Porirua, mayor Mike Tana, and the four councillors running for his job

The many knives out for Porirua mayor Mike Tana

In a city that is a microcosm of the growth challenges New Zealand is facing, an engrossing and sometimes nasty race for the mayoral chains is unfolding. The winner will preside over three years that could be defining for decades. 

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Porirua mayor Mike Tana is on the ropes in just his first term. In 2016 he pulled off an underdog victory in the race for the mayoralty of Porirua, promising to take the diverse and rapidly growing city into the future. It signalled a huge change for the city formerly and unfairly derided as little more than a place for Wellington’s overflow. He was the first Māori mayor of the city, and just the fifth person to hold the job in 51 years. 

But after three years of increasingly personal battles around the council table, his colleagues have had enough. No fewer than four councillors want to unseat him and take his job.

Those challenging him all have much more experience in local government. Anita Baker has had nine years representing the Northern Ward; deputy mayor, former Black Fern and Eastern Ward councillor Izzy Ford has been in office since 2013; former deputy mayor and Western Ward representative ‘Ana Coffey was first elected in 2010; and Mike Duncan, a crossword enthusiast also from the Western Ward, has had a couple of cracks at the top job already. Also running is former council contractor Mani Ah Far. 

Tana’s personal and political spending habits have been brought into sharp focus during the campaign. There was a $120,000 bill for consultants in the mayor’s office, which raised the hackles of councillors who saw it as a symbolically wasteful use of public money. He voluntarily handed back his expense card, after council staff repeatedly raised concerns around his spending. Every expense receipt was subsequently cleared through the audit committee, chaired by Dame Beverly Wakem. 

These issues have been brought up frequently by his opponents, particularly when council spending is on the agenda. Tana says they’re motivated by self-interest. “That, to me, is political manoeuvering by a group of people that were here before I was here, and would prefer to have one of their own running the city. And I find that quite deplorable how they’ve manipulated the media,” he told The Spinoff. His opponents disagree, saying he simply hasn’t done a competent enough job. 

There has also been a weird, ongoing saga around the living situation of Tana’s family. Some of them remain based in Rotorua, where the whole family lived for a few years before Tana came back to Porirua to run for the mayoralty. His declaration during the 2016 campaign that he intended for them to move to Porirua became a sore point when they didn’t. Anita Baker went so far as to call it “bloody disgraceful”. Tana says they had to stay on up north to care for his father, who is unwell, and that the attacks are low and dirty. 

He’s a mayor who makes a virtue of getting out and about. At a Porirua Chamber of Commerce election forum during the campaign, he talked at length about the value of visiting new business owners in person. “What I wanted to do was change the way people look at Porirua, both internally and externally,” he says. He’s personable and an irrepressible cheerleader for his city, and appears in public to have a friendly relationship with his colleagues – often going out of his way to praise them and their ability to work together. 

But there has also been an undercurrent of nastiness seething in the race, which only occasionally ends up on the record. In one incident that did go public, Coffey accused “a certain candidate’s supporters” of personal attacks against her, saying on Twitter that she was accused of both “reverse racism”, and of being friends with racists. She later clarified in an interview that the “certain candidate” was Mike Tana, though was at pains to make clear that she wasn’t accusing him of personally directing it.  

Nick Leggett, former mayor of Porirua, standing in front of Wellington

Looming over it all in the background is the presence of Porirua’s wunderkind former mayor, Nick Leggett. When elected in 2010, he was the youngest mayor in the country, and served two terms before making a head-scratching move south to run unsuccessfully in Wellington. Former allies on the Porirua Council still praise the work he did. He in turn continues to speak very warmly about Anita Baker and ‘Ana Coffey in particular.

Leggett and Tana don’t get on at all. Tana has accused Leggett of orchestrating some of the attacks against him, accusations that Leggett says are rubbish. When approached by The Spinoff, Leggett gave Tana faint praise as a “very good glad-hander”, but said “the mayor is not the victim. He’s not being beaten up because his family lives in Rotorua. If the community decides that’s valid, then it’s valid.” 

A classic STV contest

Not every councillor running for the mayoralty is necessarily antagonistic towards Tana, though Coffey, Baker and Ford have become something of a bloc. Duncan reckons Tana has done a pretty good job, and is running because if the mayor is going to lose, “he may as well lose to me”. The election is held under the single transferable vote system, meaning some voters will undoubtedly take the hint from their favoured candidates about where to place their lower choice rankings.

Any of the five could theoretically win under STV. Tana’s win in 2016 was a classic example, coming from behind and claiming it on 4th and 5th preferences. It’s much harder to imagine he’ll be able to repeat that this time around – as a polarising figure, it seems much more likely voters will rank him either first or last. 

Porirua mayoral candidate ‘Ana Coffey (via Twitter – @JandalLife)

Regardless, the eventual voting patterns in the race are likely to be messy, and won’t be easy to categorise into neat demographic blocks. Underpinning that is the fact that Porirua defies stereotypes. It isn’t just a place of “poverty porn,” as Coffey describes the view that sometimes wafts north from Wellington.

That isn’t to say poverty doesn’t exist, particularly in East Porirua suburbs like Cannons Creek and Waitangirua. Many people in those places have been shunted to the margins, with deeply unequal outcomes in education, health and housing. 

But there is also a sizeable middle class, increasingly made up of people who have moved to the area to buy a house, inflating property prices in the process. Suburbs like Whitby come remarkably close to an idealised American version of suburbia. Grand houses sit on generous sections. The roads are new, wide and filled with big, muscular cars. Unsurprisingly, Whitby had extremely high home ownership rates at the 2013 census. 

That is very much the demographic Anita Baker represents. She has close ties to major developers in the area, working for Jennian Homes and turning up to an election meeting in a branded company car. She’s firmly focused on saving voters some of their ratepayer dollars, saying “we do need to cut services and get back to basics”. Given her record around the council table, and the traditionally high turnout of her comparatively well-heeled base, she is widely picked to be a leading contender in the mayoral race.

Baker is one of two candidates in particular who are running hard on the idea that the council shouldn’t be a funder of community services and events. Izzy Ford is the other, telling the Chamber of Commerce that “there are some tough decisions to make, and we need to back them”. 

Tana says events that bring in the public are vital for making people proud of the city, and brings up the story of a visit to Porirua from a Nasa astronaut. He says since the visit, a couple of kids have gone to space camp in the US, and that the visit was vital for inspiring them to dream big. He also said Porirua’s Waitangi Day celebrations have become the envy of the rest of the region. 

As for Mike Duncan, he could be seen to represent a version of the old Porirua. He recalls the parade in 1965 to celebrate Porirua being declared a city, and has well over a dozen descendants still living there. He also has the rather unique message, in a widely diverse city, of wanting to focus not on ensuring diverse representation, but rather “putting the unity in community”. 

Winner will feel growing pains 

There’s a reason why personalities loom so large in this race, rather than policy battles. Among all five candidates, there is little disagreement over what the winner will inherit. That is a city with an extremely tight budget to work with, and no particularly obvious ways of raising new money. 

Porirua is expected to continue to grow rapidly in the coming years. In particular, the opening of Transmission Gully is likely to dramatically increase demand for housing, as the city gets closer in commute terms to the rest of the region. That motorway will skirt around the outside of the eastern suburbs, taking traffic off the main road, which cuts right through the city. 

Far more housing is coming for Porirua, both in terms of private development like Kenepuru Landing on the southern fringe of the city, and a massive $1.5 billion redevelopment of Eastern Porirua. It’s an area with among the highest share of social housing in the country, and the development is the result of a partnership between central government, the council, and Ngāti Toa.  

Porirua Harbour is badly polluted from runoff from development and construction of Transmission Gully

But the latter has sparked significant concerns among residents of the east, because of fears that they’ll end up being pushed out, or long-standing communities will be broken up. The development is being carried out by the Hobsonville Land Company, who also now oversee the Tāmaki redevelopment, as of August 2018. For many years prior to their involvement, there were significant protests over state house tenants being moved out to make way for new, gentrified housing, which many in East Porirua don’t want to see a repeat of. 

Assurances have been made that existing social housing tenants will continue to be housed at the same rental rates, and that developers have learned from their earlier mistakes. But in the context of Porirua, there is significant potential for a similar sort of gentrification process to take place, with both house prices and private rental prices rising rapidly. Those concerns even led to activist group Housing Action Porirua to put forward a candidate for one of the Eastern Ward’s seats, Jasmine Taankink. 

Consultation on the redevelopment has also left many feeling shortchanged, with a perception that consultation is taking place at the margins. At an election forum organised by The Brown Caucus, a Māori and Pasifika activist group in the city, group member Brenda challenged a lack of input on the East Porirua Redevelopment board from local youth. She was assured by sitting Eastern Ward councillor Izzy Ford that there would be paid advisory positions (but without voting rights) available to young people, and quipped back asking if young people were “good enough to get paid, but not good enough to vote?” It was a moment symbolic of concerns among the public that they weren’t being listened to. 

Even if the increased amount of housing gives the city a larger ratepayer base to tap, there are huge infrastructure challenges that need to be paid for. The city’s wastewater system is decrepit, and in dire need of replacement. Porirua’s harbour is badly polluted, largely from the runoff from housing development and the construction of Transmission Gully. As a city hugging a harbour, climate change and rising sea levels are going to be immense challenges in the future. 

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It’s a terribly complex picture, with many competing interests around growth, preservation and inequality. Whoever ends up presiding over that will have the chance to go down as a defining figure in Porirua history, as it takes the next step in its growth – from a set of dormitory suburbs, to a small city, and perhaps in the future into being a regional powerhouse. 

It’s little wonder then that every major candidate has the same idea at the heart of their campaign – they all say they’re capable of working with council colleagues and the wider public to get things done. To be successful, Porirua will need that to be true.

*This article has been updated to clarify the Hobsonville Land Company’s involvement in the Tāmaki Redevelopment. 


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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