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phil mauger, white man in a blue suit, on blue background with a local elections 2022 sign and a smile
Phil Mauger thinks that Christchurch communities aren’t feeling heard. (Image: Shanti Mathias/Tina Tiller)

Local Elections 2022September 22, 2022

Phil Mauger’s boots-and-all bid to be Christchurch’s next mayor

phil mauger, white man in a blue suit, on blue background with a local elections 2022 sign and a smile
Phil Mauger thinks that Christchurch communities aren’t feeling heard. (Image: Shanti Mathias/Tina Tiller)

The mayoral candidate sits down with Shanti Mathias to discuss climate, transport, housing – and why other cities should be more like Ōtautahi.

Phil Mauger is willing to defy the government. The Christchurch city councillor – and now mayoral candidate – voted last week against complying with a government intensification standard for building multi-storey buildings. The former construction company owner is known for stunts and a willingness to get his hands dirty; last year, he was fined by the council after using a bulldozer to dig a trench that was intended to reduce flooding.

When I meet him at a cafe in the Ōtautahi suburb of Merivale – no bulldozers in sight, but made obvious with a large car plastered with “Phil for Mayor” slogans – Mauger is affable, clutching a printout of notes he doesn’t refer to once. The campaign has been a long one; Mauger declared that he was running for mayor over a year ago, and tells me that he’s been to 22 mayoral forums in the last month, “seeing more of my competitor, David [Meates], than my own wife.” 

I have to ask, first, about Mauger’s thoughts on intensification, a debate heating up around the country but particularly prominent in Christchurch. Mauger is unrepentant about his vote. “We are getting intensification,” he says, adding that he supports denser living in the central city and along bus routes. But it’s intensification in the suburbs that troubles Mauger (and the 17 resident associations which have rejected the proposals). “[Intensification] is an Auckland and Wellington problem that has been pushed down on us, and I just didn’t agree with it,” he says. 

There is a problem with housing, though, Mauger concedes; he is on the board of the Ōtautahi Community Housing Trust, and thinks that the city needs to support those who live in social housing more. But often, he says, people who are living in social housing need “wraparound support” like caretakers for properties and security guards. “You can’t just drop someone in a home when they’ve never had one and don’t understand money – they might move into a house then be worse off in five years,” he says. He agrees that Christchurch’s homeless population are some of the city’s most vulnerable people, but says that someone needs to “move homeless people along at 6.00 in the morning so they don’t cause a drama during the day.”

An election billboard with phil major (white man in suit) on it. background is a fence
Mauger is determined that Christchurch can solve its own problems (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

Where people live goes hand-in-hand with transport; Mauger, an avowed “car fan,” says that making bus services fast and reliable should be a priority over creating light rail transport for Christchurch. Bus lanes, for instance, often aren’t necessary on underused routes; “there’s nothing worse than sitting in your car and seeing the bus going past [in the bus lane] with only a few people on it,” he tells me.

The bus system in Canterbury is piecemeal, with Environment Canterbury responsible for services and Christchurch City Council responsible for infrastructure like bus stops, and Mauger wants to integrate these aspects of bus travel. He thinks lower prices from next year will get more people onto buses. Later that day, he’s asked at the Stuff debate when he last took a bus, and confesses that it’s been “a wee while”. 

“We want to make it easier for people to get into town,” Mauger says, sipping his long black (two sugars). “And when they get there, we don’t want to penalise them with high parking and stuff like that.” He assures me that he’s supportive of cycleways, but thinks that they can be cheaper; he’s previously said that money for cycleways could be diverted to Christchurch’s new stadium by cutting costs. 

He has a hydrogen car, which he loves, and suggests that the fuel can transform emissions for Christchurch; two of the biggest actions he suggests to me to tackle climate change are electrifying or hydrogenifying the council’s vehicle fleet and planting trees. “Is it better to spend $10 million on cycleways or plant 20 million trees?” he muses. Transport and tree cover are different issues, I suggest – could he not have both?

“But we only have so much money – we need to get carbon neutral as soon as possible,” he says. Given this, and Mauger’s determination to keep rates increases beneath inflation at 3.5 to 4%, where does he stand on the development of the expensive Tarras airport in Central Otago, being built by Christchurch Airport, in which the council’s holdings company is a majority shareholder?

stage with 4 people - 2 chrichstchurch 2022 mayoral candidates and two white women who are asking questions. lots of mostly grey heads visible in the audience
Mauger and Meates at the Stuff mayoral forum in Christchurch’s Turanga library (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

“The airport say they can be carbon neutral [in their operations] because it’s not their planes, which is a fine line in my view,” he says. Mauger isn’t sure if global travel will ever return to pre-pandemic levels, but while he sees the merit of competing with Queenstown Airport, he thinks that Tarras visitors will mainly benefit the Otago region, not Christchurch, though he doesn’t give me a definitive answer on whether he thinks the new airport should go ahead. 

I ask Mauger if there are any policies from other cities that he’d like to see in Christchurch. He says that perhaps Christchurch could be a “mini Melbourne” with laneways and walkability. But if he’s mayor, he’ll “promote the living daylights out of Christchurch,” showing the rest of the country how unique the city is.

So he thinks that other cities should be more like Christchurch, not that Christchurch should be more than other cities? Exactly, he tells me, and launches into a spiel about how in a few years, when the stadium is completed, Christchurch should host the Commonwealth Games. (There’s perhaps a royalist streak to Mauger, who also suggests that a city to sea cycle trail, once completed, could be called “The Queen Elizabeth II Way… because she was always into the outdoors and families and stuff like that.”)

With every policy, Mauger is insistent that communities need to be consulted, involved in the design process, able to determine which decisions go to the council table and not just be asked which options are preferred after it. But local elections often have remarkably low turnout, I say; many people are ambivalent or ignorant about the work of councils in their community. Strident objectors – the residents association members clutching their “Stop Daylight Robbery” signs at the intensification vote – and vociferous supporters – the people who will sing ‘Imagine’ to extol the merits of a new stadium – submit their views, but the people who don’t mind or don’t have reason to believe the council can help them, don’t bother. 

“There’s an apathy, people will just put their heads down and do what they need to do,” agrees Mauger, saying the consultation processes need to be improved. As mayor, he says he’d like to host public meetings every fortnight, sit down with members of the public and community boards to hear what people’s problems are. Perhaps this election will be different, though: “maybe I’m biased because I’m in it up to my neck, but this year [council] has five people changing – I think interest is high because people will see a change.”

phil maguer in black room talking to people sitting on chairs who are looking at him
Mauger speaks to members of the disabled community on the campaign trail (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

The insistence on listening to community voices is the key, Mauger thinks, to success and popularity as mayor. At a debate hosted by Stuff and Te Pūtahi on Friday, the candidate was asked what unpopular – but important – thing he’d be willing to do as leader. 

“We need to get trust back,” he said, dodging the question. But would he be prepared to do anything unpopular? “No,” he replied. Mauger tells me that his goal in his first year as mayor would be to get satisfaction with council from a record low of 42% and back into the 60s. 

This attitude seems to be working. In a TVNZ poll conducted two weeks ago, 58% of Christchurch voters said that they’d vote for Mauger. In a first past the post system, that would be more than enough to see him accept the mayoral chains in October. 

After our interview, I accompany Mauger to a campaign event at Skillwise, an organisation that works with people with disabilities to support them to be involved and included in their communities. Over the course of an hour, Mauger is confident answering questions about the Bromley smell, Christchurch buses, his opinion of Winston Peters and what Christchurch City Council can do about Covid. While some of the questions are a little leftfield, Mauger is unperturbed. 

He says that he wants Christchurch to be a better place to live for people with disabilities, shows everyone his hearing aids and talks about how breaking 21 bones in his body after being run over by a truck a few years ago made him realise how hard it can be to navigate the city in a wheelchair. He’s told me that he wants to be a good listener, and now he demonstrates it; the policies are not always specific, but he is willing to be as available to this small audience as he is to debate David Meates in front of hundreds of people at the Stuff mayoral forum.

After Mauger leaves, I speak to Nathan Beaven, the Skillwise member who has organised the event. “I wanted to hear what the mayor wanted to do in the city,” he says. Does he know who he’s going to vote for? Beaven beams. “Phil!”

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