Tairāwhiti is the first place in Aotearoa to see the sunrise (Photo: Getty Images; additional design: Reweti Kohere)
Tairāwhiti is the first place in Aotearoa to see the sunrise (Photo: Getty Images; additional design: Reweti Kohere)

Local Elections 2022October 2, 2022

Race briefing: The sun rises on a new-look Gisborne District Council

Tairāwhiti is the first place in Aotearoa to see the sunrise (Photo: Getty Images; additional design: Reweti Kohere)
Tairāwhiti is the first place in Aotearoa to see the sunrise (Photo: Getty Images; additional design: Reweti Kohere)

‘The land of the first light’ will enter a new era with the introduction of one Māori ward to the council and fresh representation. But the new-look Gisborne District Council will lead a region still recovering from flooding and heavy rain – and the severe weather events won’t stop.

Dawn will break on Gisborne District Council (GDC) following this month’s local election – half of its members will be new and five Māori ward councillors, in an unprecedented, historic move for the region, will represent the region’s significant Māori population outright. GDC has had to contend with successive, severe flooding events over the last three years. But with climate change having an immediate impact, in addition to long-term upending, the inundated region is grappling with its resiliency.

Why is Gisborne the best place in the world?

As the first place in Aotearoa to see the sunrise each day, Tairāwhiti is known as “the land of the first light”. And trading on that, Rhythm and Vines is the first music festival worldwide to welcome the new year. If you’re chasing the sun, Gisborne is one of the sunniest regions too.

What is the contest?

Tairāwhiti stretches from Hicks Bay and Te Araroa in the north and the most eastern point of Aotearoa, East Cape lighthouse, before tracing south the coastal settlements of Tokomaru Bay and Tolaga Bay. Tūranganui-a-Kiwa is the region’s seat of power, where nearly three-quarters of its 50,000 population live. Inland gems such as Tiniroto, Rere and Matawai fan out toward the Bay of Plenty and Hawke’s Bay boundaries. Over a fifth of people live rurally.

This year’s election is arranged differently. For the first time, one Māori ward is up for grabs, and the district’s four rural wards are gone, replaced with one general ward from which 25 people are competing for eight council seats. The 13-strong GDC will be headed by a mayor elected at large. 

Three years ago, former deputy mayor Rehette Stoltz won an overwhelming victory to claim the mayoral chains following the resignation of long-time mayor Meng Foon earlier in 2019. In the city ward contest in 2019, nearly 1,500 votes separated the first and ninth-ranked elected councillors, while one of the four rural ward candidates, Pat Seymour, was elected unopposed.

Gisborne mayor Rehette Stoltz (Photo: Tom Kitchin/RNZ)

Who is in the race?

More than half of the current crop of councillors are not seeking re-election, including all four of Gisborne’s rural representatives: Seymour, Bill Burdett, Sandra Faulkner and Kerry Worsnop. Joining them in stepping down are Gisborne ward officials Shannon Dowsing, Isaac Hughes and Terry Sheldrake.

Among the council hopefuls is general ward candidate Daniel “Teddy” Thompson, who has faced scrutiny within the last week for wearing a pig mask while on duty as a police officer some 20 years ago. The self-styled “king of Gizzy” sidestepped answering further questions, describing the incident, for which he underwent disciplinary action, as “rumours”.

Two other candidates have faced recent controversy. Mayoral and Māori ward hopeful Darin Brown, who spent two decades in the horticultural and agricultural industries, has stood by a social media picture showing him standing in a hazmat suit with swastika and genitalia on its front and the words “choose freedom over fear”. Brown, who has based his campaign on reclaiming control for local government, has said he’s neither a Nazi, a white supremacist or an anti-vaxxer, and was trying to push back against the government’s Covid vaccine mandates. Brown’s wife, Jen Brown, also running for a general ward seat, had in one social media post said her “lucky rock” was as effective at fighting Covid-19 as the vaccine, and had criticised a trans swimmer for competing against “biological women”.

Four people are running for mayor, including South Africa-born incumbent Stoltz. First elected to council in 2010, Stoltz was the highest polling Gisborne ward councillor in 2013 and 2016. She served twice as deputy mayor under Foon, who resigned in 2019 to become race relations commissioner. Stoltz then served as interim mayor before winning the mayoralty in 2019 with over 10,000 votes.

Stoltz has attracted the ire of third-term councillor and candidate Meredith Akuhata-Brown, who apologised in July for publicly doubting the mayor’s ability to lead Tairāwhiti. Akuhata-Brown, a “vocal local”, was concerned that Stoltz’s background meant she couldn’t understand the key issues affecting the region’s marginalised, and that Stoltz had had an easy run at the mayoralty based on fitting voters’ perceptions of what power looked like. “If you are a certain look, that is particularly not Māori, you are highly probable to get that position,” she said.

Stoltz responded that she’d made a concerted effort to better understand the district’s multicultural community, including completing a year-long tikanga Māori course. Her candidate profile is written in te reo Māori too. Following a code of conduct complaint, Akuhata-Brown’s comments were found to have breached the council’s conduct policy and she apologised, saying she had spoken out of “frustration and hurt”.

The city of Gisborne (Photo: Getty Images)

What is at stake?

Climate change resilience

Flooding and other severe weather events in Tairāwhiti in the last three years have brought home the immediate impacts and long-term consequences of climate change. Gisborne experiences more weather and climatic extremes than western regions, and 95% of residents can manage up to three days without access to normal services during a natural disaster, according to resident satisfaction surveys. But the council sees gaps in the region’s overall resilience.

According to its pre-election report, GDC has committed to accelerating the delivery of a flood control project on the Waipaoa river so that communities can withstand a 100-year heavy rain event – even accounting for climate change – at a 10-year cost of $34 million. GDC is also working up adaptation plans for coastal communities as they prepare for the consequences of rising sea levels. Walking and cycling networks in Taruheru and Ūawa have been earmarked as transport alternatives, and nearly a third of council revenue is expected to be spent on improving the region’s fraught roading network. Only a third of residents – half the council’s target – report satisfaction with its condition.

An outdated resource management plan

As community expectations have changed on how natural and built resources are managed, and the government continues to reform the resource management act, a review of the council’s outdated resource management plan is overdue. At a potential cost of nearly $26m, GDC believes a new plan can help address a raft of issues, including unlocking affordable papakainga and other housing, water allocation and environmental protection, and making Māori freehold land more productive. Obstacles to developing the latter in Tairāwhiti have concerned tangata whenua, who collectively own nearly 257,000ha of it. But recent amendments to how councils collect Māori freehold land rates have been described as “significant”, in helping stimulate development by empowering local authorities to forgive unpaid rates and remit or remove them.

The race in a sentence?

A new look, a new team for Tairāwhiti. In many ways, however, GDC will be grappling with “old” problems.

The brass tacks

The Gisborne election is operating under single transferable vote – one of four councils using the system for the first time. Voting papers should be with you by now. If not, you can cast a special vote. The last day to enrol (for a special vote) is October 7. Your vote needs to be received by midday on Saturday, October 8. Read more race briefings and other Spinoff coverage of the local elections here

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