I have a lot of affection for Wellington. I spent most of my working life there. Two of my children were born there. Many of my oldest and closest friends live there still.
It’s a place full of pleasant memories for me. I enjoyed my first non-European meal at the Shanghai restaurant in Manners St. I had my first under-age beer in the infamous Bistro Bar at the Royal Oak Hotel. I met the woman who became my wife in The Beachcomber at Oriental Bay. I knew most of Wellington’s pubs and I played in bands in its bars, cabarets and dance halls. In later years I spent many pleasurable hours exploring the city’s nooks and crannies on my mountain bike or on foot with our dog.
The climate was lousy but it was a city full of character and charm. It was true that you couldn’t beat Wellington on a good day. But when I go to Wellington these days, as I often do, it’s hard to avoid a feeling of despondency at what’s happening to the place.
Wellington feels dead in the water. Public buildings that formed a crucial part of the city’s identity are out of bounds and likely to remain so indefinitely. Engineers and city bureaucrats who are either incompetent or paralysingly risk-averse (or both) appear to be doing their best to suck the life out of a once-vibrant town that rejoiced in the slogan Absolutely Positively Wellington.
The city is run by a fractious council dominated by leftist ideologues, presided over by a well-meaning but ineffectual mayor whose only claim to the job was his dogged longevity (he’s been on the council since 1992). The forward momentum created in the 1980s and 90s under a succession of energetic, visionary mayors – Fran Wilde, Mark Blumsky, Kerry Prendergast – is a distant memory. Under Celia Wade-Brown, Justin Lester and now the colourless Andy Foster, it has been supplanted by a sense of civic sclerosis.
The city’s stasis is exemplified by the dismal stalemate over the development of Shelly Bay, potentially a jewel in Wellington’s crown but mired in endless disagreement and acrimony. And let’s not forget the optimistically named Let’s Get Wellington Moving, which has come to sound like a cruel, ironic joke.
Wellington even looks tired and unkempt. The grungy look that was once confined to Cuba St, long celebrated for its Bohemian charm, has spread in all directions. But rather than being shabby chic, which might be tolerable, it’s just plain shabby. It’s a hotch-potch, gimcrack city that sends out conflicting signals: endlessly disrupted by unsightly street works and construction projects, yet not making any discernible progress.
But hey, don’t worry that the city’s water and sewage infrastructure is buggered, or that a bloated and inept regional council did its best to sabotage the once nationally admired public transport system, or that drunken brawls are turning the increasingly squalid Courtenay Place entertainment precinct into a no-go zone, or that the central library is operating out of a tent on a weed-infested vacant construction site (okay, that’s a slight exaggeration), or that private-sector employers are having trouble attracting workers to what was previously dubbed the world’s coolest capital, or that the bells in the carillon in the National War Memorial can’t be rung for fear that the supposedly strengthened tower will collapse, or that the city council is floundering financially, or that shops are empty and the city’s acclaimed hospitality sector is struggling to survive.
No, we can all relax, because Wellington’s woke councillors are on the case. Two of them, Jill Day and Tamatha Paul, have boldly tackled the city’s problems head-on by recommending that iwi representatives be given seats on council committees – paid representatives, that is, with full voting rights. Day says they would bring “knowledge and insight” on how the council should tackle issues such as (you guessed it) climate change. They wouldn’t be elected by popular vote, of course, and they wouldn’t be accountable to the people who pay them, but that’s okay because democratic principles are presumably a legacy of colonialism and a tool of white privilege.
I despair for Wellington. It deserves better than this.