of never working with children or animals.

On her personal website, Simpson isn’t shy of highlighting her political success: “In the 2022 elections Desley received the highest personal vote in Auckland (and in New Zealand).” (Wayne Brown would beg to differ, with his region-wide 180,000 or so votes that he now considers inoculates him from naysayers over the floods.)

Brown was not the candidate favoured by C&R, the National Party-aligned and centre-right ticket that Simpson now de-facto leads in the city. Its imprimatur was with Viv Beck, whose campaign crashed and burned due to internal disputes over debts. If Simpson ever wants to step up as the official mayoral nominee, you’d imagine C&R would embrace her faster than Brown did after January 27.

When the council turned this week to what it labelled the Big Auckland Clean-Up, a phase of recovery after the emergency measures to deal with the flood, it was Simpson who was put in charge of ‘championing’ the programme to the city. Brown will ‘champion’ the longer-term Big Auckland Fix-Up.

Her supporters are pleased she has a broader political role now than the concerns of her home constituency out east.

Alastair Bell, chair of the Ōrākei Community Association and a former National Party board member, says Simpson is extremely hard-working and gets things done. Whenever she is listed to attend the organisation’s meetings the turnout is much larger than normal. “That’s telling. She’s an effective councillor with a track record of success and is widely admired.”

“She’s a very important and enthusiastic ambassador for Auckland which is more important than at any time I can recall.”

Aside from her one slip-up, labelling Brown “part of the problem”, Simpson’s media appearances on Morning Report and other national shows have drawn the attention of those who recognise what astute public communication and empathy look like.

Her own Facebook page is a lesson in crisp, relatable messages on the flood aftermath, east Auckland road closures and repair work, detours and timings. It goes without saying she’s already raising the concerns for that next cyclone due early next week.

One follower asked this week about the fate of the Meadowbank railway station. Simpson’s response: “Not sure I’m kind-of living one day at a time at the moment. It’s open tomorrow and I’ll let you know any more.”

The deputy mayor was flat out yesterday, and to a text query from Newsroom on how she’s dealing with the broader flood responsibilities, she responded: “Keeping my head above water. (All puns intended).”

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