Analysis: Almost half of NZ mayoral offices have new occupants. But most of those didn’t defeat the incumbent. Plus: where the elected mayors stand on Three Waters.
The name is on the tin. Local elections are local. They are not a referendum on the performance of central government. But nor do they exist in a vacuum. Whether or not you go along with the idea that the weekend’s results were “a spanking for the Labour Party and the prime minister”, there’s no doubt they send a message.
Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin all have new mayors. In Wellington, centre-right incumbent Andy Foster was defeated by the Green-backed Tory Whanau, but the other three cities have gone from left-inclined mayors (former Labour ministers Phil Goff and Lianne Dalziel stood down; Dunedin Green mayor Aaron Hawkins was unseated) to centre-right leaders in Wayne Brown, Phil Mauger and Jules Radich. In the super city, home to a third of the country’s population, and in the capital, Labour-endorsed candidates were defeated.
The traffic wasn’t all one way. As well as Whanau’s victory – which came on the back of a formidable year-long ground campaign – Campbell Barry held on in Hutt City, Anita Baker was comfortably re-elected in Porirua. Based on the preliminary count, Moko Tepania will be mayor of the Far North. In Hamilton – the fourth biggest mayoralty by population – Paula Southgate’s centrist approach won her re-election.
The low turnout – likely to end up at 40% or so across the country – makes it slightly trickier to read any tea leaves in terms of next year’s general election, but it does reveal the mood of those who are exercised enough to vote. And the mood, in very general terms, appears to be one of broiling frustration with The Way Things Are Going. Donald Trump used to be called a deranged comments thread made human. Wayne Brown is not that at all. But he does sometimes seem like the personification of a Herald letters page. Harrumph.
Brown is not, however, straightforwardly blue or red. He claimed during the campaign to have voted for both main parties, and to have been getting texts of advice from both John Key and Helen Clark. Across the country, affiliation to a parliamentary party is rare.
In Britain, the turnout is even more dismal than Aotearoa, but the party alignments make it easier to (cautiously) detect a shift in party-political mood. We can’t, for example, produce a lush visualisation like this:
Incumbency and churn
Of 66 mayors set to be sworn in in the coming days (Tauranga has commissioners for now), 31 are new to the role – or, such as in the case of returning mayor and celebrant of Ruapehu District, Weston Kirton, weren’t in the role last term. Perhaps the post-Covid great resignation is to blame, but a historically high number of mayors, 20 of them, decided to call it a day before these latest elections. Eleven new mayors are there because they beat the incumbent. That’s up, too, but hardly a wipeout. It’s one more than at the last election.
Thirty-five sitting mayors are returning. Of those, six were re-elected unopposed; nobody stood against them. In a seventh uncontested mayoral election, Kawerau deputy mayor Faylene Tunui stood unopposed.
(All of that is based on preliminary results, with four– Far North, Matamata-Piako, Southland and Gore – still looking too close to call.)
The central-local fault line has become increasingly pronounced. There’s the health system, polytechs, and housing intensification edicts, but the issue that loomed above them all through campaigns around the country, the lightning rod for frustration with the Beehive, was by some distance Three Waters.
The upset among many sitting mayors and councillors and candidates covered a range of grievances, most centering on a belief that a critical part of the local authority sphere is being seized. Some reject the approach entirely; others reject the design and the drawing of the “entity” maps. Many began their criticisms, it’s worth noting, with words to the effect of “clearly things need to change but”.
Some argue they’ve been managing water infrastructure well and shouldn’t be punished because of other councils’ neglect. Many say the consultation process was insufficient and that alternatives have not been properly considered. Still others attack, expressly or by way of insinuation, the co-governance model.
On RNZ yesterday, Jacinda Ardern responded to questions about the message sent on Three Waters by local elections by saying that the infrastructure overhaul required was costly, and if left to local authorities that would entail hikes in rates.
“While there are many who have expressed a view on Three Waters, you haven't had anyone arguing the counterfactual – that is, if we stick with the status quo that they would support rate rises, which is the inevitable outcome,” she said. "The alternative to Three Waters is rate rises in the thousands because of the additional water infrastructure that is required, no one's out campaigning on that."
One candidate for the Nelson mayoralty told me during the campaign that councils could no more vote down Three Waters than they could stop GST. That may be literally true, but there is no doubt they can send a thunderous message – as indeed did the man who was elected mayor, Nick Smith, who said there was “real anger around the government on Three Waters. Unless the government has a deathwish they do need to revisit that”.
Mayors do not necessarily represent the broader position of their councils, but they're as useful a sample as any. Across the group of 66 preparing to chuck on the chains, we’ve looked at their stated positions on Three Waters and assessed their position across a range from strongly against to strongly in favour of the reforms, drawing on statements on (a) Policy.nz, (b) candidate blurbs and (c) media reports.
That analysis suggests 43 mayors opposed to the Three Waters reforms and nine in support. There were 14 that were ambivalent, unsure or where it was too ambiguous to be sure. The broad sentiment, however, is clear enough.
The three mayors we’ve gingerly classified as strongly in support of Three Waters are Tory Whanau in Wellington, Monique Croon in the Chatham Islands, and Anita Baker in Porirua.
Only three of the successful mayors who took part in Policy.nz listed opposition to Three Waters among their three priorities: Vince Cocurullo in Whangarei, Andrew Tripe in Whanganui, who both placed it at #1, and Nobby Clark in Invercargill.
Ardern went on to say on Monday that “we've been open to changes, to try and make these the most effective changes that we can”. To win over the local politicians are not dead set against the reform, those changes will need to be substantial.
Full list of New Zealand mayors
Based on preliminary results, 2022
|Far North District Mayor
|Whangarei District Mayor
|Kaipara District Mayor
|Thames-Coromandel District Mayor
|Hauraki District Mayor
|Waikato District Mayor
|Matamata-Piako District Mayor
|South Waikato Mayor
|Gary “Puku” Petley
|Western Bay of Plenty District Mayor
|Tauranga City Mayor
|Kawerau District Mayor
|Ōpōtiki District Mayor
|Gisborne District Mayor
|Wairoa District Mayor
|Hastings District Mayor
|Napier City Mayor
|Central Hawke's Bay District Mayor
|New Plymouth District Mayor
|Stratford District Mayor
|South Taranaki District Mayor
|Ruapehu District Mayor
|Whanganui District Mayor
|Rangitikei District Mayor
|Manawatu District Mayor
|Palmerston North City Mayor
|Tararua District Mayor
|Horowhenua District Mayor
|Kapiti Coast District Mayor
|Porirua City Mayor
|Upper Hutt City Mayor
|Lower Hutt City Mayor
|South Wairarapa Mayor
|Nelson City Mayor
|Marlborough District Mayor
|Buller District Mayor
|Grey District Mayor
|Westland District Mayor
|Chatham Islands Mayor
|Central Otago Mayor