Friday, September 20, 2019

The buzz and bitchiness of local government politics

(First published in The Manawatu Standard and on, September 18).

I switched on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report one day last week to hear a babble of raised voices all trying to talk across each other. It was the sort of cacophony you might hear when a rat appears in a chookhouse.

I realised instantly that it must have something to do with the local government elections. Sure enough, it turned out to be a debate – a euphemistic term in this instance – between the three main rivals for the mayoralty of Christchurch.

It’s always a febrile time, this period leading up to council elections. There’s a peculiarly bitchy quality to local government: a propensity for petty squabbles and personality clashes that can make national politics look almost mature and sophisticated by comparison. It may be a far smaller stage, but there’s certainly no shortage of ego or ambition.  

What motivates people to stand for office? The answer, you’d like to think, is a desire to enhance community wellbeing and contribute to sound local governance, and no doubt that’s true for many candidates. They’re certainly not in it for glamour, money or prestige.

But with some local politicians, it’s hard to escape the feeling that they become addicted to the buzz of power. There’s a hint of that in Auckland’s mayoral election, where two former Labour cabinet ministers, Phil Goff and John Tamihere, are slugging it out in an ill-tempered contest tinged with personal venom.

Admittedly things could have been worse. Former mayor John Banks, another ex-cabinet minister, threatened to have another run but mercifully changed his mind. There are too many political retreads in local government already.

Should we care what happens in Auckland? Too right we should. For better or for worse, it’s the economic engine room of the whole country, with a GDP that exceeds those of Wellington, Canterbury and Waikato combined. How well it’s managed ultimately affects all of us.

Auckland isn’t the only arena where things have turned heated. In Wellington, filmmaker Sir Peter Jackson has waded into a fractious dispute over a murky development deal involving former Defence Force land and local iwi interests.

Jackson, who seems motivated by a sincere commitment to Wellington, is backing a mayoral challenge by veteran city councillor Andy Foster. It will be interesting to see which side has the greater pull – the earnest but colourless Foster, backed by Jackson’s money, or sitting mayor Justin Lester with the formidable support of the local Labour Party machine.

Meanwhile, in Invercargill, Sir Tim Shadbolt – famous for once saying “I don’t care where as long as I’m mayor” – is chasing his eighth term, and I assume he’ll romp back in. Southlanders love him because he’s given their province something it never used to have: a profile.

Shadbolt cultivates a buffoonish image, but there’s a calculating politician behind the goofy grin. He knows he can get away with self-aggrandising behaviour - such as spending ratepayers’ money on “I met the mayor” wristbands - because he’s trained the voters of Invercargill to expect that sort of stunt from him.

Christchurch illustrates another quirk of local government. Contenders who must realise they don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell nonetheless keep putting themselves forward. Their optimism, or perhaps it’s idealistic zeal, is inextinguishable.

John Minto, one of the Christchurch hopefuls, is a case in point. New Zealand voters have an admirable history of rejecting extremists from both the Left and Right of politics, but Minto - a tireless campaigner for radical causes - is undeterred.  Like Mr Wobbly Man in the Noddy stories, he keeps getting knocked down but bounces back up again.

In Christchurch three years ago he won 13,117 votes, or 14 per cent of the total – not an embarrassing result, and certainly a lot better than the 3 per cent he managed when he contested the Auckland mayoralty in 2013. The Left is good at organising, and my guess is that Minto benefited from the highly motivated activist vote. But he was still more than 62,000 shy of Lianne Dalziell’s winning total.

Speaking of Christchurch, mayoral candidate Michael “Tubby” Hansen deserves a special mention. He has contested every election since 1971 and had his best-ever result in 2013, when he attracted 1.57 per cent of the vote.

What makes him stand time after time? That’s a question only he can answer. If Minto represents one type of local government candidate – the committed activist – then Hansen is another: the quixotic oddball. Every city seems to have one.

The depressing thing is that when all the election drama has subsided and the votes have been counted, what difference will it make? In most councils, real power is exercised by bureaucrats over whom elected councillors wield very limited influence and who sometimes treat their nominal bosses with contempt.

This is especially true in Auckland, where so-called council-controlled organisations have turned out to be anything but. The phrase "grassroots democracy" has a nice ring to it, but it has never sounded more hollow.

No comments: