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Andy Foster is seeking a second term as mayor. Image: Tina Tiller; Photo: Toby Manhire
Andy Foster is seeking a second term as mayor. Image: Tina Tiller; Photo: Toby Manhire

Local Elections 2022August 30, 2022

Andy Foster is asking Wellington for a sequel

Andy Foster is seeking a second term as mayor. Image: Tina Tiller; Photo: Toby Manhire
Andy Foster is seeking a second term as mayor. Image: Tina Tiller; Photo: Toby Manhire

After three decades in the Wellington council room, and a hellish start to his first term in charge, the unlikely mayor from Karori tells The Spinoff he’s hit his stride. 

Andy Foster is about to clock up 30 years – half his life – on Wellington City Council. That’s an impressive achievement in anyone’s book, but the greater surprise, one almost nobody picked, was that at least three of those years would have him draped in the mayoral chains. In 2019, after nine terms as a councillor and a political journey that included working for the National Party, standing for parliament for New Zealand First and a couple of unsuccessful tilts at the mayoralty, the man from Karori took the top job.

In 2016, Foster had finished fifth in the field, with Justin Lester becoming mayor. Three years on, the stars aligned over middle-Wellington. In a campaign that barely got the pulse moving, let alone racing, the most notable act was Peter Jackson’s public endorsement of, and donation to, the Foster campaign, in recognition of his opposition to development plans for Shelly Bay, out near Jackson’s stomping ground on the Miramar Peninsula. Lester was ahead on every round of vote-counting under the single transferable vote system, until the last, when Foster edged ahead. He won by 62 votes. 

As of last week, when The Spinoff visited Foster in his office at the council’s Terrace HQ, Jackson had yet to open his wallet again. There had been no conversations “recently”, he says. When was the last time they’d spoken? “Oh, quite a while ago. We focused mostly on Shelly Bay. He supported me last time because –” says Foster, before restarting his sentence. “I never changed anything that I was doing. Never changed anything for anybody. He supported me because he saw what I was trying to do with Shelly Bay, to give the people a say, over a precious part of our city, and he said: ‘I agree with you.’ So he backed me.”

Where Foster struggled to find agreement was around the council table. It began on day one, he says. “So I get elected on Saturday. Yeeha, fantastic. Isn’t it great? Do some interviews in the sun, Saturday and then Sunday. Called all the councillors up to congratulate them. We had them in, I think it was on the Monday, to have a lunch and say: Well done, guys, looking forward to working together and I hope that in three years’ time I’m standing here saying I’d love to support you all for re-election, assuming that you want to stand again.” He leans away and clears his throat. ‘’I met with every single one of them within the space of the first couple of days to ask about their aspirations, etcetera. And then the last one had just left the office, literally walked out the door, and a head pops around the door, saying, ‘can we come in and see you?’”

Foster flashes a grimace. “I said, yeah, yeah, sure. Four of them walk in and said they would tell me who the deputy mayor was going to be, and that they had the numbers. And I’m going, that’s really friendly! Said-person is not the deputy mayor, and hasn’t been. But, you know, I knew right from the beginning, that I was up against it.”

There was a standoff, which ended in compromise, but just as Foster remains sore on the subject, others involved say it was more a matter of negotiation than a hijack. They reject, too, Foster’s claim that a left-leaning bloc of MPs, when asked if they’d agree to “work in an environment of trust”, responded, by his account, “nup, don’t want to sign up to that”, thereby revealing themselves “unprepared to sign up to such a basic value”. 

Clearly, however, Foster was faced with what he calls a “really, really tough council. I knew that I didn’t have the numbers on for anything. I had to work my way through things very carefully to try and get what I could. And, from my perspective, limit the damage on the things that I couldn’t.”

It was, he says, with a whiff of Alan Partridge, “a triennium of two halves, a game of two halves, if you like”. The first was “really, really hard politically. And of course, on top of that, we had pipes breaking and Covid arriving.” Following speculation that the government might appoint a commissioner to replace an infighting council, Foster sought an independent review into governance. That was “a stake in the ground”, he says.  

Andy Foster and Sir Peter Jackson at Foster’s campaign launch in 2019 (via Facebook)

The review pointed to a number of governance failings, complaints of an unsafe work environment and a lack of direction. It called for the scrapping of portfolio assignments and urged the mayor to boost his advocacy for the city. It proved a turning point, says Foster today. “Since the review has gone through, it has been pretty much chalk and cheese. It’s still not easy. There are still some challenges around the group of people and some of the policy decisions. But, mostly, we’ve put the foot to the floor, and we’ve got a heap of stuff done, an enormous amount of stuff done. And, you know, I don’t think this council has got the credit for doing that. And when I say this council, I mean the whole of the council, not just me.”

By way of example he points to the advancement of Let’s Get Wellington Moving, the transport blueprint agreed between central government and the city and district councils – a “massive decision” – as well as the notification of the district plan. Debates over the spatial and district plans, on the intensification and protection of housing, were a constant through the term. Often they were rancorous and ugly. 

It became, says Foster, “a spectacular piece of completely unnecessary division”. And, he says, it was “deliberately fomented by some people because they wanted to drive a wedge to say, you know, we want to build houses, and you outrageous people shouldn’t be standing in the way of that. The fact that you might really care about your particular community … that’s outrageous. And of course, those people then get upset in return. That’s a terrible way of having a conversation.”

Could he understand the frustration, given the yawning gap between the property-owning classes and the rest, the sheer inaccessibility of housing for so many? “Yes,” he says. “But it just felt like there was this entire targeting thrown at one particular part of the city. I mean, most it was thrown at those inner-city suburbs, you know, the Thorndons and Mount Vics, those sort of areas, even though they were never going to contribute a significant proportion of the answer.” The bitter discussion at council “mirrored the bitter discussion that was already started in the wider community. I think we just need people to be able to sit down around the table again,” says Foster. “There are far too many discussions in which people are talking in their own echo chambers.”

Looking back over the councils he’s sat on, Foster is fondest of those where there was “a degree of camaraderie and friendship”, where councillors “weren’t driven by, you know, really strong philosophy, philosophical positions, but they were driven by the city.” Foster’s enthusiasm for pragmatism is such that he seems almost puzzled by politicians who profess an ideological drive – or, to repeat his words, strong philosophical positions.  To his critics, including some on council and within the council staff, that has landed them with a mayor who struggles to make decisions, to rise to the leadership challenge.

Foster disputes that. Council works best when individuals throw off any allegiance to block or party, he argues. “The oath that we swear is an oath to act in the best interests of Wellington City, not in the best interests of the Labour Party, the Green Party or whoever, but the best interests of Wellington City, and to use the best of your skill and judgment to do that. And you cannot do that if you’re just saying, I’m red, and blue and green, whatever.”

He’s against three waters. The reform agenda, says Foster, is the wrong way around. The review of local government and new resource management legislation should have come first. He’s suspicious, too, of the creep towards centralisation – already central government has overwhelming sway when compared with local government. 

“You need to think about what should fit best at what level? That is the fundamental question. And once you’ve done that, you then say: What have you got there? What do you do at that local level? Do you put cities together? Do you go back to what is essentially almost a de facto provincial system? There’s also the question of how do you actually keep government itself in check, because as a country, we have very, very few checks and balances on central government, compared to most jurisdictions.”

But back to the water. To the pipes. When you’ve been on a council for three decades you can hardly wash your hands of – let alone with – the muck gushing from the ground. Has the council been negligent? “Negligence is a hugely strong word.” What is a better word? “What I’d say is that if you look back – before every triennial election now, chief executives from every territorial authority and regional council are required to do a pre-election report setting out what they see as all the issues. If you look back at the last one, you’ll see there was no mention whatsoever of any issues with the state of the water network. The only issues which were raised were things around how we need to do more work on resilience.”

But, “not a peep about the general state of the water infrastructure.” Foster reckons the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake, which left scars across the capital, leaving many buildings red-stickered, may be to blame. “It’s pretty unlikely that there wasn’t some damage underground. And maybe that’s the time that the pipes just decided to start giving it away.”

Foster’s nice-guy pitch falls away when I ask him about his main rivals. Would Paul Eagle, the Labour MP seeking to switch to leading the council, make a good mayor? “Oh, I’m gonna be biased, aren’t I?” says Foster, raising a Partridge eyebrow. “The answer’s no. I mean, I’ve worked with Paul [when he was] a councillor,  and I have some reflections and stories of his time here.” On Shelly Bay, charges Foster, Eagle was “stomping all over the community”. It was “a shocker”. And as for his time as an MP, “I think what you’re seeing is he’s standing because he’s not been able to contribute anything in parliament at all. And I’ve my suspicions that Labour’s told him he’s not going to be re-selected.”

On former Green Party chief-of-staff Tory Whanau, Foster’s tactic is different. “I don’t even know her basically,” he half-whispers. “I’ve met her a couple of times. I haven’t seen her around the council. All I’d say is, council is a big, complicated beast, dealing with, you know, I mean, every day I will deal with a multitude of different issues.” 

When asked for his single greatest achievement as mayor, Foster unfurls an invisible scroll. Bringing the city through Covid. Responding to infrastructure challenges . The Omāroro water reservoir. Sludge treatment. Let’s Get Wellington Moving. The district plan. The reopened St James. Supporting the arts. When I interrupt the list, he says: “The one thing I can’t do is count. But what I’m saying is we’ve got a bucket load of stuff done. And in the most difficult circumstances. Life was tough, it was tough … It’s not been easy, not by any stretch of the imagination. At the beginning of this triennium I was walking on eggshells, and trying to work out, you know, where was the next blow coming from? But we’ve got stuff done.”

And if you’re reading this, Sir Peter, Andy Foster is keen to talk. If there happened to be another $30k or so kicking around, he’s into it. “If Peter said yes, I would say, yeah, thank you very much. That would be really appreciated,” says Foster. And it’s not just about Shelly Bay, either. “The other thing with Peter is there are going to be some really important conversations about film in the city and the opportunities that we have in film. And I’ve been having a number of conversations. I will reach out to have conversations with him about that.”

Next: Tory Whanau.

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