Dunedin’s venomous election fight, assessed via the Spinoff Snake Rating

Dunedin’s local election race has broken out into a symphony of front-stabbing, back-stabbing, and general mud-slinging. But then, doesn’t a good politician need a bit of bite? Josie Adams consults The Spinoff’s Snake Rating Machine.

The Dunedin local politics scene has long been a mudslinger’s paradise, but this year’s election has been filthier than a pit of hopped up hogs. In a previous story covering four of the city’s mayoral candidates, we noted hostility between Lee Vandervis and Aaron Hawkins. But there are many more players in this dirty game we call local politics. Lately the hostility has been spreading like a sickness, metastasising to every candidate in sight.

Things started escalating during a recent candidates’ meeting in Opoho, when Dunedin’s potential mayors were asked a provocative question: who would be their second pick to lead the city after themselves? All hell broke loose when lefty candidate Jim O’Malley chose the man who, on the face of it, is his polar opposite in values and temperament, Lee Vandervis. Why did O’Malley do this? And why did he defend his choice by accusing another candidate – Aaron Hawkins – of sabotage? 

The question started a war. Though Otago Daily Times reporter Chris Morris asked, “should the DCC’s councillors try harder to get along?” in a column after the meeting, the resounding answer from everyone involved has been “no”, and also, “I am going to keep doing this more”. Morris and the ODT crew have covered the resulting emotional violence with exceptional, engrossing, even thrilling coverage, but it’s now time to go deep into the grassy thickets. We need to use The Spinoff Snake Rating Machine, aka my subjective opinion of the venom quotient of the various candidates. 

Rachel Elder

Rachel is the purest of heart. Her policy platform is equally focussed on economic growth and environmental protection, but mostly because she seems like a genuinely kind person. She’s brought up the bullying problem before, and would like everyone to just get along. Elder, who has thrown her non-threatening hat in the mayoral ring, has proposed that, come next term, the newly elected council should take a two-day retreat to team-build and get to know each other.

Snake Rating: 💕

Jules Radich

He’s a business coach, which is a bit better ethically than being a business owner. He’s reluctant to criticise his fellow council members, and describes Aaron Hawkins as a nice person, which flies in the face of some other councillors’ description of him. Jules looks young for 64, which is probably because he’s lived a life of thinking good thoughts and drinking lots of water.

Snake Rating: 🥤

David Benson-Pope

He’s an ex-Labour MP, and a stalwart of the Dunedin local politics scene, seeking re-election to council. He’s seen it all, and he’s mostly kept out of the mud, even when ousted from his South Dunedin paradise by Clare Curran. Benson-Pope is an alleged member of Aaron Hawkins’ clique. When Hawkins was accused of sabotage, he jumped in the ring to accuse the accuser, Jim O’Malley, of being wrongly motivated. That’s loyalty. He has fight in his bones, and honour. 

Snake Rating: 🐍🐍

Aaron Hawkins

Ex-breakfast radio host Aaron Hawkins is a Green Party-approved council heavyweight. He and Vandervis are the two top contenders in the mayoral race at the moment, and they’re both forces to be reckoned with. But recently, Hawkins has been grappling with the accusations of “character assassination” and “sabotage” from fellow friend-to-the-environment Jim O’Malley. Hawkins rejects the sabotage claim, and he’s supported by the fact his policies and values align pretty closely with O’Malley’s. However, he apparently he called O’Malley a “junior councillor” for his first two years on council, which sets off a weird hissing in the Snake Rating Machine. Also his cackle is described as “unnerving” by witnesses (me and one of his old flatmates), and the man can turn a burn.  

Snake Rating: 🐍🐍🐍🐍

Mandy Mayhem-Bullock

She’s running for mayor, rides an e-bike, and has dubbed Vandervis a sexist for making fun of her hat. Given what Vandervis is reportedly like, this was kind. Mayhem-Bullock is backing O’Malley in his accusations against Hawkins, which is wild because O’Malley has chosen to back Vandervis as a mayoral choice – the very same Vandervis who told her to lose the hat! The same one she had an argument with  about the hat! The argument Good Guy Jules Radich had to defuse! Mayhem-Bullock is right!

Snake Rating: 🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍

Lee Vandervis

Hiss. There are currently 12 complaints lodged against the veteran councillor for his behaviour at the council, with his workmates describing him as “insulting” and “threatening”. He says they’re talking nonsense. Mayhem-Bullock has accused him of being sexist, but knowing what her hat looks like, that particular interaction isn’t the strongest evidence. He was a total jackass to her, though, apparently threatening her by announcing his own volatility. The most recent complaint against him was lodged just last week, when Vandervis got mad after getting a parking fine. He said there was video that proved he didn’t yell at staff, which he pointed out were “all female” (whoomp! There it is!), but the DCC found the video and it did not help his case. 

Snake Rating: 🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍

Clare Curran

Why is South Dunedin MP Clare Curran included in this list when she is not a councillor? Because of a very cryptic piece of pot-stirring she threw in the mix during the O’Malley-Hawkins showdown. When she heard O’Malley’s allegations, she posted on Facebook that she was “sickened but not surprised”. Whether she feels this way about Hawkins as a so-called saboteur or about O’Malley supporting Vandervis, we may never know. She’s a mystery.

Snake Rating: 🕵️‍♂️🐍

Mayor Dave Cull

Outgoing mayor Dave Cull has gone ahead and named his top picks to succeed him as mayor. Cull reckons both Aaron Hawkins and Christine Garey would make fine choices, which no one is surprised about, but he didn’t leave there. He also said voting for Vandervis was a bad idea because he’s opposed to ”just about all of the policies, strategies, budget decisions… that have got us into a really good place”. Someone check on Lee Vandervis because he’s been bitten by the Cull cobra!!!

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Snake Rating: 🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍

Jim O’Malley

Jim O’Malley was touted as the other Hawkins – the green man, the eco-friendly progressive choice. So why the did he name Vandervis as his second choice for mayor? Not only that, but why would he undermine Vandervis’ main green competition, Hawkins, by accusing him of sabotage? Hawkins’ policies are ten times more in line with O’Malley’s than Vandervis’s! It’s bonkers, and it has set our Snake Machine spinning. Other councillors have muttered about O’Malley’s motivations. Has he, they ask, been promised a good position in a Vandervis-led council? But that doesn’t make sense. Why would you trust a man who self-describes as “belligerent” to make you comfortable in council? What’s going on, O’Malley!? Maybe the answer is simply that humans are emotional, unpredictable creatures, and our minds are unknowable mysteries. On his website, O’Malley hints at a dark night of the council soul: “I still want to see the staff satisfaction survey,” he says. We all do, Jim.

Snake Rating: 🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍

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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