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Nick Smith: ‘Our council has lost its way – I would encourage electors to vote for change’. (Photo: Toby Manhire / Design: Archi Banal)
Nick Smith: ‘Our council has lost its way – I would encourage electors to vote for change’. (Photo: Toby Manhire / Design: Archi Banal)

Local Elections 2022September 15, 2022

Nick Smith is engineering a political comeback

Nick Smith: ‘Our council has lost its way – I would encourage electors to vote for change’. (Photo: Toby Manhire / Design: Archi Banal)
Nick Smith: ‘Our council has lost its way – I would encourage electors to vote for change’. (Photo: Toby Manhire / Design: Archi Banal)

In his 31st year at parliament, Nick Smith suddenly quit. Now, after a stint with the family company, he’s back and running for the Nelson mayoralty. But is he really the man to repair what he calls a ‘toxic and dysfunctional’ council? Toby Manhire meets the political veteran in Nelson. 

Joe Biden began Nick Smith’s life in politics. It was 1983 and Smith, nearing the end of school, had travelled to the state of Delaware on an exchange programme. The headmaster at the Quaker school where he was studying asked him how he was finding things. The maths and science lessons, said the teenager, were covering territory he knew already. “That won’t do,” said the headmaster, by Smith’s account, and so he was instead sent along to American politics classes. 

Not long after, Senator Joe Biden paid a visit, and got talking to the kid from New Zealand. He invited him to do some work experience at the state capitol. “I’m really more of Republican,” said the kid. “I’m not really on the left.” “Not a problem,” was the future president’s response, and he hooked him up with the other side. “That contact triggered my interest in politics,” says Smith today. “I did five weeks as an assistant in the Delaware state parliament. I learnt the ropes and caught the bug.”

That bug sunk its teeth into Smith and never let go. On returning home to Nelson, New Zealand, the precocious teenager ran for the Rangiora District Council while still at school. He missed out narrowly, but went again three years later, successfully. In the meantime he completed his engineering study and went to work for the family firm, Smith Cranes.

In 1990, Smith was elected to the parliamentary seat of Tasman for the National Party. When boundaries were redrawn for MMP in 1996, he won the seat of Nelson, and kept on winning it, serving in the cabinets of Jim Bolger, Jenny Shipley, John Key and his old friend Bill English. He lost the seat in the red tide of 2020, when Rachel Boyack was elected for Labour.

Smith was returned as a list MP for his 31st year as a parliamentarian, but, he says, he soon determined to retire by the end of the term. That decision was expedited, messily, however, when he exited after reportedly being warned by people close to then party leader Judith Collins that media were about to report on bullying allegations that were the subject of investigation by Parliamentary Service. 

And so Smith went back to the family firm, the company his brothers had built into the country’s biggest crane operation, worth, by the NBR’s estimate, more than $250 million. He swapped the exercise of one kind of power for the collection of another, managing the installation of giant wind farms on both islands. It’s involved a lot of travel, and a fair bit of “hard labour”, says Smith when we meet at The Styx cafe, down on the water to the west of Port Nelson. But when the mayor of the city, Rachel Reese, announced she wouldn’t be seeking re-election, the bug bit again. 

Bushy-tailed as ever at 57, Smith says he knows a shift to local government would take some adjusting. “It’s a learning curve,” he says. “If I am successful I have quite a lot of work to do. I have to change my ways – in the sense of looking at things not through a party political or central government lens, but looking a things in terms what they mean for local government. It’s a work in progress.”

He’s not shy in trumpeting the experience he has accumulated, however. At campaign events in Nelson on Sunday, Smith, who is standing as an independent, made frequent mention of his ministerial roles, reminding audience at least three times that he has held “15 different portfolios”. The devastating floods that struck the region last month, and the repair jobs they entail, play to his strengths, he says – the veteran politician and the civil engineer. His PhD subject was landslides, and not the electoral type. 

As the famous Nelson sun beams in through the window, Smith pulls from an orange folder the results of a survey he has commissioned from Curia, David Farrar’s polling company. He flicks to a page that supports his case. In answer to the question “Which mayoral candidate do you think has the best skills and experience to help rebuild Nelson’s infrastructure and recover from [the] storm damage?” 28% of respondents to the poll, conducted in late August, chose Smith, with councillor Matt Lawrey the next on 9%. “Unsure” was way out in front on 52%, and, yes, the question plays neatly to the Brand Smith strengths, but it’s a compelling result all the same.

Smith refuses to share the poll’s top line on voting intentions, but says he’s clear it won’t be a walk in the park. Three current councillors are mounting serious campaigns: Lawrey, who leans left, and Tim Skinner, who leans the other way. Rohan O’Neill-Stevens, a Green Party member standing as an independent, was elected to council in 2019 at 19 – younger even than Smith four decades earlier.

The task is complicated for Smith by a couple of things. The municipal electorate does not match that of Nelson’s parliamentary seat, with the most conservative areas outside the boundary. Even in defeat in 2020, booths in Richmond backed Smith to about 60%, he says. “So it’s a harder gig from that perspective.”

It’s also the first time the city will elect its council and mayor via the single transferable vote system. Under first-past-the-post, a mayor could be elected with a plurality – with, say, 40% of votes. Under STV, second preferences routinely come in to play; being ranked number one more than your rivals is no guarantee of victory.

While Smith bangs the drum of experience, he is simultaneously pitching himself as Mr Change, a new broom pushed by a veteran janitor. His stump speeches begin with a lamentation of a city he loves but “our council has lost its way – I would encourage electors to vote for change”.  

Dr Nick Smith in 2015, when he was minister for building and housing (Phil Walter, Getty Images)

As has been widely documented, Nelson City Council got ugly, over and over again, during the last three years. Every candidate is pledging to mount a repair job on a culture that Smith says has become “toxic and dysfunctional”. He turns to another page in the poll report, which shows 43% assessing the council performance over the last three years as below average, 37% average and just 14% above average. 

But, wait a second. If the culture of the council is toxic and dysfunctional, is the person to turn it around really someone who left parliament in a mist of controversy, amid staff accusations of bullying and harassment and an investigation by Parliamentary Service? “Look,” he says. “Thirty years in parliament. Nobody does 30 years in parliament without having some controversies. The difficulty about any public comments on it is that, whether you work for The Spinoff, parliament or council, you don’t talk about staffing matters publicly.”

He’ll say this much: “There was an incident more than two years ago that I regret. I lost my cool. I swore. I apologised at the time and I have learnt from it. In terms of culture issues at the council, some of those come down to just not understanding basic governance. It is absolutely clear to me that there has been a breakdown at council in the understanding between governance and management, whether it’s councillors having expectations about defining the colour of the paint on the toilet wall, which was one example given to me, or staff feeling extremely frustrated they’re getting multiple directions from different councillors and not knowing what to do, and councillors feeling frustrated, or the accusations from them that council staff are disrespectful of the governance body –” He takes a breath. “For it to work it is going to need a good level of clarity.” 

As for his personal modus operandi, Smith challenges detractors to talk to anyone in the city who has worked with him. “It’s a small community, everybody is so connected,” he says. “You can’t afford to burn bridges. You know, your kids go to the same school as the journalists at the Nelson Mail, or the business persons in the tennis club, all of that stuff … If you take the issues associated with my retirement from parliament, well, there’s over a dozen people that have worked in my office. One of them has worked for me for 26 years, she was on the public record and said she was surprised by what she read happened in Wellington, because she hadn’t heard me swear in 26 years of work.”

He says: “The bulk of the Nelson people are making a judgment about whether they want me as as mayor not based on a secondhand report in a newspaper or through a television broadcast, but because they’ve met with me or had some dealing with me over the course of 30 years. And I like it that way.”

One more thing on the parliamentary retirement. The warning to expect a media expose turned out to be wrong, a chimera. Did he get shafted? He won’t say. “I’m just not really interested in relitigating those issues … I just made a decision that that was as good a time as any to retire. And I’m not without fault. I regret the incident that occurred. I think the circumstances around it were exaggerated. But that’s just the nature of parliamentary politics.”

Still, in general terms, and with the very strange Gaurav Sharma saga fresh in minds, it’s fair to say politics makes an unorthodox workplace compared to, say, engineering. “That’s true,” he says. “The relationship between staff and an MP is really difficult, you know. I’ve had situations where staff have said: ‘You as minister don’t treat me as an equal, and you should’. Well, I’m sorry, that’s unrealistic. The very job of your parliamentarians – and it equally applies to mayor and councillors – is to hold the public sector to account. And if you start having the government and the bureaucracy deciding who are the elected people, you start actually breaking down.”

Campaign signage, then and now.

Smith opposes three waters, saying the case for the reform is overstated, and that Nelson, as one of the country’s few unitary authorities that does not have a separate, overlapping council, is an example of what works. That’s made even clearer in the response to the floods – adding a remote authority to the rebuild would just complicate matters, he’s argues.

Those floods are another reminder, as if any were needed, of the broiling threats exacted by a heating climate. There will be difficult decisions ahead about potential managed retreat, he says, prompted not just by flood risk but by the seismic threats lurking beneath the region, and the liquefaction those could bring. It comes down, he says, to “an economic analysis of what infrastructure will be required to protect against the risk”. 

He may be a spring chicken alongside President Biden, but does Smith still have the political ticker? “The honest truth is when you’re 57, your mind isn’t as sharp,” he says with a grimace. “So the capacity to be able to absorb information, keep it and recall it, isn’t as sharp as it was when I was a minister or member of parliament. But you make up for it in terms of the experience and background knowledge.” His political ability to re-engineer a question to his advantage is sharp as ever. “Three waters,” he says, beginning a count on his fingers. “The future of government. RMA changes. You know, I was on the select committee in 1991 that wrote the RMA. and the RMA was going to be the answer to all things. It didn’t quite work out that way.” 

Those three decades in parliament include working constructively across the aisle, Smith says. “You build good strong relationships with people over long periods.” He points to David Parker as an example. “The number of conversations we’ve had behind the bike sheds  – both of us were really frustrated in that we had for 15 years ping-pong between having a carbon tax and an emissions trading scheme,” he says. Parker resisted “a lot of pressure from New Zealand First for Labour to switch back” in 2017, says Smith. “And David held the line.” 

If he returns to Wellington with Nelson mayor on his business cards, Smith reckons he’ll get a warm reception. “They know who you are, you know? They know your warts and your weaknesses, as well as your strengths. But in my view simply knowing your way around Wellington will be an advantage,” he says. 

“Here’s the last thing,” he says as I usher him outside for a photograph. “I think it is inevitable, regardless of government, for the next three years, that there is going to be substantive change in local government. The storm clouds are gathering. They’ve actually been gathering for about a decade. Regardless of your view on three waters, or the big planning changes associated with RMA, or the Future of Local Government [reform programme], change at least as big as what happened in the 1980s is about to occur. And that is one of the things that’s motivated me to actually want to be the mayor. It’s a real opportunity to lay the foundations for effective local government for this community for the next couple of decades. Right?”

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