One Question Quiz
Paula Southgate: ‘Start it, make it successful, walk away. That’s what you should do as a politician.’ (Photo: Facebook / Design: Archi Banal)
Paula Southgate: ‘Start it, make it successful, walk away. That’s what you should do as a politician.’ (Photo: Facebook / Design: Archi Banal)

Local Elections 2022September 22, 2022

‘Don’t mistake being nice for being weak’: Paula Southgate and the ‘nice mayor’ label

Paula Southgate: ‘Start it, make it successful, walk away. That’s what you should do as a politician.’ (Photo: Facebook / Design: Archi Banal)
Paula Southgate: ‘Start it, make it successful, walk away. That’s what you should do as a politician.’ (Photo: Facebook / Design: Archi Banal)

As she seeks re-election to the Hamilton mayoralty, Paula Southgate tells Aimie Cronin it’s wrong to conflate niceness with inability to get things done.

I saw mayor of Hamilton Paula Southgate in the flesh for the first time about a month ago. It was obvious she was on the job even though she was in a bar – she had an urgency about her as she worked her way around groups. She stood out despite her title, wearing this tailored grey and black check suit. Because she’s so tall (nearly six foot three), the suit seemed endless and a bit magical, like she was Willy Wonka or something. No one really dresses like that in Hamilton. I felt happy that the city’s mayor was no longer the owner of a finance company and used car yard, but a woman who was moving around like a big-time operator looking sharp, cool, important. 

When I met her for coffee last week at a spot by the river, who knows what she was wearing, but her energy was the same. I arrived first and sat there trying to imagine how the encounter would begin; if she would shake my hand, what with Covid etcetera, or hug, or nothing. It was the latter. She came striding down the path talking on her cellphone and I hovered next to her until she was off the call. She seemed like she wanted to get on with business, like all good, busy mayors.

She had suggested we meet at the Vietnamese restaurant Banh Mi Caphe in town, but it was closed. She wondered aloud if the owners might let us in, her being the mayor and all. She wanted to give them a shoutout, she said, because they had been good to her. She poked her head in and someone who worked there frowned: “Closed.” Off we went with nowhere to go, but with the appearance of two people who were heading somewhere of the utmost importance. 

We ended up at Mr Pickles, the bar where I had first seen her. She ordered a single shot cappuccino even though it was 3pm and usually, she will take only chamomile tea after 2. 

Paula Southgate is nearly 59, she’s got a deepish voice, a bit of an English accent (she moved to New Zealand from England aged 15), and an endless-seeming stamina hovers over our conversation that made her appear as though she could talk about something or nothing for an infinite amount of time. If she were to enter one of those competitions where the person who touches the car the longest wins it, she would win the car without a doubt. The council’s draft annual plan meeting earlier this year took six days: “Boring!” says her rival deputy mayor Geoff Taylor, but Southgate is proud of her collaborative leadership style and says she likes to give everyone at the table a voice, even if it takes an age. 

Paula Southgate has been in local politics for a very long time. Specifically, 21 years. She has belonged to more groups and fronted more projects than any sane person would care to hear about in detail and she talks about them as though they are all very interesting. “Typical politician,” she said at one point, “chat, chat, chat.”

She wanted to communicate that despite being a career politician, she is also a person who embodies the spirit of the Geoff Taylor campaign slogan “making things happen”. She talked about a successful project she led at the regional council years ago that brought tūī back to the city. She credited so many people she tied herself up in knots, but the point is she fronted a project, worked with others well, and got something done. At one point she leant forward and dramatically banged the table, “that’s the good thing about projects,” she said, bang! “Start it, make it successful, walk away. That’s what you should do as a politician.”

A few moments later, she looked out to the river and said, “I guess people forget you are the reason that the tūī are back,” and it feels like a real moment. Then she immediately corrected herself, “I’m not taking all the credit!” she said, and listed again all the other people and groups who had anything at all to do with tūī at that time.  

Paula Southgate speaks during the Fifa Women’s World Cup ‘One Year To Go’ event at FMG Stadium Waikato. (Photo: Mike Walen/Getty Images for FIFA)

She seemed nice. “One of the biggest frustrations on this campaign is that people keep saying I’m nice,” she said, “and that nice people don’t get things done. That’s not true.” She seemed like she had practiced what she was going to say on certain matters like being nice, and when she spoke these words they came off in a sweet, rehearsed way, as though she was in a high school speech competition. Toward the end of our interview, she returned to the nice thing: “Don’t mistake nice for being weak, it’s not,” she said. “I can make hard decisions, I’ve shown that time and again. I personally prefer to collaborate and to partner, and I don’t mind being nice because I would rather be known for being nice than for being horrible, and it is a democracy not an autocracy. I do get things done, I’m very positive, I’m very collaborative; that’s what people will get if they vote for me.” 

It’s a testament, I think, to her niceness, that she seems to be very uncomfortable with the situation she finds herself in as she goes up against Geoff Taylor, current deputy mayor. There has been a falling out over the handling of Three Waters. Both are opposed to the reforms, but Taylor believes she should have stood up more aggressively to central government, that she’s sat on the fence when she should have given parliament the middle finger from the onset. 

“I didn’t like it 18 months ago,” she said, “but we thought we could influence it and that government would listen, and we tried. The model is not right for Hamilton, we all absolutely agree it is not right for Hamilton and we reject the bill. That’s the way it goes. You can’t be a blanket naysayer and say no, no, no to everything. What I would say is that I have always believed that across New Zealand, some reform in the way that water is managed is required, and both National and Labour have said that.”

Taylor says she has been seduced by Wellington and her inability to make traction against Three Waters is a sign of weak leadership; she says her approach has been “constructive and informed”. 

Same goes with central government’s resource management reform, that will allow three-storey apartments to be built through the city and its suburbs. Southgate said council had spent a lot of time planning how it would grow the city, “and then they came and trumped that with the medium density requirements for tier one councils and we were horrified, because all of a sudden instead of intensity going where we’re sitting in the CBD … it could go anywhere, like scattered seeds, right? And like everyone else, I was like, no.

“We opposed it, the government rushed it through, we didn’t have a lot of time to talk with our public about it, and the only tool we have available to us now is the district plan. Geoff could say we are being too weak. Perhaps he wants to say a blanket no to this, too, but what would a blanket no do? It’s a law. We have to give effect to the law.” She said council can’t stop it, but can soften it by looking at things like green space and traffic management. 

Paula Southgate has no shiny new projects she will be pushing in her campaign for a second term as mayor. “I’m going to continue the good work that we as a council, not just me, the collective council, said was important for the community.” She listed off a few of those things: finishing the revitalisation of suburbs Fairfield and Enderley, finish revitalisation of the Hamilton Zoo, revitalise the central city, implement safety improvements to intersections. Does she think Geoff Taylor could get these things done? “No matter who the mayor is, things get done, right, it’s just how things get done.” 

“My challenge, if I was going to be cheeky,” she said, “is to ask what has Geoff made happen on his own? Because I can talk a lot about what we, collectively, as a team have made happen.”

“What has he made happen,” she asked, looking at me like she expects an answer.

“Umm. Two hours free parking in the CBD?” 

“OK, that’s one thing … He was politically strong on two hours free parking,” she conceded, before rallying. “But of course everything needs the consensus decision of council and there wouldn’t be two hours free parking in the CBD if the majority of council hadn’t lined up with him. So how does that work?”

Please don’t make me answer again, I thought, avoiding eye contact. 

“No mayor can do anything without consensus. Not at all.”

This election will be the first time Hamiltonians who bother to vote will use the single transferable vote system (STV). Neither mayoral candidate knows how things will shake out as a result of it. Southgate said she has been going around saying (she lowers her voice and sticks one finger out), “make me your first choice! Make me your number one!” to try and imprint the process in people’s minds. In 2016, she lost by an aching six votes to Andrew King, owner of Kings Finance and Kings Cars. She insists she didn’t stay up any nights swearing about it. That seems unlikely. 

I read through the transcript of our coffee meeting later and realised I failed to ask her about rates. Will she increase them as mayor? I texted her asking. I was met with silence when I asked the same thing of Geoff Taylor. She diligently replied with a whole lot of words that don’t answer either way, suggesting she probably will. I think she’s nice all right, but it will take a lot to get the politician out of Paula Southgate.

Follow our politics podcast Gone By Lunchtime on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.

Keep going!