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Straight outta Khandallah: to Malvina’s with the Wellington mayoral hopefuls

Under pressure over its Auckland fixation, the Spinoff tasked Wellington man of letters Danyl Mclauchlan with investigating the mayoral race in the capital. He headed immediately for the key battleground: the La Scala lounge at the Malvina Major Retirement Home.

It is the first of September, the first day of spring after an ominously warm, calm winter, and the mayoral candidates for Wellington’s local body elections are at the Malvina Major Retirement Village in Khandallah, sitting at the front of the La Scala lounge. The lounge is very large – there are at least 50 people in the audience – and very warm. It is still decorated for the Olympics with streamers of world flags strung between the electric chandeliers.

The Malvina Major Retirement village. Image: VillageGuide

The Malvina Major Retirement village. Image: VillageGuide

We are at the midpoint of the campaign with three weeks to go until the ballot papers get mailed out. The field is crowded: there are eight candidates standing for mayor, although only six are due to appear here today: Porirua Mayor Nick Leggett, Wellington’s Deputy Mayor Justin Lester, and Wellington Councilors Jo Coughlan, Nicola Young, Andy Foster and Helene Ritchie; and, harshly but realistically, only three of them are serious contenders to win. The event is due to start at 1pm, but Jo “GoJo” Coughlan is running late so things are delayed until she arrives. Her lateness will have unfortunate consequences as the afternoon unfolds.

You don’t have to win many votes to become Mayor of Wellington. Back in 2013 Len Brown won Auckland with over 164,000 votes; Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel received 72,600. Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown held her office with just over 27,000: still a healthy victory over her 2013 campaign rival, city councilor John “The Mystery” Morrison. Turnout was 41%, and candidates and campaign staff fear it will be lower this time. The ballots are postal, and since the last campaign almost a third of Wellington’s post boxes have been removed. A spokesperson at New Zealand Post wanted me to assure you all that “People aren’t going to have trouble posting their ballot papers in this year’s local elections. Many of the [remaining] boxes are located in shopping areas so people can post their mail at the same time as going to the supermarket, pharmacy, service station etc”. But one campaign staffer told me, grimly, “Voting is harder so fewer people will do it.”

The Grey Power organised Malvina Major meeting is a pivotal moment on the campaign trail. Younger voters are harder to reach, less likely to be enrolled, less likely to be informed, far less likely to vote and extremely unlikely to post their ballot if they do. They’re a marginal constituency. The warm high-turnout, high-engagement beige expanse of the La Scala lounge is the real battleground.

A woman sitting next to me is gossiping about the candidates with her friend. “Everyone knows Nick Leggett,” she stage-whispers, referring to the incumbent Mayor of Porirua, who is joking with a cluster of gray-haired admirers. “But he’s a gatecrasher.”

I strike up a conversation with her. Who will she vote for? “I don’t know,” she replies, “That’s why I’m here. To listen.”

“You’re an available voter,” I tell her.

“What did you call me?”

“Never mind. Is there a postal box near here?”

“We don’t need a post box. We just give all our letters to Malvina.” The residents of the home all refer to the institute as “Malvina”, which is cute but also a little Orwellian.

Coughlan arrives and the event begins. When the other candidates took their seats there was a slight, slightly unmayoral shuffle for places. Justin Lester is closest to the event organiser; Helene Ritchie is last – until Coughlan joins her.

We begin with five-minute speeches from each candidate. They know their audience. Everyone promises more suburban housing for older people. Andy Foster vows to deliver more native birds. Sometimes the pandering gets a little desperate: Nicola Young talks about her work as a public relations consultant for the pharmaceutical industry. “Who make pharmaceuticals! Which help people!” she adds brightly, prompting a low, cynical laugh from the audience. Justin Lester wants to know why superannuation Gold Cards deliver free public transport all day in Auckland but not in Wellington.

Lester is one of the top contenders and easily the most polished candidate. He’s the deputy mayor; 37 years old, handsome in a vague, indistinct way: like a cartoon character in an air-safety card. His answers to the questions in the La Scala lounge are pre-scripted slogans designed to communicate positive messages about himself. “I like to do things once and do them properly,” he replies to a question about the Basin Reserve flyover, a controversial roading project that failed to obtain resource consent. Asked about buses: “I’m fully electric all the way.” “Can you tell us about your leadership style?” “With me, what you see is what you get.”

Is that true, though? At first glance Lester seems like a glib rich guy, someone who’s had life handed to him. “I’m a successful businessman,” and “I run past here most mornings,” he tells the audience at the rest home, which is in a rather remote location at the top of a very steep hill.

Air-safety-card good looks: Justin Lester. Photo: Lester's Twitter feed

Air-safety-card good looks: Justin Lester. Photo: Lester’s Twitter feed

I meet him a few days later: we sit in a dimly lit council meeting room that looks like a cross between a monk’s cell and a futuristic prison chamber. Lester slouches in a chair, his eyes half-closed, answering my questions about the campaign with weary boredom. But his life story defies my expectations. He grew up poor in Invercargill, in a state house with a mostly solo mother and mostly absent father. He was the first in his family to go to university. He studied Law and German, did postgraduate work in Heidelberg: a Masters in Law; fell in love, married and came back to Wellington to start a business and a family. He runs Kapai, a successful Wellington food chain.

Back at the retirement home, he tells the audience he’s in politics to “give something back”.

Porirua Mayor Nick Leggett stands to address the crowd. Leggett is another front-runner, with a large campaign team and an expensive advertising campaign blanketing the city. “I am a breath of fresh air,” he announces at the beginning of his speech, before pausing, as if realising this is an odd thing to say about himself to a crowd of strangers in an overheated room. “Or,” he continues, “As some of you know me, the Night Mayor of an adjoining city.”

Leggett was – until recently – a member of the Labour Party. Labour’s constitution prohibits members from competing against nominated candidates, and Lester is the official Labour candidate so Leggett resigned to stand against him. There seems to be a lot of bad blood over this: Young Labour’s activists view Leggett as an apostate and gleefully broadcast his defaced election signs on social media. “They attack me by attacking Porirua,” Leggett says in a mournful tone, when I ask about the online campaign against him, which tends to focus on his home town and has a rather nasty edge to it.

Leggett grew up in Paremata, just north of Porirua. As a teenager he fell in with a bad crowd: joining Young Labour, the movement which now vilifies him, and spending his holidays working in parliament. After completing a BA in politics at Victoria he became a commercial real estate broker. He was first elected to Porirua’s City Council at 19, and won the mayoralty at 31; only a year older than Norman Kirk when he became mayor of Kaiapoi.

Labour foe:

Little foe: ex-Labour guy Nick Leggett. Photo: Legget’s Twitter

Leggett’s stump speech is heavy on buzzwords. “We need resilience. An end to top-down decision making. An economic superhighway.” He stresses his independence from established political parties. It’s his point of difference between him and Lester, his rival and former comrade.

The conventional wisdom in local body elections is that voters don’t like political parties operating at the civic level. That sort of divisive partisan stuff is fine in national politics, voters seem to think: let the ideologues have their way with the army and the economy and the schools and the health system, but keep them away from really important things like sewerage and rubbish collection. The reality is that most local body politicians are aligned to political parties but they run as independents, or under vaguely named proxy groups, which is why Labour and National have spent decades vying for control of Auckland via “City Vision” versus “Citizens and Ratepayers”. But it’s a dynamic that seems to be changing. As politics becomes more partisan, local body politicians like Lester who openly declare allegiance to a party are becoming more common.

Party affiliation opens up access to fundraising, a campaign machine and expertise. Running an election campaign demands data analysts, volunteer organisers, fundraisers, social media experts, a political strategist, a press secretary. These people are hard to find and expensive to hire. Plenty of them work at parliament, however, in the dark heart of Wellington, and well-connected mayoral candidates could, hypothetically, borrow them for their campaigns. That would be illegal, though: those people are paid by the taxpayer to help central government politicians run the country. But the law can’t stop these professionals from volunteering their time, can it?

I meet one of the volunteers on Nick Leggett’s team: a tall confident young guy in a new suit who happens to run the local office for Paul Foster-Bell, the National Party list MP based in Wellington Central. One of the volunteers on Lester’s campaign is a Labour activist called Hayden Munro, who made headlines after illegally working on a byelection in Christchurch in 2013 while being paid as a parliamentary staffer. Labour described this as an “administrative error” and repaid the money. When I ask Jo Coughlan about her campaign team she effuses about how great they are, the scale of the doorknocking campaign, their enthusiasm …

“And how many of them are parliamentary staffers?”

Her smile vanishes. “I don’t know,” she replies carefully, in a tone that made me wonder if she did. “But it makes sense when you think about it. People who are interested in politics are going to have jobs in politics.”

All of this parliamentary involvement might explain one of the mysteries of the Wellington mayoral campaign: why Labour leader Andrew Little decided to inject himself into it with an attack on Nick Leggett, calling him “a right-wing candidate” and (falsely) alleging that Leggett’s campaign manager is an ACT Party member. Almost everyone I talked to regarded Little’s comments as bafflingly counter-productive.

“Ninety percent of local body politics is name recognition,” one political operative, not affiliated to any of the campaigns told me. “You never do anything to give your opponents oxygen or media coverage. It’s the kind of thing that happens when the leader’s office is way too close to a contest.” The Leggett campaign team were openly gleeful, citing the disdain voters have for party politics in local government. “An ideological attack from an unpopular party leader is about as good as it gets.” When I ask Lester about it he just looks weary and annoyed. “It’s not for me to speak about why he did that.”

It is Jo Coughlan’s turn to address the La Scala lounge. She is the third of the frontrunners. Her speech focuses on family. She’s had six children and wants to prepare Wellington for future generations. Coughlan is a farmer’s daughter; her dad was an All Black who set up the local Lions club. Mum was a pharmacist. Coughlan studied biochemistry at Otago and married a Southlander.

But she’s also deeply embedded in Wellington’s political class. She was a press secretary for Don McKinnon when he was deputy prime minister, and now she runs a public relations and consulting company with a long list of public (and private) sector clients. When she launched her mayoral campaign she was endorsed by deputy prime minister Bill English: her brother-in-law. She finishes her stump speech with a promise to help Wellington “grasp opportunities and reach our potential”.

Coughlan’s campaign refers to her as “GoJo”, and it is very focused on roading (she disagrees with this when I put it to her, but when I point out that all of her billboards look like road signs, and are all about roads she replies, “Fine. Say that if you want.”) The other candidate’s campaigns are more generic. Is Coughlan’s focus was driven by market research, or polling? She rejects the suggestion. “Families need roads,” she replies. “I drove my kids all over town in the weekend, from netball to swimming lessons, and we sat in traffic for hours.” The personal is local body political.

Once the speeches are over the candidates take questions from the floor, and this is when GoJo’s late arrival counts against her. Questions at political meetings often take the form of long, meandering anecdotes or rants; and I confess now to you, Dear Reader, that one reason I’m here in the La Scala lounge is that I want to make fun of that tradition. But the retirees’ questions aren’t like that at all! They are short and articulate and astute: they ask about the airport extension, climate change and carbon reduction(!), the electrification of the bus fleet. They’re the opposite of everything I expected. Instead it is the candidates or, rather, one candidate: Helene Ritchie – currently in her tenth term on the City Council – who stands and tells long, rambling stories while the audience loses interest. And poor GoJo answers after her, after every other candidate has already given their views and Ritchie has sent the room to sleep.

Jo Coughlan supporters hold a sign with Jo Coughlan on it at Backbenches. Photo: another Twitter one

Jo Coughlan supporters hold a sign with Jo Coughlan on it at Backbenches. Photo: another Twitter one

“I’ll try and make my answer more succinct. I reiterate all of the above,” Coughlan says, flashing a clenched smile at Ritchie as the room starts to wakefulness after concise answers from the other candidates followed by a particularly long and aimless wander through Ritchie’s life, taking in her childhood, her political career, the various houses she’s lived in and boards she’s served on (this in response to a question about infill housing in Khandallah) and her qualifications and jobs and general thoughts about everything. It is really very warm in the La Scala lounge, and this, combined with Ritchie’s undulating drone have a narcotising effect on both the audience – who are, after all quite elderly – and also the candidates, who try to sit at the front of the room looking intelligent and caring, but a few minutes into each of Ritchie’s replies sees them slump forwards, or backwards, their eyes rolling upwards, or their foreheads coming to rest in their hands. They must have to listen to hours of this every day, I realise with some horror. There are about 35 meetings on the campaign schedule. They all look very tired.

Another woman stands up and is handed the microphone. “I have a local question,” she announces. The candidates, who know that all politics is local, prick up again and lean forwards, like greyhounds at the start-gate. “The exit ramp from the Figaro Atrium,” she says, referring to part of the vast Melvina complex, “is very dangerous. Why can’t the council paint yellow lines on the road? I’ve already approached two of the candidates about this and nothing has been done.”

There is a vast round of applause for the question. When it dies down Justin Lester answers, admitting that he was one of the candidates approached. He can’t figure out a way to leverage traffic hazards on Burma Road into a positive vision statement so quickly explains that they had a public consultation about the yellow lines and other people in the home objected to them. There is scattered clapping and angry muttering.

The final question is about the Chinese Garden planned for Frank Kitts Park on the waterfront. Does it have to be in Frank Kitts Park? Another round of applause, although not quite as robust as that for Figaro Atrium. Most of the candidates give variations on the same answer: Wellington’s Chinese community has wanted this garden for years; the council has made a commitment to build the Chinese Garden in Frank Kitts Park, and it is important to honour commitments and stick by your word so the location is set, but people on the campaign trail do seem quite upset about this, so actually maybe the location will have to be changed.

Nicola Young is an exception. She seems very agitated about the Chinese Garden. “Why can’t the Chinese Garden go inside the Chinese embassy?” she demands, a triumphant sneer on her face, not elaborating on why Chinese New Zealanders should have to patronise amenities in another country’s embassy. As an unbiased observer it’s not my place to editorialise on individual candidates, but Nicola Young seems awful and I hope she loses.

The questions are over. The candidates stand and stretch. I want to ask the people sitting beside me what they made of it all, but they’re all asleep so I turn and address a cheerful, awake woman in a cardigan, sitting behind me.

“What did you think?”

“I think they’d better not put those yellow lines out there on the road,” she whispers darkly, glancing around to make sure she isn’t overheard. “There’s barely enough parks out there as it is.”

“But what about the candidates? Do you know who you’ll vote for?”

“Half of the parks are used by tradesmen all the time,” she tells me. “Things get pinched from their cars. And I know who takes them.” She looks as though she’s about to tell me more then changes her mind. She gets up and heads towards the far end of the room, where tea and cakes are kindly provided by Malvina.

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