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The Invercargill Great Debate. Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund. Image: Archi Banal
The Invercargill Great Debate. Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund. Image: Archi Banal

Local Elections 2022September 15, 2022

Shadbolt a no-show as rivals pitch their case to replace him as Invercargill mayor

The Invercargill Great Debate. Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund. Image: Archi Banal
The Invercargill Great Debate. Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund. Image: Archi Banal

Nine candidates, one lobster. Stewart Sowman-Lund reports from an eventful mayoral debate in the deep south.

“It makes you think ‘why do I bother’ sometimes,” one Invercargill mayoral candidate told me of the fact that a slew of recent local election events had attracted middling crowds.

That assertion was levelled a few hours before a crowd packed into the Waiau Room of the Ascot Park Hotel, situated between the harness racing track and the cemetery on the edge of town. The jewel in the crown of Southland’s local election debate season, it was called the “Great Debate”, and the turnout lived up to the title. If there was any doubt that local election debates could still pull a crowd in 2022, this surely disproved it. 

The entree to the main debate came in the form of a “speed dating” event that allowed members of the public the chance to meet their prospective council candidates. For me, it offered the chance to feel the “vibe” in the room before the debate started. “Did you get the answers you wanted?” said one local heading as they headed for the toilet. “Yes and no,” another replied. 

Doors for the debate opened at 6.45pm, and a queue formed 15 minutes ahead of time. “It’s time we had some action ‘cause I don’t think we have in the last nine years,” said one early queuer. “It’s been quite dysfunctional.”

“Dysfunctional”, some would say, is an understatement. Invercargill’s council has attracted countless headlines over the past term of government. Two years ago, there was a warning from the DIA about “significant conflict” at the council. Then there were the workplace bullying allegations made by the current mayor. Add to that disputes over rental cars and a pair of damning governance reports that paint a concerning picture of council leadership. And those are just some examples.

Inside the conference hall, nine seats were lined up on a stage. There are 10 candidates running for the Invercargill mayoralty, but  the region’s most famous – the incumbent Sir Tim Shadbolt – declined to participate in the debate. Though not there in person, his presence was felt across a lot of the discussion, for better or worse.

First to take his seat was Nobby Clark, the current deputy mayor and the unofficial frontrunner. Then sat Noel Peterson. He’s a community board member and utilised the debate to proclaim himself an expert on everything from TikTok to the region’s best pies. He also goes by the title of “green wizard” due to his environmental beliefs, though these didn’t come up in the debate.

Jacqueline Walter was on stage early, too, wearing a light pink beret. She had been described to me earlier in the day as the only “fringe” candidate vying for mayoralty. Her performance at the debate proved that and some, including her pledge to lead a battle against central government. “The whole point of my campaign is that if we could turn back the clock and if I had been the mayor, we would have said no to the unnecessary lockdown,” she said, to audible groans and some laughter.

Her opening statement invoked independent MP Gaurav Sharma – “is Dr Sharma’s smile smarmy? Is he a troublemaker? Are his efforts channeled right?” – and included a condemnation of “socialism with a capital S”.

The remaining candidates filed in soon after: Newstalk ZB nights host Marcus Lush, long-serving councillor Darren Ludlow, former deputy mayor Toni Biddle, ex-MP Ria Bond, celebrity TikToker Tom Morton and Stevey “I’m an anthropologist not a conspiracy theorist” Chernishov (who is also running for seats on both the Southland District and Queenstown Lakes District councils).

MC Scotty Stevenson, who last week had the unenviable job of breaking the news of the Queen’s death while filling in on TVNZ’s Breakfast, took to the stage not long after 7pm. He brandished a toy lobster – “the lobster of shame” – which would be used to punish any candidates that spoke over their time. “I will adjudicate as I see fit throughout the evening,” he said. One event organiser later told me they were disappointed by how sparingly Stevenson used the lobster. I’ll admit I was too.

“In the spirit of all things Invercargill, we know we’re gonna have a fun night and we know we’re gonna have an interesting night,” said Stevenson. He was right on both counts.

Scotty Stevenson brandishes the lobster of shame (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

“Rates suck,” were the first words uttered during the debate, by councillor Ludlow. “Rates will go up, ’cause everything will. What you want to know is that you’re getting great value for your rate dollar. And for that you need a council that’s engaged and enabled and that’s what I want to deliver.”

Prudent spending was a recurrent theme throughout the evening. Lush promised “exciting and transformative” change in Invercargill, but pledged not to use taxpayer dollars for policies like “New Zealand’s best playground”, a fast-tracked new museum and the return of trams. Clark, who said he had been “quietly working away in the background” as deputy under Shadbolt, believed he could cut millions in council spending.

Chernishov, who was wearing two scarves – one around his neck and another around his waist – seemed less focused on the economics of being mayor but instead wanted to support the “beautiful people” running the council. He later added, in response to a question on climate change: “We’re trying to build a safe world… but we’ve forgotten about adventure, and fun, and nutrition… and being like ‘Cool, let’s be epic’.” Stevenson said: “I think one of the larger concerns for the room is doing all of that while not being underwater.”

Stevey Chernishov at an Invercargill debate (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

While he may have been physically absent from the debate, Shadbolt’s nearly 30-year stint as mayor was not. Earlier in the day I had walked through the city council building, observing that nearly every wall was adorned with a photograph or portrait bearing Shadbolt’s face. He was referenced several times throughout last night’s event – though often not by name – with some candidates appearing keen to avoid talking about the nationally recognisable figure.

Word on the ground was that the current mayor’s health struggles were preventing him from campaigning. But in a statement, read verbatim by MC Stevenson, the mayor said he chose not to attend because that would “direct focus to the manner of delivery of my message rather than the important content of my message”. Locals who spoke to me after the debate made it clear that they felt Shadbolt’s tenure as mayor had come to a natural end point – with one explaining that she didn’t want another “celebrity” mayor running the council.

Shadbolt’s statement continued: “After my nine terms in office, you should be well aware of my strengths and weaknesses. It is for my challengers to take up the gauntlet and prove themselves, to you.” 

Southland’s relationship with local government was also a topic of debate. Bond likely has the closest ties to Wellington, though her tenure as a New Zealand First MP only lasted two years. She promised to use her knowledge of parliament to the city’s advantage. “I advocated for members in our community from Invercargill to Wellington,” she said. “I was a member of the select committee of commerce and health and this experience brings multiple skills that I can utilise as your mayor… and I bring that experience to the city council.”

Friendlier issues included a discussion on who had experience with TikTok, prompting Morton to proclaim he was an “expert” and 69-year-old Peterson to say he “made one yesterday about how hard I work for the community”.

On the future of Invercargill’s city centre, candidates were divided on whether they endorsed completing stage two of the controversial streetscape project. Biddle said that because funding had already been allocated, she would “like to see something finished”. Lush responded “heck yes” while Morton called it “asinine” and claimed that it would benefit “bankers not housing people”. Bond called the city “tired” and said the plan would revitalise the area, but Clark questioned “why would you have a pedestrian-friendly area where you’ve got two massive carparks?” Debate later focused on the lack of “vibrancy” in the inner city, with Ludlow calling for the return of arts and culture.

The debate came to a close with a casual line of questioning about the best pie available at Invercargill’s famous Fat Bastard Pies. Responses ranged from steak and cheese (Bond) to lamb and kūmara (Lush) to “chicken and cranberry by the box” (Clark), while self-appointed “pie specialist” Peterson said he preferred the pies at Pak’nSave.

In the multiverse of Invercargill mayoral debates, the pie question would have been a tool used by MC Stevenson to bring the candidates back together after a tough debate. In reality, the entire evening was convivial. There was a surprising amount of agreement between those on stage – even Lush and Clark – and acknowledgement that anyone running for mayor deserved the respect of constituents. A smattering of groans aside, the audience was warm and receptive, giving hearty applause for the most detailed responses.

Shadbolt’s no-show might have extracted some of the dramatic sting from the event, but there is entertainment, too, in conviviality, and it left voters with plenty to chew on.

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