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Marcus Lush in front of his Bluff home (Photo supplied, additional design Archi Banal)
Marcus Lush in front of his Bluff home (Photo supplied, additional design Archi Banal)

Local Elections 2022September 20, 2022

Marcus Lush doesn’t want to be Invercargill’s ‘celebrity mayor’ 

Marcus Lush in front of his Bluff home (Photo supplied, additional design Archi Banal)
Marcus Lush in front of his Bluff home (Photo supplied, additional design Archi Banal)

The broadcaster says his campaign to replace Tim Shadbolt hinges on substance rather than profile – ‘it’s not like I’ve done a sex tape,’ he tells Stewart Sowman-Lund. 

“That’s bullshit,” says Marcus Lush, Newstalk ZB broadcaster, Invercargill councillor – and hopeful Invercargill mayor.

I’m sitting at the dining table in his coastal Bluff home, against the backdrop of crashing waves and wild wind. Outside, there’s a biting Antarctic chill but inside it’s warm, a fire crackling in the corner of the kitchen. It’s the morning after a productive but generally civil debate between nine candidates running to become mayor and Lush is tired.

The “bullshit” in question is one of the primary criticisms levelled at Lush’s mayoral campaign: that he’s a “celebrity” riding a wave of name recognition. It’s a charge put by his opponents who have publicly wondered whether he’s the right person to become mayor. But Lush doesn’t buy it. “I’m not a Kardashian, it’s not like I’ve done a sex tape,” he says, deadpan. “I am well-known because I’ve worked as a broadcaster since 1988, I’ve done documentaries and I’ve done radio shows, award-winning ones. My profile is a result of that.” 

Along with criticisms about his status as a so-called “celebrity” – something that’s also been flung at the incumbent and long-serving mayor Sir Tim Shadbolt – there have been questions about whether Lush could balance the responsibilities of office with his long-running radio show on Newstalk ZB. Even if he wins the mayoral chains, he says he’ll be continuing on the 8pm to midnight talkback shift, which he broadcasts nationwide from an Invercargill studio. That provoked one candidate at a recent mayoral debate to promise they wouldn’t be a “part-time mayor”, prompting some murmurs from the crowd.

Lush seems shocked that anyone could even suggest that both jobs might be too much to juggle. In fact, he thinks holding both would be a good thing for Southland. “If you want something done, ask a busy person,” he tells me. “I couldn’t give that show up. Any council in the country, to have their mayor on air for 20 hours a week with an audience of a quarter of a million people, they’d crawl over broken glass to have that opportunity.”

Another mayoral hopeful suggested to me that Lush had on several occasions left council meetings early in order to get to the ZB studio in time. “The mayor can dictate when the meetings are,” counters Lush, promising to both his potential constituents and his devoted radio audience that he would stick around in both jobs for at least the next three years. “I feel very, very confident with that. I think it’s a huge advantage… I probably mention Invercargill 30 times a night. That’d be more KPIs for one show than there would be for a whole year.”

There have been no official polls of the Invercargill race, but Lush is quietly confident he’s near the top of the pack, citing a recent self-selecting Stuff survey as evidence (though he’s fully aware it’s not scientific).

Marcus Lush speaks at a recent Invercargill mayoral debate (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

Lush may reject the title of “celebrity” but there’s no doubting his profile. To many, he’ll always be the host of beloved local documentaries like Off The Rails and South. To others, he’ll forever be one of the hosts of student radio station 95bFM. And to thousands of loyal listeners he’s the late night ZB host that’s happy to chat about anything (and who occasionally goes viral for tackling questionable views from his callers).

Then, in 2021, he successfully ran for Invercargill City Council. He won a by-election triggered by the sudden departure of then-deputy mayor (and now mayoral candidate) Toni Biddle. Those questions of “celebrity” were raised during that campaign too. He joined council after a rocky few years for the south, during which concerns were raised about the performance of Shadbolt (who is running again this year, aiming for a 10th term) and other councillors.

Lush had only been on council for a year when he decided to run for mayor. There was no lightbulb moment that prompted his campaign, he says, instead it was a “gradual process”. He hints at more specific events, but declines to elaborate. “Things just happened and I could see the outcome and thought that probably wasn’t the right outcome,” he explains. He also says people had asked him to run, including mayors from outside the Southland area. “I felt quite heartened by that.” 

For many, running for public office would be stressful, or exciting, or a mix of both. Lush describes his decision to campaign as freeing. “Someone told me the problem with politics is it makes you bitter. That’s not what I’m about. If this doesn’t happen for me I’ll be the happiest person on the block. And if it does, boy oh boy I’ll work my heart out.” 

Invercargill city centre (Photo: George Driver)

Lush has three policy priorities. “Get the playground, get the museum, get the trams.” He then adds: “And make Invercargill a really fun place to be.”

In sum, Lush wants to make Invercargill the “welcome city”, pledging to herald a growth in tourism and permanent settlers. Like everywhere, Invercargill is facing a worker crisis and Lush is worried the city may run out of skilled people to fill jobs in healthcare and hospitality. “New Zealand’s short of 100,000 workers, the baby boomers are retired and after Covid everyone’s going overseas,” he says. “And what New Zealand is to the world, Invercargill is to New Zealand. We’re miles away, it’s $1,000 return from Auckland. We’re in trouble in terms of attracting skilled people.”

Part of his plan to ensure a surge in visitors is to make the city more vibrant. He wants to create New Zealand’s “biggest and best playground” within three years, a proposal partly modelled on the success of Christchurch’s Margaret Mahy playground. His face lights up at the prospect of seeing “happy kids running up and down slides” and suggests a public naming contest could be held. 

In year six, Lush wants the Southland museum to reopen and become the country’s “best museum”. Plans to see the famously pyramidical building – which closed in 2018 due to being an earthquake risk – reopened can be found on several mayoral candidates’ policy lists. Lush says he’s not entirely onboard with the existing proposal, suggesting it needs a sprinkle of “magic dust”. “It’s got to be as good as a Len Lye [Centre, an extension of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth] or a Hundertwasser [Art Centre in Whāngarei] – you’ve got to make it good enough that people will come for it,” he says. 

Then, in another three years, Lush wants to see the city’s trams return. “We’ve really got to start getting stuff. So for me it’s playground, museum, tram.” His opponents have expressed concern about the potential price tag of these policies, labelling them “fanciful” and suggesting they can’t be funded from “thin air”. Lush, however, remains confident rate payers won’t have to cough up anything more – but he’s not entirely sure yet, or at least not fully prepared to say, where the money will come from. “There will be ways to fund that. That will be a huge challenge, but that will be exciting. I think what mayors can do is that they can drive projects,” he says. “We’re competing against Queenstown and Dunedin – and we haven’t got a steepest street.”

All of this contributes to Lush’s vision: to make the deep south a more welcoming place for visitors. After Shadbolt’s three decade mayoralty ensured Invercargill was put squarely on the map, Lush now wants to make sure there are actually people willing to visit and to fill jobs. “They say accountants deal with the past, marketers deal with the present – and leaders deal with the future,” he says. “People need to feel really embraced when they come down here.”

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