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Tory Whanau. Photo: Toby Manhire. Image: Archi Banal.
Tory Whanau. Photo: Toby Manhire. Image: Archi Banal.

Local Elections 2022September 1, 2022

‘Who dictated what a mayor has to look like?’ The Tory Whanau pitch to Wellington

Tory Whanau. Photo: Toby Manhire. Image: Archi Banal.
Tory Whanau. Photo: Toby Manhire. Image: Archi Banal.

Party girl. Green. Protester. Activist. All of that, says Tory Whanau, but also the best equipped to reach across the aisle and turn around a too-often dysfunctional Wellington City Council. 

“Be polished. Don’t say that thing. Don’t swear.” That was the advice Tory Whanau used to give new Green MPs when she was the party’s chief of staff. And she intended to follow it when she threw herself into the fray, standing for Wellington mayor. “I started this journey thinking I would be a very polished politician, because that’s what I’ve been surrounded by, that’s what I’ve trained MPs to do.” It didn’t last long. “The second I gave my first speech, I was like: Nah, I can’t do it. It felt disingenuous. And so I’ve been a little rough around the edges at times with my speeches, because I get so passionate. But I just think it’s time. I think it’s time for these new leaders to come through.”

We’re just a few minutes into an interview at Floriditas on Cuba Street. It’s the day after the Brian Tamaki-led protest to parliament. Whanau, who joined the counter-protest at the Cenotaph, tells the story of seeing a cousin among the Freedom and Rights Coalition crowd. Each side had been hollering at the other, “and then we spot each other, and point at each other and crack up laughing. He yells out, ‘I love you.’ And I said, ‘I love you, too.’ You know? it was just kind of, we’re all right. There’s still some sort of hope here.” It was a reminder that “we should always stand up to hate. But we also have an obligation to bring those people back to us.”

On that sentiment, she’s not far away from the position the current mayor, Andy Foster, articulated. Where Whanau would have done things differently, in response to the occupation as at last week’s event, was by “going to the front line”, she says. And that’s what brings her to the point on politicians and polish. “We have different styles. You know, he is the style of politician to sit back and do everything officially and that’s fine. But I wouldn’t have done it that way. People need to see their community leader standing up for them … What frustrates me is there seems to be the standard that politicians have to follow certain types of behaviour, and I just completely reject that.”

Foster’s assessment of the Whanau challenge is to shrug. He literally shrugged when I asked him for a view of his Green-endorsed rival, saying, “I don’t know her, basically.” If that’s the case, she retorts, “it shows his lack of political nous. How disengaged he is from central government. Because anyone who knows anyone in government, in our political bubble, even on council, they all know me. [Former mayor] Justin Lester knows me. I’ve spoken to the three previous mayors, and we’re all good. But yet he seems to dismiss me like I’m not in the race. I think he’s actually in for quite a rude awakening.”

Which is “a shame”, she continues, “because he is a nice guy. And I texted him as well, and said, ‘Hey, do you want to talk about this?’ I said, ‘I want to have a clean campaign. I actually don’t want to diss you, I want to challenge you, but I don’t want dirty politics.’” And? “He didn’t even text me back.”

As for the other frontrunner, Paul Eagle, “to be honest, we have a bit of a brotherly-sisterly vibe. And it’s really nice.” This was, it’s worth stressing, before hoarding-gate: the terse exchanges over claims of dodgy framing – this is not a metaphor – of the contest. But the pair got on very well when they appeared together in Auckland for a debate on The Hui. They ended up hanging out for much of the day. “I was just like, look, this is gonna get nasty. Let’s just be cool,” she says. “We text each other every now and then to check on each other.” 

It would mean a lot, says Whanau – Porirua born, Patea raised, now living in a city apartment – for Wellington to have a Māori mayor. “I think it’s a big deal and would show a turning point in our country,” she says. “You would like to think that Wellington would be leading the way on that. And I think that they will. I think it will be a beautiful moment – whether it’s me or Paul, great.”

Few subjects have been more fractious on the big city councils in New Zealand than housing intensification – to the extent that central government intervened with a cross-party urban hammer. In Wellington, the process leading up to the notifying of the district plan had been “incredibly confusing for a lot of people and very complicated”, says Whanau. They had fallen short on tethering housing density to transport routes, with the late change on Johnsonville “something that I would revisit”. 

More broadly speaking, intensification, like cycleways, or indeed the protests at parliament, had become toxic, “with nastiness coming from both sides, name-calling, you know, Yimby versus Nimby”. While Whanau says she’s “technically a Yimby”, she adds, “I think we can all agree we need more homes, we just need to learn to compromise to get there.” She says: “For instance, I’ve heard the concerns from Aro Valley where, you know, a six-storey building would actually be – well, I get why that might not suit, you know? … But I want to prioritise the public transport route first and foremost.”

‘People don’t realise I’m actually more qualified than Andy and Paul‘: Tory Whanau on Dixon St. (Photo: Toby Manhire)

On Let’s Get Wellington Moving, the blueprint agreed by the city and regional councils together with the government, Whanau has some quibbles but wants to crack on – transport in the city “has suffered enough”. She does, though, promise to expedite light rail and push for fares-free public transport – both to assist those struggling on “a day-to-day basis” and to counter the climate crisis.

Much like Foster – much like Eagle, much like everyone, really – she wants Wellington to realise its “potential to be the tech capital of New Zealand”. She has released an arts policy designed to return to the city “to our former glory”, and promises to revitalise the hospitality sector. 

And three waters? “Hugely supportive. I don’t understand why we wouldn’t.” She says: “Like many other debates it has that unfortunate political and racist rhetoric that’s come into play – and the government didn’t do the best job in communicating it. But, look, they’re trying to get it back on track. All good. Wellington is in dire need of three waters.”

Asked to make the case for change, she says: “It’s two things. it’s ensuring that our water infrastructure is actually funded. And then prioritised under a body dedicated to seeing that through, when we’ve had a lot of woes with Wellington water. So I see it as a more effective way of running things. It will have mana whenua at the table as well. And I that just ensures that it’s prioritised. The other ownership-type arguments around iwi trying to grab an asset are just incorrect – an unfortunate side-effect of it not being communicated well.”

“This is why I’m standing,” says Whanau, when asked about the infighting and dysfunction within Wellington City Council so widely chronicled across the last term. “What a lot of people don’t realise is that I’m actually more qualified than Andy and Paul. I’ve led a political party through two elections and into government negotiations, and built that coalition. So I have that experience that is needed on council.”

She might be Green-forged and Green-endorsed, but Whanau, who is running as an independent, insists she can work across the divide. “I know how to put my political leanings aside, you know, and think about the bigger goal. I’m strategic,” she says. She’s met already with most of the councillors, and heard their reflections on the term now wrapping up. And she wants to reset the relationship with council staff executives, to say, “Look, we’re the ones that come up with the vision. Let’s get council to properly execute that. It seems to me that some decisions are brought to the table and it’s a complete surprise to a lot [at council] that there needs to be a lot of that political preparation in advance of making a decision – consultation, like we do with central government.”

She’s not buying, either, the idea that blocs within the council are necessarily a blight. “I kind of reject that view. When I see moments of bad behaviour, a lot of them are actually caused by independents. So, you know, it’s spread across the whole council. Councillors are quite under-resourced. So if they’ve got party backing, especially with policy development, I think that’s a good thing. And when people elect these councillors, Labour-endorsed or Green-endorsed, people know who they’re voting for. They’ve been truly elected there. I think it’s just up to the mayor to get them to work together properly.” 

Whanau may no longer be deep in the Green parliamentary machine, but she remains involved in the party. She was, in fact, both a delegate and a scrutineer when James Shaw faced a “reopen nominations” affront at the last party AGM. “So I counted the vote. Yeah. And all the blood just left my body. It was so shocking, you know, we weren’t expecting it, we became complacent. And, look, I went through all the emotions, I was angry. I was like, how dare this party.”

But then, “I kind of realised”, she says, opening her palms, “this is the way we operate. It’s our democratic process. Yes, I was highly emotional that weekend, but then I accepted it. And people criticised it at the time, but when you compare it to the other things Labour and National are going through with their MPS, this is nothing. We look like puppy dogs … We weren’t hit hard on the polls at all and James has become a better politician as a result. He’s gone around the country and spoken to all the members. He’s changed the way he’s talked about climate change. And he’s bringing the membership back on board again. It was a shock, but I actually think it ended up benefiting the party. Lucky it happened now.”

Another criticism levelled by Foster is that if Whanau really cared, she’d also be running to be a councillor, not just for the top job. Did she think about it? “I thought about it, I did. But then I was kind of worried that people would go, oh, she’s standing for council. So let’s just elect her for council and she can run for mayor next time. It’s just not good enough for me. I want to be the leader, because I think that’s what the council in Wellington needs. So I’m just taking a massive risk and going all-in.” She’s already raised the $60,000 maximum for candidate spends in the official campaign period – and “about 40 grand of that is my own money”.

Whanau has heard two flavours of gossip about her candidacy. There’s those who say she’s “utilising this to build a profile for [herself]” ahead of a tilt at parliament and a high place on the Green list. That, she says, is “completely untrue – I wouldn’t be spending 40 grand to do that”. She understands why some might leap to that conclusion, but were it the case “this is not the strategy I’d be using. Because it’s the membership who votes. I’d be doing a tour of the country membership, if I wanted to get up the list, not actually focusing on Wellington.”

The other talk is on how some imagine a mayor should be. “People are out there calling me a party girl, you know, or too green. A protester, an activist.” She says:  “It’s like, who dictated what a mayor, what a leader has to look like?” A better question, Whanau suggests, is “who are young people coming through going to connect with? It’s actually not a politician like Andy. It’s someone real. Someone a bit cool,” she says with a mock-smirk. “So, you know … What about a young cool mayor who’s not afraid to party?”

Read our interview with Andy Foster here. Next: Paul Eagle.

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