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Invercargill mayor Tim Shadbolt (Photo: Getty Images, additional design Tina Tiller)
Invercargill mayor Tim Shadbolt (Photo: Getty Images, additional design Tina Tiller)

Local Elections 2022September 23, 2022

Invercargill and the ‘lost cause’: An interview with Tim Shadbolt

Invercargill mayor Tim Shadbolt (Photo: Getty Images, additional design Tina Tiller)
Invercargill mayor Tim Shadbolt (Photo: Getty Images, additional design Tina Tiller)

The long-serving Invercargill mayor admits he’s a ‘spectator’ in this year’s race. So why’s he seeking another term? He explains to Stewart Sowman-Lund.

In a prominent stairwell of the Invercargill City Council buildings, a portrait of Sir Tim Shadbolt hangs. It shows him pulling off a mask of his own smiling face to reveal another, more sombre, Shadbolt beneath. It’s called Seriously Tim, and the $7,000 taxpayer-footed bill sparked controversy when it was purchased back in 2013. 

That painting was the closest I came during my trip to Invercargill last week to actually laying eyes on the mayor. He’s running again for the top job, joining a 10-strong field looking to secure the mayoral chains. But when I finally made contact with him, days after leaving the city, he confessed his heart wasn’t really in it this time around.

‘Seriously Tim’ (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

For almost four decades (three of them spent in Invercargill), Shadbolt has been one of New Zealand’s most visible mayors. As mayor of Waitematā City in the 80s, he famously towed a concrete mixer – he used to work as a concrete contractor – named “Karl Marx” behind his Daimler. His own biography on the Invercargill City Council website includes a “media” section, which lays out his various public appearances. There was Dancing with the Stars in 2005. A cameo in The World’s Fastest Indian alongside Oscar winner Sir Anthony Hopkins. Skits on comedy shows like 7 Days.

There were nine candidates on stage last week at Southland’s biggest mayoral debate, including high profile contenders like broadcaster Marcus Lush and current deputy mayor Nobby Clark. There was no sign of Shadbolt, though he was certainly invited. In a written statement, he claimed that his decision not to attend was because he didn’t want to be a distraction. “After much consideration, I have decided against attending. I consider my participation would add direct focus to the delivery of my message rather than the content of my message,” the statement read. Shadbolt’s detractors have in recent days labelled his decision not to attend any mayoral debates a “cop out”.

Shadbolt wasn’t just absent from the debate. Driving around the city, I spotted not a single hoarding or placard for the incumbent mayor.

Prior to travelling south I attempted to make contact with Shadbolt in the hopes of securing a sit down interview to discuss his current campaign and his legacy. Numerous emails were sent to his office over a period of several weeks. Finally, on the day I arrived in town, I received a brief response. “I can confirm His Worship has read your email, and due to election protocols I would suggest you contact his partner to answer your queries,” a council representative said. 

Word on the street is that Shadbolt’s deteriorating health has made campaigning, and attending events, too difficult. He’s running for council this time around too, a move some have suggested is a last ditch effort to stay in local politics if he loses the mayoralty.

The next day, as I was waiting to board a flight back to Auckland, I got a text. Shadbolt had agreed to speak with me. Since I was leaving the city, we could do it over Zoom. 

Tim Shadbolt with former PM Bill English in 2021 (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

One week later, we make contact. Beaming in from “sunny” Invercargill, against a superimposed Zoom background of outer space, Shadbolt looks his usual smiling self. He speaks more slowly than he once did, pausing often to collect his thoughts. 

I ask him why he’s running for the mayoralty once again. “Well, I guess it’s in your blood, you know… it’s hard to shy away from, but now, I think I’ve done my dash at 30 years,” he admits. “The polls, and I’m a great believer in polls, show that I haven’t got much of a chance and my flying the flag is seen as a lost cause.” No official polling has been conducted in Southland, but a number of unscientific surveys have been produced. 

Running again is a “statement”, says Shadbolt, to show that he’s down but not out. “If you want me back, vote for me, but I’m not going to get involved in forming different factions,” he says, hinting at the “ticket” of candidates that are running alongside current deputy mayor Nobby Clark. “That had never happened before, that’s new for Invercargill.”

What does he makes of Clark’s assertion that he has been mayor in “all but name” over the past term? “They keep raising that… [claiming] they have to do all the work because I’m a lame duck mayor but it’s not quite so simple,” Shadbolt says. “The opponents… believe that the best way to win the mayoralty is to get rid of the mayor. If only they could get rid of me,” he says, smiling. “They use every excuse to knock me out.”

It’s not just his rivals that have questioned his performance, however. The 2020 Thomson report, commissioned after concerns about council governance, determined Shadbolt was an “inconvenient distraction”. It stated that: “Sir Tim has never been a ‘standard’ mayor and he would acknowledge this. He has always seen himself as a promoter for Invercargill, rather than a ‘policy and process’ mayor.”

The atmosphere in council was described as “toxic”, and concerns were raised about a potentially “dysfunctional governance structure”. Shadbolt disagrees. “That report is just so glaringly inaccurate,” he says. “I would like people like [author Richard] Thomson to come for a day and follow me around and see what sort of work I do.”

Despite admitting he’s unlikely to make it back for a 10th term, Shadbolt isn’t conceding defeat. When I ask about his fellow candidates, he says it’s “up to them” to challenge him. “I’m having a go but I’m not putting that much of an effort into it because people must know by now what I stand for. Let’s see how it goes.”

Whether it was fair to voters to be on the ballot but not campaign was, he says, a decision he considered before putting his name forward. “I feel able to stand by my record and I’m still active in the community. I haven’t disappeared, but I’ve taken a position that shows I’m still willing and able, but it would be equally unfair for me to pretend all as well.”

If re-elected, he’s running on the platform of Brand Shadbolt – but he says it’s more than just his personality, it’s his political legacy too. “It’s more of the same as far as I’m concerned,” he says when I ask what his campaign promises are. “I’m looking forward to sort of being a bit of a spectator in this round, but I think, well, people can make up their mind by my track record.”

As our chat comes to a close, I wish Shadbolt the best of luck for the rest of the campaign. “Thanks,” he says. “I’ll need it.”

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