The Titirangi session: politics gets fun and feral in the original greenie stronghold

It was a dank but not very stormy night. The school hall was filled with people, and home baking. And some politicians. Simon Wilson was also there.

There are things you can say in Titirangi that you wouldn’t dream of in some other parts of the city. Deborah Russell, Labour candidate for New Lynn, which covers a good part of the Waitakere Ranges, got up in the Woodlands Park School hall and told the crowd, “It’s good fun to kill small furry animals. I can do that.”

She grinned. She took delight in explaining that she’s had years of experience on her parents’ “environmental block” in Taranaki, walking the traplines and dealing with all the small furry creatures she found.

Paulo Garcia, National candidate for New Lynn, had his own way of attempting to blend in. He said, “The National Party has put in a whole lot of effort on sustainability in the environment.” And people jeered at him!

“Thank you!” he continued. “I got a laugh!” Everyone stopped laughing. The grin remained stuck to his face. After a moment he sat down.

Labour’s small furry animal killer Deborah Russell. (Photo: Simon Day.)

Supposedly, this was a meet-the-candidates election meeting, although that was just a front. In reality, it was a full-blown solidarity session for local greenies.

A man called David Oakes got up and told everyone where the torlitts were and said aye, he’s from Scotland, he’s only been here 20 years and hasn’t had time to lose the accent. Told a joke about how he was supposed to tuck his shirt into his pants but he’d tucked his pants into his shirt instead and no one knew whether to laugh.

Cheerful in Titirangi. (Photo: Simon Day.)

Still, it was a cheerful crowd. Titirangi politics: they were youth-adjacent to elderly, comfortably and colourfully dressed against the cold. Liberal, engaged, confident and quick with their opinions but above all, extremely cheerful. That was a surprise, because they’ve got kauri dieback and myrtle rust killing the bush and they’re battling the evil council giant Watercare too. At most Auckland community meetings when there’s a campaign against the council going on, the prevailing mood is resentment. Not these folk.

“Watercare is an oxymoron”, say the signs out on the street. It’s funny, although, what does it mean?

The man with the fate of the water on his shoulders: Simon Kitson of the Titirangi Protection Group. (Photo: Simon Day.)

Oakes gave way to Simon Kitson, the man from the Titirangi Protection Group, who talked at great length, very earnestly, with slides, about Watercare’s plans to expand its operation in the ranges. You can read about it here. Kitson announced the TPG is about to take Watercare to the Environment Court. Cue rowdy enthusiasm.

After Kitson reps from other local enviro groups took their turn on stage. One guy represented three different groups, which had the benefit of speeding things up, although it was odd watching him keep a straight face while he talked about projects his groups were working on together.

Then it was the turn of Kristy Lorson, who smiled relentlessly and said, “Most of you are here because you care about the environment and you’re aware of the issues but I just thought I’d give you a reminder of our current global crisis.”

She held up a one-litre plastic container. “This is my family’s rubbish bin,” she said. She also had a cloth bag, from which she pulled some of the household objects they use to eliminate waste. A plastic container to take when you order takeaway food. Cleanable and reusable toilet wipes. A mooncup. (“Ladies this will change your life.”)

“I used to feel helpless about environmental issues,” she said. “But now I feel empowered and I want you to feel that way too.” It was so empowering most of the party candidates who got on stage after her made a point of saying, “I must talk with you after, Kristy.”

Godfrey Rudolph from the Greens went even further. “I concur with that wonderful woman!” he declared, waggling his finger at her.

Lorson left everyone sitting a little straighter in their chairs, knowing that when the end of consumer society comes it will be relentlessly bright and cheerful and just so well organised. Her blog, fair warning, features the Greek goddess Artemis armed with bow and arrow.

Panel chair Anusha Bradley with, from left: Godfrey Rudolph, Nicola Smith, Deborah Russell, Kurt Taogaga, Chris Penk and Paulo Garcia. (Photo: Simon Day.)

There were two politicians each from the Greens, Labour and National and none from any other party. Why? The minds of Titirangians move in mysterious ways, although it probably has something to do with the geopolitical oddness of the place.

Woodlands Park (honestly, how have they not changed a name as dumbly Pākehā as that yet?) is way down the northwest slopes of Titirangi – so deep in the bush and the ravined hills you’re lucky if you get cellphone reception. Deepest essence of Titirangi. But because of some parliamentary committee’s cruel idea of a joke it’s in the Helensville electorate. One imagines there are no words to describe how that makes most of the people who were in that school hall feel. They’re the guardians of the Waitakere Ranges, proud to live in “the lungs of Auckland”. They are not, they are truly not, lifestyle blockers and service town retailers.

So Labour and National had their Helensville as well as Titirangi-proper New Lynn candidates there. The Greens were going to have Hayley Holt from Helensville, but she got called away and they sent Nicola Smith from Kelston instead. Close but not so many kauri. As for Godfrey Rudolph, he was from Te Tai Tokerau, which is also close but not actually the right electorate.

National’s Paulo Garcia and his Helensville colleague, Chris Penk, sat down the end. Sober guys in sober suits, with their sober ties and sober socks, they knew what they were up against. Penk’s a perpetual Seinfeld-grade worrier, he’s got a hard-faced grin but always there’s the furrowed brow. Garcia, on the other hand, comes straight from the Jacinda Ardern playbook of relentless positivity. His pitch for the greenie vote involved telling the crowd how blessed he felt to have raised four daughters on the vegetables they grew themselves. Also, they walk everywhere.

The relentlessly positive Paulo Garcia. (Photo: Simon Day.)

Godfrey Rudolph, natty in a smart suit and flamboyant tie, also appeared to be saying he did lots of walking and, as a teacher, got his kids to walk lots of places too. It was hard to tell: he has an oratory style that is best described as surprising. Puffed out chest, arms extended and declamatory statements in which he simply stops halfway through a sentence. A Socratic style adapted for littlies, perhaps, where they are encouraged to fill in the missing words themselves.

There were questions about Watercare, eliciting the appropriately sympathetic noises, although Penk spoke the honest truth when he reminded them it was a local government issue, not a parliamentary one. Questions about kauri dieback – everyone had heard the recent news that 80% of visitors to the bush did not bother to clean their shoes afterwards, but none of them was prepared to support closing the ranges and really taking charge.

Labour’s Deborah Russell, sheathed in black, said they needed high-tech shoe-cleaning gear and mused about changing the regional park to a national park, to gain access to more funds, but then said she was probably against that.

The Greens’ Nicola Smith, swathed in green silk, was quick to anger most times she spoke. “Make it a national park and it would be under the control of DOC,” she said. “Which the government underfunds! Do we really want that?”

No! No! said the crowd, dutifully.

Cr Penny Hulse was in the crowd, trying not to fidget. Chair of the council’s Environment and Community Committee, former deputy mayor, Westie, green activist forever, ranking expert on almost everything they talked about. “I just want to get up there and answer the questions,” she muttered.

Cr Penny Hulse restraining herself. (Photo: Simon Day.)

But most of the questions were surprisingly narrow: what do you personally do to be a better environmentalist, asked in one way or another. Everybody mentioned their worm farms. Rudolph and Penk have picked up rubbish on the beach.

It was Russell who bit back, saying she thought it was the wrong question. “Climate change is a systemic issue and it won’t be solved by individuals all doing more. That’s important but what’s much more important is to keep the pressure on governments.”

Nicola Smith said afterwards she wished she’d thought to say that.

Kurt Taogaga took the high-risk counter approach. He’s a student, doing a business masters, although he has been an ESOL teacher and a rugby league coach. “I haven’t done any environmental projects in the West, or anywhere,” he said. “I used to belong to Forest & Bird but I’ve let that lapse.” No money to do that sort of thing right now. “I salve my conscience with the knowledge that I used to belong.”

Also, he said, he liked eating meat, although he “flirts” with the idea of eating less. “My promise tonight,” he said, “is to continue to flirt with that idea.”

He was working the charm, although you sensed this audience wasn’t much interested in young men trying to charm their way out of things. They liked him much more when he said growing cities needed “smart density” and places where “density is done well” but “I don’t believe Titirangi is one of those places”. Even gave him a round of applause.

The fact is, nobody thinks where they live is one of those places. But density done well would be brilliant in and around Titirangi: there’s great scope for hiding new homes in the bush, bumping up the population so it supports better public transport and stronger village centres too.

Beware the politician who suggests it, though. Dairying and water quality turned out to be much more on point.

Nicola Smith said, “100% pure? I’m sick of it! It’s bullshit! And the main reason is the government’s insistence on more dairying!”

Chris Penk said, “100% is an absolute. It’s a very difficult standard. A percentage I like is 80%. That’s the amount of our energy from renewables, and the government wants it to be 90%. Waterways are not a new problem. There has never been a standard for water before.”

That worried grin: National’s Helensville candidate Chris Penk. (Photo: Simon Day.)

Much spluttering from the crowd. Smith interjected. “You rolled them back! You watered down the standard!” She was angry so the pun was probably not a deliberate joke. Penk praised the “riparian work” of Helensville farmers.

Godfrey Rudolph said, “Our kids swimming, the dirty water, getting sick, come on! We know what needs to be done! Kia ora koutou.”

Deborah Russell said, “Labour’s water policies will add maybe a cent to the price of a cabbage and a cent to the price of a bottle of sauvignon blanc”.

RNZ’s Anusha Bradley, who lives locally and was chairing the session, asked for yes/no answers to one last question: did they support a ban on plastic bags?

The Labour and Greens answers were yes, yes, yes and absolutely.

Penk said, “When you say ‘you’, do you mean individually or collectively?”

Cue another round of boos.

“All right, then,” he said. “I can’t commit the government to do that.”

Paulo Garcia decided it was best to say nothing. It was time for a cup of tea and the home-baked goodies.

[Note: The quote at the start of this story about National’s record on the environment was earlier attributed to the party’s Helensville candidate, Chris Penk. We regret the error.]

simon@thespinoff.co.nz @simonbwilson


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