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At the Nelson Weekly debate, left to right: Johny O’Donnell, Nick Smith, Rohan O’Neill-Stevens, Tim Skinner, Matt Lawrey and Kerry Neal. Photograph: Toby Manhire
At the Nelson Weekly debate, left to right: Johny O’Donnell, Nick Smith, Rohan O’Neill-Stevens, Tim Skinner, Matt Lawrey and Kerry Neal. Photograph: Toby Manhire

Local Elections 2022September 13, 2022

The Queen, floods, toxic culture and dancefloor dicks – debate day in Nelson

At the Nelson Weekly debate, left to right: Johny O’Donnell, Nick Smith, Rohan O’Neill-Stevens, Tim Skinner, Matt Lawrey and Kerry Neal. Photograph: Toby Manhire
At the Nelson Weekly debate, left to right: Johny O’Donnell, Nick Smith, Rohan O’Neill-Stevens, Tim Skinner, Matt Lawrey and Kerry Neal. Photograph: Toby Manhire

Whakatū can boast the oldest, one of the youngest, and the most ministerially experienced of NZ’s would-be mayors. Toby Manhire goes on a debate crawl in the city. 

The Queen was remembered across the streets of Whakatū through the weekend. A forlorn New Zealand flag hung at half-mast at the car rental place on Haven Road; a tino rangatiratanga flag did the same outside a Trafalgar Street motel. “ELIZABETH,” said the sign on Vanguard Street outside Tozzetti Cafe in chalk, “THANK YOU FOR BEING OUR QUEEN.”

Inside Tozzetti shortly after 2pm, at the same time as Tasman kicked off against Taranaki down at Trafalgar Park, candidates for council and mayoralty were gathered for a Nelson Residents Association forum – the only stipulation being that they weren’t incumbents. “We want to hear from the newbies,” said association president John Walker. 

Neither of the two mayoral candidates in the house would be so bold as to call themselves newbies, but they did meet the criteria. Kerry Neal completed the last of his three terms as a Nelson City councillor in 1989. At 84, he is reportedly the oldest mayoral hopeful in the country. Neal began with a word for the Queen. “How grateful we are to be part of a global organisation called the Crown!” The monarch, said Neal, was a bastion of “stability and fair play”, in contrast to Nelson City Council, which had become a monstrous machine, like the blob from the film The Blob. Did he mean the 1958 original The Blob or the 1988 remake? There was no time to find out. There were a lot of candidates to get through, they made up close to half of the 50 people in the cafe. I was twice asked if I was one myself. 

The second mayoral candidate was a comparative spring chicken, in the form of Nick Smith. Elected to Rangiora District Council for a term in 1983, Smith went on to serve 31 years as a National MP for Tasman and then Nelson (and the last year as a list MP), more than half of his 57 years on earth. 

The Queen was top of Smith’s mind, too. Thanking the venue for hosting, he said: “Can I tell you, you’re all class out front with that chalkboard acknowledging our Queen and her passing. For 70 years, our Queen has been an anchor for the very best of human values: respect, tolerance, democracy, freedom, community service. If our newly elected council could just make sure to follow those five principles, they would serve this community very well.”

The Queen did not rate a mention a few hours later and five minutes around the corner at the Kismet cocktail bar on Hardy Street. Smith and Neal flanked three other candidates invited to the Nelson Weekly mayoral debate. Matt Lawrey and Tim Skinner, like Neal, have three terms of council experience each. The other, Rohan O’Neill-Stevens, is completing his first term as a city councillor. At 22, he is roughly a quarter the age of Neal and one of the youngest mayoral candidates across the country. (Jett Groshinski, 19, is running in Dunedin;
Lachlan Coleman, 20, is on the ballot in Hamilton.)

Photo: Toby Manhire

Trunks on the dancefloor

If there was diversity in age, however, not so much in gender or ethnicity. That “elephant in the room” was put early on to O’Neill-Stevens. Were there, asked Johny O’Donnell, who moderated expertly through the evening, “too many dicks on the dancefloor”? Yes, said the candidate, there very clearly were. 

Lawery, a left-leaning councillor, suspected the lack of candidacies might have something to do with it having been “pretty intense in Aotearoa New Zealand over the last couple of years”. Smith pointed to the “nastiness and dysfunctionality around the Nelson council table – I think that has put women off”. He added: “Please elect a diverse council. It would be a crying shame in this day and age if we had a council that looked like this stage.”

O’Neill-Stevens said: “You’re never going to see change if the same people keep putting their hands up over and over again. The power of incumbency is very strong. There does have to come a time,” he said, as the collective decades of political experience sat either side staring straight ahead, “where politicians go, ‘I’ve done my dash,’ and step back.”

Neal had already had his say on diversity, in his opening remarks. Nicknamed by one former colleague “the ayatollah of Atawhai”, he reminisced on the good old days on the council of the 70s and 80s. “We used to have a few near-physical dust-ups,” he said. “That was when men were men … How I yearn for the days when we filled the chamber with tobacco smoke, and if that didn’t scare the pesky public out, we would call up the riot squad. That quietened them. Those were the days … when Diversity was the Sheila next door.” 

Undeterred by the groans across the bar, Neal continued: “But best of all was the control we had over journalists. If they didn’t print what we demanded, they were denied entry to the liquor cabinet. Worked every time. Alas they’re a different breed today. They’re all woked up.”

Paradoxically, perhaps, all of them were promising some version of a fresh start, following something of an exodus. As well as the mayor, Rachel Reese, the deputy and five councillors are not seeking re-election. And hopes for a reasonably diverse new intake would have been lifted to some extent by the forum of “newbies” earlier in the day, which included a reasonable gender split as well as candidates from Māori and ethnic minority communities. 

There was also the now commonplace challenging of one would-be councillor over reported links to Voices for Freedom. “I’m on the email newsletter list, that’s all,” the candidate said. When the audience member asked again, she conceded she had agreed to speak at a VFF event, taking the “opportunity to talk on digital privacy”.

Council culture

Nelson is in recovery mode. Floods that struck three weeks ago triggered hundreds of landslides, with more than 150 homes across the region red-stickered. Almost every candidate at both meetings pointed to repair of homes and infrastructure as a priority. Some stressed that such events are returning with increasing frequency, thanks to a heating planet. 

What absorbed greater attention on Sunday, however, was the repair job required within a city council that has become, as O’Donnell put it, “plagued with accusations of bullying, factions, and a lack of professional support”. 

nelson council building
Councillors are unhappy with code of conduct processes at Nelson City Council (Image: RNZ/ Tracy Neal)

Simmering antagonism between Tim Skinner, a right-leaning councilllor, and both Matt Lawrey and Rohan O’Neill-Stevens, who lean the other way, was palpable. Skinner defended his role in an altercation with a protester that saw him judged in breach of the council code of conduct. He’d “had to tolerate political party bullying around the council table”, he said. He asserted that O’Neill-Stevens, who is a Green Party member but standing as an independent, voted in accordance with the Green “agenda”. “Tim, you can make things up but that doesn’t make them true,” countered O’Neill-Stevens.

“You’re speaking a narrative here,” said Skinner.

“Tim, I have never, in my life, been told how to vote.”

“Well, you can say that.”

Given his claims of political party interference, how come, Skinner was asked, he was the only one standing for a ticket, the Nelson Citizens Alliance, the group which took out a four-page “election special liftout” in the latest edition of the Nelson Weekly? “The NCA are a bunch of people with various views – I don’t know which political party they vote for in central government – they’ve made it very clear they’ve stood to give back to the community.” 

Smith was asked whether his own exit from parliament under a “cloud of controversy” over alleged bullying undermined his claims to be well placed to reform the council’s toxic culture. He said: “I don’t know anybody who has served 30 years in parliament without some kind of controversy … There was an incident that occurred a little over two years ago, where I swore, and I raised my voice. I immediately apologised.” 

He added: “I have learned from that,” before stressing that many people had worked in his Nelson HQ over his three decades in parliament. He urged anyone tempted to extrapolate from one incident “to talk to any of the 10 people who have worked in my office”.

“None of them are capable of telling the truth,” muttered a man nudging past me. He continued on to the bathroom where he dry-retched for several minutes. 

Nelson’s Maitai river after it burst its banks on August 18, 2022. (Photo: CHRIS SYMES/AFP via Getty Images)

A full plate

The Queen notwithstanding, the same set of issues predominated in both debates. The post-flood rebuild. Housing. a deflated CBD and the soul of the city. Three waters. The library. The long-discussed Southern Link roading proposal, and what to do given Waka Kotahi won’t prioritise it. Preparing for a changing climate. And – an issue that sparked quite heated debate at the evening debate – whether microchipping of domestic cats should be mandatory. 

Kerry Neal pushed throughout the night the line that everything had “fallen apart” since the 80s. Lawrey said he’d be a “determinedly positive mayor”. Skinner said he’d be “straight” and approachable”. O’Neill-Stevens urged “a new kind of leadership”, and a willingness to admit when wrong.

Smith roused the crowd by taking aim at the halls of power he once stalked. Nelson and the region was getting just “the crumbs off the table” for the millions spent on petrol and road tax. “We’re getting screwed by the Wellingtons and the Aucklands”, he said at the afternoon meeting. He would be “rattling the cage hard to get our fair share of the transport pie, for cycling, walking, buses and freight”. He further insisted, to a mixed response, that the swollen price tag for a new library mean the project as a whole should be “put on ice”.

Lawrey cautioned against an “austerity” approach, which could only mean “we’re not going to get the smart city we deserve, we’re not going to get a city that attracts talent, that retains talent, that retains young people – these are the things we need for the future.”

With the widest name recognition and the fattest CV – he rarely missed a chance to remind us he’s held 15 portfolios – Nick Smith is, according to most of the people I spoke to over a weekend in Nelson, the favourite. It’s made a little more complicated, however, by the city’s decision to move to single transferable vote (if you need a refresher, try this). 

With that in mind, the candidates were asked whom they’d advise their backers to write a “2” beside on their voting forms. “You know what, folk,” said Neal, “I haven’t even started to study this amazing new system.” Lawrey went next: O’Neill-Stevens, he said. Actually, wait, said Neal, I back Skinner. Smith, said Skinner. Lawrey, said O’Neill-Stevens. Skinner, said Smith.

The motel 

The final word goes to someone who wasn’t on the stage at the mayoral debate, but did take to her feet at the candidates’ meeting. Bernie Goldsmith is one of two candidates for the single Māori ward seat, newly introduced for this election. She was enthusiastic about Whakatū, she told the crowd at Tozzetti. But the city was not a slice of paradise for everyone. 

“It’s been an unusual week,” she said. “I got my flash flyers, had my new shoes on, had my Māori roll with 1,700 beautiful people I was going to visit. I was at Tāhuna, and I couldn’t find them. Where were they? Where’s my people so I can get them to vote for me? So after about an hour and a half I was leaning against the Muritai Street dairy and looked across the road at the motel there. I thought: are they there? So I walked across the road and I walked in …

“I knocked and a beautiful Māori woman comes to the door, and I start my speech. She goes: ‘I know who you are. I’ve seen the billboards – I’ve heard about you.’ I said, do you know where the Māori people are? She said: ‘They’re all here.’ And I looked around and thought: is this emergency housing? Is this where our people are?”

It was the same across the city, she said, as affordable rentals dried up. “Gentrification has pushed our people out of places like Toi Toi Street, Tāhuna, Nelson South, and pushed them into motels. It’s a real eye-opener.” She said: “It’s hard to get them to vote, as well! So if we don’t get a high turnout this time, aroha mai. We’ll get there eventually.”

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