LOUISE HUTT. PHOTO: NAOMI JORGE

The 26-year-old mayoral candidate trying to reshape Hamilton’s local politics

Louise Hutt is running for Hamilton mayor on a progressive platform. She talks to Hayden Donnell about her plans to start a political movement that will reshape local politics in the city lovingly known as the Tron.


The Spinoff local election coverage is entirely funded by The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism, click here.


When Louise Hutt sat down to write her 150-word candidate blurb for the Hamilton mayoral race, she faced a tough choice. She wanted to start with her pepeha, as a way of acknowledging the importance of Māori tikanga to her council platform. Some people, including close advisors, said it was a bad idea. Launching with a lengthy chunk of te reo Māori would put off the conservative, potentially racist voters, who tend to cast their ballots in local elections, they said. Hutt was exasperated. “For me it was saying that the racists are more important than everyone else who doesn’t vote,” she says. “So I actually took a step back and said ‘okay, how do I want to lose this election?’ I don’t want to lose this election having pandered to racists. If I lose this election and I get a phone call saying ‘sorry you didn’t get in’, I want to know it was because I was absolutely staunch in my values. That’s how I’m going to sleep the night after.”

Only 33.6% of eligible voters cast a ballot in Hamilton’s 2016 local elections. As with most elections, turnout skewed old and white. That’s reflected in the makeup of the council. There are four climate deniers and an anti-vaxxer among the city’s 12 elected representatives. Many of Hutt’s mayoral rivals have campaigns built to appeal – or at least not put off – an influential older minority. James Casson is a rates hawk who wrote Facebook posts calling refugees “scum” and telling people to stop mourning the Christchurch massacre victims. Incumbent mayor Andrew King makes a point of wanting to apply business principles to council. Even socially liberal candidates like Angela O’Leary or Paula Southgate have platforms built around rates reductions.

When Hutt, 26, put her name forward for the Hamilton mayoralty, she was advised to follow the same gameplan, and get out to visit rest homes and retirement villages. She has chosen to do things differently. Instead of targeting voters who want to hear about rates, roads, and rubbish, she has focused on climate change, cycleways and public transport. If her opponents are targeting the 33.6% of people who voted in 2016, she wants to win over the other 66.4%. “The people who are residents of rest homes are an important part of our city, but they’re not the only important part of our city,” she says. “They already have their candidates who they voted for last time, and who they will probably vote for again unless they’ve done something terrible. So for me it’s about talking to those people who have never felt like there’s somebody like them running.”

That approach is commendable, inspiring, and potentially doomed. Its obvious analogy is Chlöe Swarbrick’s 2016 Auckland mayoral campaign. The soon-to-be Green MP earned media coverage and huge levels of social media momentum with her grassroots movement focused on youth engagement, only to be ground out of contention by Auckland’s political establishment. She ended up with 29,068 votes – nearly 160,000 short of Phil Goff’s winning total. 

Hutt knows a similar fate could await her. But her campaign is a little more strategic than Swarbrick’s mayor-or-nothing run. She’s contending to be a councillor in the city’s West Ward, and sees her mayoral bid partly as a way of building profile for that down-ballot race. The strategy seems to be paying off. Hutt has appeared live on The Project, and been profiled in major media outlets like Stuff and Radio New Zealand. Whether that exposure results in an election victory rests on her ability to convince those disengaged voters to actually turn out. At the moment, Hutt is hopeful. “I get so many messages saying ‘I wasn’t going to vote but now I am’,” she says. “That to me is quantifiable. And even if it’s only like 100, that to me is significant. I really think that even just being one voice saying ‘it doesn’t have to be like this’ is important.”

At a mayoral debate last month in Claudelands Events Centre, Hutt tested the limits of her strategy. When newsreader-turned-moderator Mike McRoberts asked her about how Hamilton should prepare for future growth, she talked about building cycleways from Waikato University into the city centre. There were a few audible grumbles from the mostly grey-haired audience. When she later spoke about how the city isn’t doing enough to combat climate change, one man loudly exclaimed, “that’s because it doesn’t exist” to no-one in particular.

THE CROWD AT THE CLAUDELANDS EVENTS CENTRE DEBATE

It’s a reminder of what Hutt is up against. Many of the forums she attends are openly hostile to her ideas. She’s commonly asked how, as a young person, she’ll look out for older people. “That’s the thing: when I’m in a shitty mood I think about how often other candidates on stage – many of whom are over 50 –  are asked ‘what do you do for youth?” she says. “No-one has ever asked that, and nobody gives a shit, and that’s why we have the voter turnout that we do.”

Hutt is also often told she lacks the experience for council. It’s the criticism she bristles at most. When she recounts it, she lists the things she’s gone through: losing her brother to suicide; experiencing depression herself; working four jobs during university; becoming the chief executive of the electricity company For Our Good. Those things put her more in touch with Hamilton, which has a median age of just 32, than most councillors, she says. “It’s like experience of what, magic life points?” she says. “I’m lucky to be alive at 26 if I’m honest with you, with what I’ve experienced in my life. And so it just feels so frustrating to be told that, because I have a more realistic understanding of the realities of our city than most of the people on that council right now.”

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Even if she can’t breach the council gates this election, Hutt isn’t giving up. She cites “resilience” as one of her priorities in the campaign. “I don’t want to to burn out, to go ‘fuck this I’m not running again’. I want to make sure that not only do I survive through the campaign, but I do it in a way where I felt like it was just as important to run next time as well,” she says. 

In 2022, Hutt wants to be part of a ticket of like-minded candidates. It’s easy to see the beginnings of how that might shape up. Sarah Thomson, the lawyer who sued the government over its climate change inaction, is also running in the West Ward, and she and Hutt are co-operating closely. Hutt has made a spreadsheet of all the young local politicians standing across the country, and is always on the lookout for allies.  Whenever people approach her on the campaign trail saying she’s got them interested in local politics, she asks for their details and whether they’d be interested in standing. “One person doesn’t solve a diversity problem, and what I think we need is sustained momentum over multiple elections,” she says. “So for me, next election I want to run a ticket, and I absolutely want to be a force to be reckoned with.”

For now though, Hutt has to concede at least a little bit to the realities of local politics. That pepeha at the beginning of her voting blurb did get cut down in the end, replaced by a shorter acknowledgement that she’s a person of Te Tiriti. Politics is compromise, and local politics can be particularly unfriendly to progressive change. Hutt’s plan for the future is to make fewer concessions to its realities, to make her way of thinking mainstream; to bend the council in her direction. It may take years, but years are one resource she has more of than her opponents.

The Spinoff local election coverage is entirely funded by The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism, click here.



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