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Meet Phil Goff’s sweetheart supporter and biggest critic

Why Phil Goff is ready to be Auckland's mayor.

The year was 1971 – Joe Frazier defeated Muhammad Ali in the “Fight of the Century”, Keith Holyoake was Prime Minister, the average weekly wage was around $95, and milk was still delivered in glass bottles.

It was also the year that a 15-year-old Mary Moriarty, fresh out of high school, attended a friend of a friend’s house party – and was instantly drawn to a mysterious man with a deep voice and long, wild-child hair – a young Phil Goff.

“I remember it so well,” smiles Mary (60). “I thought, ‘I could listen to that voice for a while. I didn’t think I’d be listening to it for 45 years!”

“There were three blonde women who all looked the same,” Phil recalls, laughing. “They were all delightful. But I picked the right one. I used the classic line, ‘Do you want to come for a ride on my motorbike?’ And it seems to have worked! We’ve been together ever since.”

Things have changed a little since. The hair’s a lot shorter, he concedes, running his hand over his head, and Phil and Mary have had three children, with their first grandchild expected in November.

Mary’s not as keen to jump on the back of Phil’s Triumph these days, “although I wouldn’t have the hair whipping in my face now,” she remarks wryly. And there’s also been Phil’s 35-year political career, during which he has held many ministerial positions, as well as being leader of the Labour Party. He has also been MP for Mt Roskill for so long, he’s now an institution in the Auckland suburb.

You would think, at 63 years old, with a grandchild due to arrive, Phil might want to call time on the gruelling and often unforgiving world of politics. You’d be wrong. Instead, he’s decided to put his hand up for the Auckland mayoralty – and the latest polls have him commanding a sizable lead.

Welcoming the Weekly into their rural South Auckland home, where Mary’s spent the morning delivering lambs and Phil’s been chopping firewood, the political stalwart says while this is his sanctuary, he still feels there’s more to be done in the world of politics, and he’s more than up for a new challenge.

“I’m not the sort of person that can go home and sit down,” he remarks, with Mary adding, “I can attest to that!” Phil continues, “I was ready to move on from central Government. It can be 80 per cent frustrating, but that 20 per cent when you feel you’ve made a difference, that’s enormously satisfying and far better than picking up a pay check at the end of the week. I was voted out of my seat once in 1990 and for the three years I wasn’t in politics, I was yelling at the radio. No, I’m not made to be a spectator – I’m made to be a gladiator.”

A young Mary and Phil met at a party in 1971.

Throughout his turbulent political career, however, Mary, a secretary at Hunua School, has been his constant – his biggest supporter and his harshest critic. And she’s not fazed that if Phil is successful in his quest to become mayor of New Zealand’s biggest city, he’ll probably be away from home even more than he is now.

“I never, for one second, thought I’d be getting my husband back,” she says. “If it hadn’t been this, it would have been something else. I know what he’s like, he thrives on a challenge. He gets bored far too easily and he cannot bear to waste time.”

“Even on the farm,” Phil adds, “I’ll have to get out there and do something – wood chopping, using the chainsaw, fencing.”

“He was picking up branches from the side of the road the other day and making sure it was all tidy,” Mary says, shaking her head.

“Civic responsibility,” replies Phil with a chuckle. “It’s all preparation for the mayoralty!”

That’s not to say the couple don’t indulge in a few vices. They love relaxing with a bottle of wine, pinot noir usually, and they have a small bach in Orere Point, just half-an-hour from their house.

“It’s just fantastic out there,” Phil says. “It’s a standard little Kiwi bach, nothing fancy. The beach is our escape, it’s great to wander down, do a spot of fishing, even watching DVDs there. I’ve seen the entire Harry Potter series a few times.”

And while he often has multiple engagements to attend on weekends – he reckons a cruisy one is six appointments – sports-mad Phil does try and block out the times when the All Blacks, Auckland Blues and the Vodafone Warriors are playing.

“My promise, if I were elected mayor, would be to make sure the Blues and the Warriors were the champions,“ he jokes.

A true-blue Aucklander, Phil was born and raised in its working-class suburbs. His father Bruce wanted his son to go straight from school to a trade, but Phil had his heart set on going to university. Leaving home at 16, Phil went to the University of Auckland, where he graduated with a masters in political studies.

“He was the first student I had ever met,” tells Mary. “I grew up in Mangere, we went straight to work after school. I remember my mum was like, ‘What are you going out with?!’”

He also laments the Warriors’ current form and complains about traffic – just like any other Aucklander. Though, he may just be in a position soon where he can do something about it.

“Well, me and $17 billion!” he says. “My youngest son rings me up occasionally and says, ‘Dad, I’ve been stuck in traffic for an hour-and-a-half, what are you going to do?’ But I do love Auckland. I lived in Wellington for a few years, and it’s lovely, but Auckland is the place I love.”

Indeed, it’s his love and determination for the City of Sails that is driving him harder than ever and Mary is right there with him. She just prefers to take more of a back-seat role when out in public.

“It would be wrong to say she’s not political. She follows things very closely and she’s my worst critic – no holds barred, no sympathy, no respect! And she has a very good gut instinct. Her reactions to issues and people generally turn out to be right. Beware if Mary doesn’t like you!”

However, it’s true to say the pair are polar opposites, or as Mary describes it, yin and yang. While Phil is extroverted and always on the go, Mary prefers to listen rather than speak. She does, however, have a wicked sense of humour, which is capable of bringing her husband back down to earth, should the need arise.

“He’s just lucky I’m so laid-back!” she says as she throws a cheeky look to Phil, who’s laughing. “True, two politicians in one household would have been too much,” he says. “Well, in our household, anyway,” replies Mary.

Helen Clark and Phil (far right) with other Labour supporters in the ‘70s.

There have been ups and downs during their 37 years of marriage, they both admit, with Phil leaning heavily on Mary during those times of political difficulty, most notably when he was voted out of his Mt Roskill electorate in 1990, and during his time as Leader of the Opposition, taking the helm of the Labour Party right after Helen Clark’s government was defeated by John Key’s National Party in 2006.

“Being the Leader of the Opposition is the toughest job in politics,” he says. “I relied a lot on Mary then. It’s nice when you’re winning, but when you’re not, it’s your family that keeps you going. But I guess I’m an optimist in life, that’s why I’m in politics, I suppose.”

If Phil does become mayor, succeeding incumbent Len Brown, the role will be very much a team effort, though Mary is reluctant to take on the title of mayoress.

“I’ll support him… but you won’t find me out and about on the social scene!” she tells.

However, Phil does plan to be a less controversial figurehead than Len, who admitted to having an affair only days into his second term in office.

His love of motorbikes began early.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure I won’t get into the same trouble Len did,” Phil says. “Secretly, I’m really frightened of Mary. I’ve seen her docking and castrating the lambs!”

“He knows that I know how to use the elastrator,” Mary adds, laughing.

“But no, in all seriousness, she’ll keep me grounded,” adds Phil. “She makes me able to do what I want to do. Lady Mayoress, the high point on the social scene? No. But giving me support when I really need it – that’s what will make the difference. I’m a very lucky man.”

Words: Kelly Bertrand

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