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Damian Light’s new political detour

Damian Light caused a stir of excitement when he took over from Peter Dunne as leader of the now defunct United Future. His path to public office looks set to continue in spite of that short lived foray into central government politics - but he's taking a detour.

Damian Light says he got behind United Future because he believed in what it was trying to do, but it was never his intention to become a politician. He found himself leading the party and making a splash on TV during the election, where his looks were compared to movie star Ryan Gosling. He can't see it himself and feels it was all a bit odd and distracting. ("It was publicity I guess.") He is dark blonde, 34 and has very blue eyes. Residents of Howick can judge for themselves now that his picture is on billboards dotted around the seat that became vacant after councillor Dick Quax's death. 

"It's a different focus but the same kind of thing," he says of the step sideways to local politics. 

"I've always been driven to help ... it's about trying to make a difference. If you think you can do a better job, or you think you can contribute, you should either put your hand up and do something about it, or find someone who does or will, and get behind them. 

"I would regret it if I didn't do it. I'm not very much a letters to the editor kind of person, I'm more, how do I fix that? I'm still interested in national politics but local politics is more day to day .. it's more real. It's roads, it's parks and beaches, it's rubbish." 

His door knocking has uncovered an astounding lack of knowledge about what the Auckland Council does or can do, and a shocking number of people who have never voted in a local body election. "A lot of people are happy to talk to you about what they think about Donald Trump, but they won't vote in the local election. Well, one's going to have a bigger impact on your life than the other. It's completely backwards."

A lot of the conversations aren't about convincing people to vote for him - they're about convincing people to vote, and explaining what the council does. 

Light doesn't think the council promotes itself adequately or boasts enough about the good things it's doing. "Part of it, I think, is that councillors feel guilty - 'We've just spent a lot of your money doing things' - so they find it difficult to talk about the things they've done. They're concerned about that voice in the crowd that yells, 'That's my money!'"

Some of the public apathy however may come down to voter fatigue - because with this vacancy, and the council and general elections, this is the third election in as many years. There is another council election next year, and Light says if he doesn't win this time around he will have a second shot in 2019. 

He puts the key issues right now as transport, getting a fair share of resource for the area, and holding the council to account. 

"I think people are frustrated with lack of action from the council. Transport is a big problem here .. there are issues with flooding .. illegal dumping in parks and streams since the changes to inorganic collections." There's also a wall, he says, when it comes to communicating with the council about anything - it's so big it's impossible to know how to get hold of someone who can help. "The council is quite a difficult machine to access." 

East Auckland is not an attention-seeking part of the super city. While the other points of the compass have their own identities from legacy authorities, Howick, Pakuranga, Botany and Flat Bush were squashed into Manukau City - but had quite a different flavour to the rest of south Auckland. It has the same population as Dunedin. There are no trains or rapid transport infrastructure, although there are plans to build an eastern busway as part of the Auckland Transport Alignment Project. Light wants it to happen more quickly. 

He describes his political stance as centrist - socially liberal but fiscally right; an issue-by-issue man. He knows sitting councillor Richard Hills because they ran against each other in the 2014 general election in the Northcote seat. ("Different views but mutual respect.") Light was raised on the North Shore but moved to the east, where his partner is from. 

Light says Auckland Mayor Phil Goff has upset some of the councillors but the breakdown is on both sides. "Working collaboratively is important and you need to bring people along with you." Pragmatism was the key takeaway from his time with United Future. "You need to work with whoever else is there to achieve your outcome. It might not be the person you want to work with, but at the end of the day you have to work with them. There's no point in standing off to the side railing against it because you are adding no value at all. There's no problem you can't solve by getting together around a table - rather than sniping at each other through the media." Light doesn't see that as flip-flopping, but says part of politics is getting people to change their minds about issues. 

He's been involved in some "robust" debates but laughs at the thought that would put him off politics - he's the second of six children and has four brothers, and grew up where his father would argue around the dinner table that blue was red. A "retired Catholic", he actually intended to enter the seminary on leaving Rosmini College but Bishop Pat Dunn encouraged him to see something of the world first. "Wise words." Once he did, he started challenging some of the Church's more traditional structures, including its mixed views of homosexuality. He is gay but says it's not even a thing any more - he's met the odd person for whom it's an issue, but others see him as a positive role model. That's humbling for him - "I haven't done anything. I am who I am. If it helps them that's positive I guess." 

Light is one of six candidates contesting the seat. Postal voting forms will be sent out from August 22 and the results declared on September 13.

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