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Post-truth politics comes to Auckland: A candidate campaign manager on why he lost

Auckland councillors Penny Webster (Rodney) and Calum Penrose (Manurewa-Papakura) both crashed to shock defeats on Saturday. Their campaign manager Hamish Coleman-Ross says it wasn’t his fault – that his opponents stooped to a place his candidates refused to venture.

Losing sucks. But when you do, I believe it pays not to disappear into the night, nor to sit and lick your wounds claiming that you were hard done by. The results are what they are and in an election you must respect the decision of the people. I do so without ill feeling or regret. That said, post analysis is important and so I’d like to share my thoughts about the shock results on campaigns for which I was responsible.

In June I severed my links with the media world to take on the role of campaign manager for three sitting councillors seeking re-election: Calum Penrose, Penny Webster and Sir John Walker. Sir John, who has Parkinson’s Disease, needed to show voters that despite his illness he was still fit for the job. I produced a “hearts and minds” video and radio campaign so people could see and hear the man and know he was still fighting fit for the role. He was successfully re-elected on Saturday.

The other two were a little different, mainly because when it came to being councillors they were exceptionally good at their jobs. The strategy was simple: campaign on the results delivered. The list of achievements for these two was immense. Calum was responsible for taking 158 bylaws from all the amalgamated councils and simplifying them down to 20. The stand out was the “dangerous dogs” bylaw, supported by an amnesty wherein owners could have their dogs de-sexed, chipped, registered and even provided with a muzzle for a mere $25. The response was so successful that central government used it as a blueprint for its own nationwide “dangerous dog” law.

In July this year, the bylaws review programme Calum led was named supreme winner at the Institute of Public Administration New Zealand (IPANZ) awards. Other achievements included successfully advocating for laws to be changed so that police can now be present on trains and securing funding to have the Takanini interchange widened.

Penny also had big achievements on the transport front. She was able to secure the Matakana Link road to greatly assist the traffic flow around Warkworth and pushed for more money to seal roads – then delivered in the form of $10 million over three years, up from an original $1 million per year. She even found time to sort out badly designed roundabouts and get more funding for rural fire service, amongst many other issues big and small.

Calum Penrose and Penny Webster

Calum Penrose and Penny Webster

All of us on the Penrose/Webster team agreed that it was a matter of positively promoting their achievements as evidence that they were doing the job they were elected to do. We used all the platforms available to us – print, radio, digital – to promote their work, thinking that if they’d achieved that much then they would easily retain their positions.

We were very, very wrong.

Our opponents focused their campaign on rates rises and the location of the spending. For Greg Sayers in Rodney the catchcry was “bring your rates home”, alluding to the argument that rates were being siphoned off and spent on central city projects such as at the Central Rail Link. In Papakura/Manurewa Daniel Newman campaigned with an “oppose 9.9% rate increases” slogan.

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MANUREWA-PAPAKURA CANDIDATE DANIEL NEWMAN IN FRONT OF HIS CAMPAIGN SIGN

In both instances the evidence was without question in our favour. In Rodney under Penny Webster, all the rates raised had been spent in the area – and then even more again for water and transport projects. As for the 9.9% rate increase, it could be interpreted as true for Auckland as a whole, but not in the case of Manurewa/Papakura. And so we set about promoting the falsity of the allegations. We didn’t get nasty, we never made it personal; we just got on with telling the truth. But it wasn’t what people wanted to hear.

I knew that we were up against more than just our opponents at a public debate hosted at the Omaha Golf Club. As the event began I sensed an air of hostility that hadn’t been present at previous meetings – I was told later that many attendees had come from outside the community. The MC for the evening opened with a story about the uselessness of Council, setting the tone for an evening of Council bashing.

By default, Penny Webster ended up as the fall gal for the perceived failings of an entire organisation. When she tried to tell the truth about staff spending and the announcement of the Matakana link road people yelled back “Liar!” and “Lies! Lies!” at the top of their lungs. It struck me right then that nothing we said – or disproved – was going to have any currency. Creating a narrative about secret budgets, closed door deals and a deceptive Council was a much better story and people were more than willing to buy into it. Penny lost the debate and her opponent was awarded with a Trump-referencing hat that read “Make Rodney Great Again”.

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GREG SAYERS IN HIS WINNER’S HAT

The truth about Council spending, staff numbers and debt is actually quite positive. There’s a reason the organisation has an AA+ credit rating and you would think that would be enough to convince people, but it’s not. Most people’s understanding of Auckland Council comes from the Herald, which regularly paints a picture of an organisation that’s out of control and gone wild with overspending. It’s not a bad yarn, insomuch as there must be a hero to come slay this grisly beast. Save us all, Goff-man!

The lessons to be learned here are twofold. Firstly, Auckland Council do not communicate their achievements in an effective manner and their relationship with community media is poor to non-existent. Secondly, the strong anti-Council sentiment has been fuelled by the inability of leadership to rally the troops and get strong public buy-in on the city’s many projects. This may change with a new mayor who has campaigned on changing the culture of Council, but the election also illustrated bigger challenges that all politicians now face.

Worldwide, we’ve entered an era of “post-truth politics”, and it seems that local government is not immune. The campaigns of Penny Webster and Calum Penrose were neither lazy or underfunded but they told a story that people didn’t want to hear. We certainly countered the accusations that were levelled at us but then that’s exactly what anyone would have expected. Had there been more independent analysis of the candidates by the media, the lies, half-truths and misinformation would have been exposed. But that didn’t happen.

As we look to the general election next year it is crucial that independent analysis of policies and performance is separated from conspiracy and rhetoric. The power of post-truth politics has reared its head in this local election and as a result two of the city’s hardest working and most results-driven councillors are now on the sidelines. Should we have attacked our opponents more directly? Maybe we should have made wild promises and pledged to dangle the CEO from the top of the Auckland Council tower until he coughed up those secret budgets. But no, we stuck to the facts.

It might be naive to think that the truth will win out, but it’s something I deeply believe. In coming to terms with the result, all the candidates I represented say they wouldn’t have changed a thing about the way they campaigned. They depart council politics with their reputations fully intact.

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