Nelson is happy. Photo: Getty. Image: Tina Tiller
Nelson is happy. Photo: Getty. Image: Tina Tiller

Local Elections 2022September 30, 2022

The race to lead the happiest place in Aotearoa

Nelson is happy. Photo: Getty. Image: Tina Tiller
Nelson is happy. Photo: Getty. Image: Tina Tiller

In a happy city with a scrappy council, a 22-year-old and two three-term councillors are set upon denying Nick Smith a return to politics.

Turns out Nelson is sunniest not just in weather, but mood. According to a Stuff survey published last week, the city’s people are the happiest in the country, with almost two-thirds declaring themselves happy, compared to a national average of 49%. The accolade came up at a recent mayoral debate at a retirement home – the same event at which the highest profile candidate for the role, Nick Smith, was “slagging off the council”. That’s according to Matt Lawrey, a three-term councillor and Smith’s rival for the mayoralty. If happiness is blooming, Lawrey told The Spinoff, “surely we can take a bit of credit”.

A three-term councillor, Lawrey is one of those running for the office being vacated by Rachel Reese. Along with Rohan O’Neill-Stevens, who won a place on council in 2019 at the age of 22, and Tim Skinner, another three-term councillor, he’s determined that Smith, the man with three decades’ experience representing the area in parliament, is no shoo-in. 

Smith’s pitch isn’t quite continuity with change, but freshness with experience. The appetite for a breath of fresh air – and the critique of council Lawrey called a slagging-off – stems from what everyone agrees was a term bedevilled by dysfunction and toxicity, with ugly clashes on council and between councillors and staff. Smith says he’s best suited to turn that around, insisting that reports of a pattern of bullying by him in parliament were overstated, and that he has learned from an anomalous mistake. 

Matt Lawrey. (Photo: Supplied)

“I don’t think he’s the face of renewal,” says Lawrey. “I don’t really buy it.” Smith, by his account, is offering “the same old pitch”. The councillor says Nelson can learn from “successful, progressive cities across the world”, with a boost in housing in the central city plus free public transport for children, students and community service card holders. The goal: “a bustling, busy little city, rather than just going down the road to being a regional town”.

As someone who has sat on council for nine years, however, how can Lawrey present himself, in turn, as the face of renewal? “The mayor wasn’t very keen on having me in a leadership position,” he says. He can hardly be held responsible given he was “largely sidelined”. In fact, Lawrey says, he was often turned to as a “bridge builder” by “people who don’t talk to each other”. His strength, he says, is being able to put disagreements behind him and “look for common ground”.

When Rohan O’Neill-Stevens was elected to council his first response was surprise. “I didn’t think I had a shot,” he says. His next surprise, once sitting at the table: “just how childish it can be.” For all the council’s well-documented misadventures, however, O’Neill-Stevens professes to have grown less cynical, less pessimistic. “Local government can actually be quite flexible and quite dynamic,” he says. 

Part of the problem over the last term, says O’Neill-Stevens, was an absence of effort to build rapport outside the council room, leaving “no time to build the trust and confidence required”. It meant “there was this underlying sense of people constantly checking their backs for, you know, where’s that next knife going to come from?”

Rohan O’Neill-Stevens. (Photo: Toby Manhire)

O’Neill-Stevens lives in in town, and sees great potential to revive the city and boost housing provision generally through downtown apartment growth. “While we’ve got these housing challenges, like the rest of the country, when you look at the absolute number of houses that we need to supply, it’s much lower than in, say, Wellington or Auckland. It’s by no means an insurmountable task to bring those houses online and do that relatively quickly, then position ourselves as a regional centre that is affordable and has all these other great aspects, like the sun.”

In doing so, he’s eager to push for an increase in younger residents. “By 2040 we are expecting a third of the population to soon be over 65. I mean, look at the job market. We’re already seeing hospitality shortages. It’s untenable to say we don’t have to attract people back to the city, particularly younger people.” O’Neill-Stevens says he has lived in other parts of the world, but Nelson drew him back. “Genuinely, if I could live anywhere in the world, I would live here. It’s a very active choice, which I think is lost on a few people, who have an idea that young people who remain do so not out of enjoyment but for some other reason, like they can’t be bothered.”

As a Green Party member standing as an independent, is O’Neill-Stevens running as a springboard to a potential career in parliamentary politics? “It’s one of the most common questions,” he says with a weary grin. “There’s a degree of, oh, that’s a young person involved in politics, they must be hyper-ambitious. You know, I didn’t even expect to get elected the first time around,” he says. “I’d never rule anything out. But the thing I love about local government is actually being able to see firsthand the changes that you’re making. And we’re running this mayoral campaign to win, there’s no sort of second thoughts about that.”

Both O’Neill and Lawrey stress that the city and its surrounds need to be better prepared for crises such as the recent floods, which will only increase in number in a heating climate, as well as lifting resilience more generally in the face of seismic threats. 

On Three Waters, Lawrey broadly supports the thrust of the reform – “the case has been made and I applaud the government for trying to do something about it” – though he questions the place of stormwater in the plan and opposes the placement of Nelson in an entity (one of four under the reform) along with a southeast strip of the North Island. On top of that, central government had “shown contempt for local government at a number of points along the way”. For all that, anyone who campaigned for local government promising to halt Three Waters was in a “parallel universe”, he says. “They’ll have as much luck stopping GST.” 

Tim Skinner. Photo: supplied

Tim Skinner says his nine years of council experience across various portfolios means “I come as a mayor ready to hit the ground running to get this city back on its feet”. His pitch on is this: “Having formed huge relationships with our community, commercial leaders, iwi and organisations across the top of the south, we can move this greater region forward to ensure Nelson has a strong voice to ensure central government doesn’t overlook Nelson’s diverse interests.”

Skinner, who has encouraged his backers to give Smith their second preference, a gesture reciprocated by Smith, wants to reprioritise spending “on flood protection, stormwater, core infrastructure and services investment”, keep a lid on rates and debt, and “focus on the mental, physical and environmental well-being of our city and people”.

For the incumbent councillors running for mayor, the single transferable vote system, being used in Nelson for the first time this year, may be a boon. Even if Smith is to gain a plurality first preferences, they could come from behind thanks to preference votes – as did, for example, Aaron Hawkins in Dunedin and Andy Foster in Wellington. “The advice I’ve been given,” says Lawrey, “is that STV doesn’t reward polarisation. Everyone seems pretty positive about it.”

Voting is under way now, with the deadline for receipt – note, receipt not postage – of ballots noon on October 8.  

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