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four queenstown mayoral candidates sit in a row, olivia wensley is blonde with a jacket, glyn lewers is short and stocky and wearing a grey suit, neeta shetta has dip dyed hair and a blazer, jon mitchell is a bald white man with long legs in jeans
Queenstown mayoral candidates are focused on tourism and housing pressures. (Image: Shanti Mathias/ Design: Tina Tiller)

Local Elections 2022September 16, 2022

‘The golden goose is cooked’: Mayoral hopefuls debate the future of Queenstown

four queenstown mayoral candidates sit in a row, olivia wensley is blonde with a jacket, glyn lewers is short and stocky and wearing a grey suit, neeta shetta has dip dyed hair and a blazer, jon mitchell is a bald white man with long legs in jeans
Queenstown mayoral candidates are focused on tourism and housing pressures. (Image: Shanti Mathias/ Design: Tina Tiller)

Mass tourism is a big concern. So is housing. What do Queenstown’s mayoral candidates plan to do about it?

At three mayoral debates in Queenstown this week, voters were treated to plenty of moments of local body bizarreness from the candidates – Al Angus stalking out of one debate, Jon Mitchell comparing roadworks in Queenstown’s CBD to New World’s SMEG knives promotion (“it’s an attractive prospect, but then people get cut”) and Daniel Shand suggesting removing the council building’s doors would promote transparency. In the end, however, issues of substance won the day.

In Tāhuna, six people are running for mayor to replace Jim Boult, who has led Queenstown Lakes District Council (QLDC) since 2016. The four leading candidates are close in early polling with serial candidates Shand and Angus trailing the pack. At debates hosted by the Catalyst Trust, local publication Crux and the Queenstown Chamber of Commerce, the focus was on economic diversification, council listening more to communities, the pressures of the tourism industry and how to fund needed infrastructure. 

big sign of livia wensley in the sunshine
Wensley indicated that she expects to spend more than $20,000 on her Queenstown mayoralty campaign (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

The pack of four

Olivia Wensley is a lawyer known for taking the #MeToo movement to the Law Society over treatment of women in legal workplaces. She is currently on leave from her role at Startup Queenstown Lakes, an organisation that encourages and supports innovative businesses to work in the region. Wensley’s campaign has been backed by local millionaire Rod Drury – founder of Xero – but she said that she only accepted a $2,000 contribution from him, as she doesn’t want to be “owned” by anyone, and that the rest of her campaign funds were coming from family and friends.

Jon Mitchell ran unsuccessfully as an MP for Labour in Southland in 2020. The disaster management expert was born and raised in Queenstown and has worked extensively with local government in Aotearoa and overseas. He says he has renounced his Labour membership and has extensive experience in making central government listen, but no party ties. 

Neeta Shetty describes herself as a “business owner, mother and passionate community member.” She’s lived in Queenstown since 2006, and has worked at various councils around New Zealand, including QLDC, as well as running a restaurant. She says that she is not a politician, but someone focussed on grassroots solutions and building public trust. 

Glyn Lewers is the only current serving councillor contesting the mayoralty. The engineer won a council seat with a coin toss in 2019, and says that the Queenstown district has given him lots of opportunities, and now he wants to give back. He wants to focus on community spaces, responding to the climate crisis and building infrastructure that supports locals and visitors.

five candidates sit in front of queenstown business signs
Tracey Roxburgh and Richie Heap moderate the Queenstown Chamber of Commerce debate (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

Tourism top of mind

All four candidates agreed that tourism in Queenstown needs to change. Wensley, who wore bright blazers and big smiles at every event The Spinoff attended, mentioned repeatedly that she had done a survey of 400 people and found that only 2% wanted tourism in Queenstown to increase from 2019 levels.

“We haven’t just killed the golden goose – the golden goose is cooked,” she said, adding that pressure on road and housing infrastructure from tourists wasn’t sustainable to residents. She said that she wanted to create an economic development agency for the Queenstown Lakes area to encourage investment and alleviate housing pressure with build-to-rent models supported by superannuation funds. 

“Build fewer beds and fewer people will come,” said Mitchell, who looked relaxed on stage, saying that his family has been intimately involved in the tourist industry for several generations. He said that Airbnb needed to be better regulated, so that local residents didn’t have a hard time finding rental accomodation while visitors occupied housing stock. 

Lewers, repeatedly taking flak from other candidates for not doing enough during his time on council, and in turn explaining why their ideas were not going to be viable with council process, said that council had already placed limits on Airbnb accommodation, and that a visitor levy – mooted by a 2019 referendum, and recently reopened by council as visitor numbers increase – could help to fund some of the necessary changes. All four candidates agreed that a levy of some kind would be useful.

four candidates in a high school auditorium
Audiences look on at a Wakatipu High School/Catalyst Trust mayoral forum (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

Council spending was a focus at all three debates, with questions targeting Wensley for her father-in-law’s leaky Oak Shores development, where the council is now being sued by the body corporate for $163 million. “You can’t help who you love,” she said, even if that person is the son of a leaky property developer. She emphasised that the development was finished long before she even met her father-in-law, and that as mayor she’d ask other councillors to also be transparent about conflicts of interest. 

On three waters, candidates were wary, with Wensley and Shetty outwardly against the reforms while Lewers and Mitchell tried to take a pragmatic middle ground. Both articulated major concerns about local representation on water decisions, but pointed out that the legislation was already partially in place, and that if the council wasn’t responsible for water infrastructure, they would have significantly less debt. 

Climate change wasn’t a core focus of candidates pitches to voters, other than Lewers, who said it was a key policy area that he wanted to work on. “It’s all-encompassing and driving the decisions we make, it’s the biggest issue of the next three years,” he said at the Wakatipu High School event. 

The students running the event later pushed the other candidates for their thoughts on climate change. Shetty said she was willing to acknowledge her lack of expertise on the topic and learn from the experts to make sure that it was part of plans for Queenstown’s future. Mitchell said that his growth management strategy would address the carbon emissions driving climate change. Wensley said that reducing tourism to the region would reduce aviation-related emissions. 

At the end of the Wakatipu High School event, with an audience of around 200 filling the school’s auditorium, moderator David Williams asked how many people had changed their minds or decided who to vote for based on what they’d heard. Most of the hands in the room went up. 

queenstown lakes district council sign in sunshine
Wensley, Lewers, Mitchell, and Shetty are campaigning to lead the QLDC council (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

Speed dating the hopefuls

At the Queenstown Chamber of Commerce event,  a number of engaged locals “speed dated” council candidates to learn more about them. Each candidate stood in front of a whiteboard outlining their key policies. The Spinoff asked a punter if she had come to many events like this before. “I’ve been to lots, yes,” chuckled Vanessa van Uden, who turned out to be a former QLDC mayor. 

One local had an animated discussion about biking with Arrowtown-Kawarau ward candidate Danijel Duvnjak, who said he was focused on cultivating common sense and symbiosis. He approached The Spinoff after the event to discuss in-depth how the council could benefit from using blockchain technology to promote council transparency. 

Candidate Lisa Guy (who has multiple slogans, including “The only Guy you need”) said she wanted to use her skills from working in HR for many years to promote wellbeing in the Queenstown Lakes district, as well as using the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to make the environment a priority. 

Current polling conducted by Crux suggests Neeta Shetty is the leading mayoral candidate for the QLDC race. At the Crux debate, all four candidates were asked who they would vote for if not themselves – Shetty said Lewers, and all other candidates said Shetty. Voting papers are being sent out from today, and results for the QLDC race, along with all other local body elections, will be released on 8 October.

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