Politics

Local elections: Now for the hard stuff

Four of New Zealand's six largest cities changed mayors on Saturday, three through incumbents being ousted at the local polls. The new crew now need to be the change they promised.

Phil Goff and Lianne Dalziel bucked the trend for mayoral change but insurgents in Hamilton, Tauranga and Wellington and a Green candidate winning the vacant mayoralty in Dunedin brought a new face to local government in our main centres.

The Wellington upset, in which long-time councillor Andy Foster defeated first-term mayor Justin Lester by 503 votes was the showstopper, but the combination in Hamilton of the replacement of mayor Andrew King by Paula Southgate, whom he had defeated narrowly in 2016, and removal of two controversial councillors showed Waikato voters wanted change.

In Tauranga, richlister Tenby Powell, a member of the Auckland establishment and former army colonel, toppled first-term mayor Greg Brownless. Powell, a part-owner of the Hirepool equipment company, had campaigned on his ability to bring new partnerships to help the city's development, and his connections to central government.

And Dunedin's mayoral chains, hung up by incumbent Dave Cull, have been grasped by Green councillor Aaron Hawkins, aged 35. Hawkins might be a new name to many outside Otago, but he’s part of the wallpaper in the southern city. The Green Party representative first stood for mayor and the council, unsuccessfully, in 2010, before being elected to the council in 2013. This year, Hawkins was prominent in the fight against a fossil-mining proposal for Foulden Maar

In Christchurch, questions had been asked of Mayor Lianne Dalziel in recent weeks to discover what she knew about claims of inappropriate behaviour by councillor Deon Swiggs. Swiggs lost his seat, while Dalziel romped home by more than 16,000 votes.

As always in local politics, name recognition is crucial. Dalziel was a fixture as an MP for the Labour Party in Christchurch since 1990 before her first tilt at the mayoralty in 2013. This year’s main challenger, businessman Darryll Park, wouldn’t have shown up on most people’s radar before he announced his challenge. (The Press reported Park was disappointed to lose “after believing all the indicators were that the city was ready for change”). 

Phil Goff's retention of his office in Auckland ended up being emphatic, winning 176,599 votes, more than double the high-profile challenger John Tamihere's 79,551. Craig Lord was third with 29,032 votes, almost as many as Chloe Swarbrick in third in 2016. The election was most notable for its dire 34.76 percent turnout - down 4 points from 2016 and the lowest of the four polls since the Super City was formed.

While Goff accounted for Tamihere, whose showing was far worse than his supporters had expected, he now must work with a council of 20 which is nominally divided between strong support for him and opposition.

Goff lost his finance committee chairman and loyalist Ross Clow to a fellow-Labour Party candidate in the past, Tracy Mulholland, who changed sides to the Communities and Residents (C&R) ticket on the eve of nominations. But an arch-critic, veteran councillor Mike Lee, was defeated by Goff fan Pippa Coom in another split on the left-side of city politics. Mulholland and Coom will be joined by two other new councillors, Angela Dalton in Manurewa-Papakura and Shane Henderson in Waitakere, both replacing retiring councillors and most likely to add one voice to either side of the council divide.

Goff said the result showed "The idea cars can do everything and we do not need a world-class public transport system, I think was totally dismissed in this election”. 

He pledged progress on building infrastructure, improving the environment and better accountability of Council Controlled Organisations, including Auckland Transport, which was a lightning rod for criticism from Tamihere, the third placed candidate Craig Lord and ratepayers at several public debates.

Goff must balance the demands from public and active (walking, scooters, bikes) transport advocates for Auckland Transport to go faster with improvements for their modes, with a resentment many councillors will have picked up from voters in wards across the city that such changes have been poorly planned and executed, exacerbating delays for the main mode of transport, cars.

One other prominent public campaign, by a group wanting to preserve Mt Albert's Chamberlain Park golf course from local board plans to reduce it to 9 holes and use the space for other sports and outdoor pursuits, seemed to succeed. The City Vision local board's former chairman Peter Haynes was ousted and that ticket and C&R appeared to have won four members each. 

Of those who held onto their mayoral robes around the country: Queenstown Mayor Jim Boult, who won a second term, had to battle a well-organised campaign by opponents of airport expansion in the resort and in Wanaka. His main rival, hotel owner Nik Kiddle, joined the mayoral race after gaining prominence by campaigning against a visitor levy.

Beaten South Island mayoral candidates might be asking themselves what they need to do to unseat the incumbent.

A case in point is Westland, on the West Coast. Sitting mayor Bruce Smith had four challengers and was re-elected despite several scandals. An Auditor-General report, released in March, criticised the council, and Smith, for building a new stopbank, drawing the attention of Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta.

There was also the high-profile contract awarded for a $7 million water treatment plant upgrade to a company headed by an Auckland cake-decorator. Vivek Goel, the council manager who oversaw the tender, quit, and the Serious Fraud Office’s website confirms Goel is still being investigated.

During the last term of office, Invercargill’s Mayor Tim Shadbolt endured a defamation case (which he won), and some councillors suggested he retire because he sometimes appeared confused and struggles to follow what’s happening.

A pre-election appearance on TV3 news-comedy show 7 Days didn’t seem to do the 72-year-old any favours. But Shadbolt was so confident he went on holiday a week before election day.

Saturday’s results suggest he’s an unstoppable force, being re-elected for a ninth term. Shadbolt’s closest rival, Darren Ludlow, a former deputy mayor, told the Southland Times: “You're up against an icon and people recognise the brand.”

Southland’s Gary Tong, who stood against two others, shrugged off a friendship with controversial Chinese businessman Zhang Yikun to get re-elected. 

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