One Question Quiz
Invercargill’s deputy mayor Nobby Clark (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund, additional design Tina Tiller)
Invercargill’s deputy mayor Nobby Clark (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund, additional design Tina Tiller)

Local Elections 2022September 22, 2022

‘Good politicians are polarising’: Nobby Clark’s claim to Invercargill’s top job

Invercargill’s deputy mayor Nobby Clark (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund, additional design Tina Tiller)
Invercargill’s deputy mayor Nobby Clark (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund, additional design Tina Tiller)

Tim Shadbolt is the flamboyant, famous face, but ‘in effect I’ve been the mayor in everything but name’, says his deputy. Stewart Sowman-Lund meets him in Invercargill. 

I’m sitting in an office normally reserved for the mayor of Invercargill, but the man I’m facing isn’t the mayor. If he has his way, though, he will be in a few weeks. Nobby Clark, the current deputy mayor of Invercargill, is looking to unseat his boss, Sir Tim Shadbolt. He announced his intention to run earlier this year after previously saying he’d be quitting local politics altogether. Ultimately, he decided Invercargill needed a change of leadership and was worried about the prospect of another term under Shadbolt.

Without official polling it’s hard to know for sure, but Clark is confident he’s a frontrunner in the race to become the city’s next mayor. He’s a recognised name in the city, even if it’s often linked to the criticism that’s circled the council over the past term, and he reckons he’s got the credentials too. Clark’s hunch is he’s in a two-horse race with his predecessor as deputy, Toni Biddle. He’s keen to play down the Marcus Lush effect, arguing the broadcaster and councillor’s profile won’t be enough to get him across the line. 

The anti-Shadbolt

While Shadbolt himself is running again, he has declared himself a “longshot”, and failed to front for the highest profile of the city’s debates. Though Clark has sat alongside Shadbolt at the council table, he cuts a sharp contrast with the grinning, eccentric incumbent. Clark is quietly spoken, with a slightly gruff exterior. He doesn’t appear to enjoy the limelight, keeping his eyes to the ground throughout most of the recent mayoral debate. If he smiles, it’s more a smirk.

You won’t catch Clark on a scooter wearing the mayoral robes – in fact, he tells me if he wins he’ll be ditching all the pageantry that Shadbolt has embraced – though he would like to see Shadbolt’s robes become a museum artefact. Under Clark, it would be business attire in the council chambers and there will be “none of that ‘your worship’ rubbish”.

Clark says he’s better suited to behind the scenes work. “I’m a person who does my homework on issues and I’ve got a very low tolerance for bureaucracy,” he says. “I’m a person who likes to do everything yesterday. I come with a background of knowing how to run a large organisation.” He talks up his performance on council, suggesting he took on many of the mayor’s responsibilities over the past term. “In effect I’ve been the mayor, in everything but name,” says Clark. “Southland’s … had a celebrity mayor for a long time whose strength is in the celebrity area and fronting the organisation. I’m not sure they’d want a repeat of that,” he says, in a thinly veiled jab at Lush.

He admits to being a somewhat polarising individual and seems fine with that assessment. “I voted against the long term plan last year, that’s unheard of. Normally once you get a consensus, everyone’s meant to fall into line. I’m not one of those people, I came into council with an advocacy background.”

The relationship between Clark and Shadbolt has been strained practically the entire time the pair has worked together. The Thomson report, commissioned in 2020, determined the mayor was seen as an “unavoidable and inconvenient distraction” who was “struggling to fulfil significant aspects of his role”. There was also a “leadership void”, and the relationship between the mayor and deputy was deemed non-existent. 

Clark says the report effectively came down to three things, but takes little personal responsibility. “Tim had a terrible relationship with me, a terrible relationship with the chief executive, and basically a terrible relationship with everyone. I got tarred as part of that,” he says. 

Though absent from last week’s mayoral debate, Shadbolt attempted to dispel some of the reports about his performance as mayor via a written statement. “I have spent the past two years raising my serious concerns about the current climate of this council and its executive. Council has created a process which has labelled me as the cause of its issues. While I must take responsibility for some of the blame, I do not accept that I am the sole cause.”

Clark says some people believe he was part of the problem, but others praise him for stepping up and taking over some of the mayor’s responsibilities. “It’s very easy to get caught up in the system and then you’re seen as part of the problem, that’s something that all councils struggle with. I know that I’ve got people that will die in a ditch for me and think I’ll be the best thing since sliced bread for the next mayor,” he says. 

“There are others who think I’m part of the problem and that I’m too polarising. Good politicians are polarising – the key is to make sure there are more people that love you than hate you.”

Nobby Clark with his boss, current mayor Tim Shadbolt (Photo: ICC Facebook)

Three key priorities

Clark’s campaign focuses largely on three policy areas. “First thing by a country mile is to fix the museum situation. It’s nonsense, it should still be open.” Closed in 2018 for earthquake repairs, Clark isn’t the only one running on a promise to reopen the Southland Museum as quickly as possible – it’s also the primary policy of Marcus Lush.

Clark’s second priority – a “big issue” – is the need to find an alternative water supply for the city. “We are one of the few councils in the country that only has one water supply and that’s out of our local river. If that’s compromised, we’ve got about three days worth and then we’re in serious trouble.” That might make you think he’s a supporter of overhauling water infrastructure, in line with the government’s proposed three waters scheme – but he’s not. Clark’s been a very vocal critic of the government’s plans for water infrastructure. “It’s not a done deal yet,” he told an audience of voters at a debate, promising to continue pushing back against three waters if he becomes mayor.

His final priority is to protect jobs of disability workers at a local recycling plant. That, too, has become a major talking point in the south.

Despite being against three waters – and in fact openly against the current Labour government – Clark thinks he could improve Invercargill’s relationship with central government. A lifelong Labour supporter (and “socialist at heart”), Clark says he’ll be voting Act in next year’s election. He cites the current government’s “extreme” views as a reason for this change. Regardless, he believes in engaging with anyone, even those he disagrees with. “You could argue that there are people in the Green Party that are quite moderate, but they have an extreme element. Act is the same to some extent, they’ve had that extreme right view. Certainly the Labour Party at the moment with the Māori caucus influence and He Puapua getting right out into leftfield – but you still have to listen to them.”

That’s also extended to fringe groups, with Clark saying he’s spoken to anti-vax campaigners – he prefers to call them “pro-choice” – and has engaged with the likes of Groundswell. He admits that while some issues, including three waters, have become partly co-opted by conspiracy theorists, you can’t turn away when people want to talk. “It doesn’t matter. If you pay rates in this city, you have a voice,” he says. “Those fringe groups only survive when they’ve got things that they hate. I’m quite happy to talk to anyone.”

A ‘leap of faith’ 

Clark’s bid for mayor involves what he describes as a “huge risk” and taking a “leap of faith”. He’s running on a ticket alongside 10 hopeful council members, only one of whom has council experience. Dubbed “Let’s Go Invercargill”, Clark says the ticket was put together as part of his desire to see new blood on council in the next term – he wants to “get rid of a significant number” of current councillors. 

He was looking for four skills in his prospective candidates, he says. People who have run their own business or been involved in business, “achieved something in their life”, possess a can-do attitude and have a good level of common sense. “I’ve located those people, whether or not we’ll get enough on – I don’t know.”

He acknowledges that people are often suspicious of tickets, expecting they may lead to bloc voting on particular issues. Clark claims that won’t be the case should he lead a council of his peers. “We’ve very carefully committed to the community that these people are not Nobby’s team,” he says.

As if assuming it would be my next question, Clark then launches into a defence of the diversity (or lack of) on his ticket. “I’ve got one female and nine males so I’m often asked what’s the issue around diversity. I say to people: if you owned council yourself, if it was your business, you’d be looking really hard at your directors. If it was your own business you’d get the best directors, it wouldn’t matter whether they were all females. I don’t look at men and women differently, I don’t look at Māori and non-Māori differently. I’m quite colour blind to the whole race issue.”

On diversity, he later muses: “Is there some advantage to being in a community that’s split on culture? ‘Cause that’s racism. I don’t see that. I just look at people and see people, I don’t see culture. I look at people for what they are.” The government, he says, is “splitting us down the middle” with its interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Nobby Clark is running on a ticket (Photo: Let’s Go Invercargill)

A packed field

Clark may think of himself as a frontrunner, but he’s up against tough competition. Along with well-known names like Lush and Shadbolt, and local politicians like Biddle, there’s an ex-MP – Ria Bond – and a long-serving councillor – Darren Ludlow – in the mix as well. It’s one of the biggest mayoral races in the country, with 10 candidates seeking voters’ tick in a first past the post race. Clark thinks the level of interest is because people have read the writing on the wall. “They can see that Tim’s got to the time where he’s going to be finished, people can see that coming.”

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

Keep going!