Tamatha Paul speaking at a Mt Vic Residents Association meeting, alongside fellow candidates Harry Smith, Lee Orchard and Iona Pannett (Photo; supplied)

A night at the nicest election meeting in New Zealand

Most election meetings are by turns angry and boring. On Thursday, Alex Braae went along to a debate in the foothills of Wellington’s Mt Victoria and discovered that local democracy can be… nice?

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“Harry, you’re on,” called the host. “Wow, okay,” said a surprised looking young man at the back of the hall. He dashed to the front of the stage to sit in an empty chair, before being asked to stand up again to make the first speech of the night. 

The venue was the Tararua Tramping Club hall in the foothills of Wellington’s Mt Victoria, and it was a major night for local democracy. Almost all of the candidates running in the Pukehīnau/Lambton ward were there, as well as no fewer than nineteen candidates going for the five Pōneke spots on the Greater Wellington Regional Council. Unsurprisingly, the small hall was heaving. The walls were lined with people, and speeches were punctured with scraping sounds as more chairs were brought out. 

But all of the electioneering had to wait, because it was also the annual general meeting of the Mt Victoria Residents Association. A new committee was selected, seemingly by a process no more sophisticated than people putting their hands up and saying they wanted to be elected. The club president also came to the end of her year-long term, was asked if she wanted to stay on, and was re-elected unopposed. 

There was one other item of business. A kindly looking older man called Michael, with a salmon shirt and a jazzy ponytail, was presented with life membership to the association. The award came with a pair of paintings and an exemption from having to pay his subscription fees ever again. 

Michael Hartley being presented with lifetime membership of the Mt Vic Residents Association, and a pair of paintings. Also on stage: Event host Sara and President Angela.  (Image: Twitter)

Then, it was underway. The council candidates went first. After Harry Smith had finished, it was the turn of Nicola Young, a sitting councillor facing a tough field. She was quick to put down a marker, as the voice of voters who care about the protecting the “local charm” of the historic and affluent suburb. “It’s not nimbyism, it’s about protecting the character of the city,” she insisted. 

Stereotypically, such a line would have delivered a crushing blow in a room of local government voters, given that turnout figures show they tend to be older, and concerned about preserving both the character and property values of their neighbourhoods. But this room was more generationally diverse. A young guy sitting next to me (who for some reason was making chain-mail with pliers during the speeches) frequently snorted quietly whenever he heard such talk. But there was no jeering from anyone. 

The round of council candidates was capped off by Tamatha Paul, the 22-year-old Victoria University Students Association president with a CV just as impressive as that of anyone else on stage. She delivered an accomplished speech about climate change, and earned the biggest applause of the round. Such was her presence, it was easy to imagine that if she doesn’t win a place on the council, she’ll just have to be content with one day being prime minister. “Let’s vote for some young people,” agreed an elderly couple in the row in front after she finished. “They’re energetic.” 

Then it was the turn of the regional council candidates, who had to be split into two enormous groups. First up was a chartered accountant who wryly observed that he “can’t help but think the buses aren’t as good as they used to be”. It was a recurring theme, after the debacles the capital’s bus network has faced in the past 18 months. “He aha te mea nui o te ao? He pahi, he pahi, he pahi,” noted Daran Ponter, in a twist on the Māori proverb, swapping out the people for the buses. 

A selection of the wares on show at the Mt Vic Residents Association Meet the Candidates event (Alex Braae)

It was clearly why many had chosen to stand. Anand Kochunny opened ruefully with a story about placing a full-page ad in the Dominion Post earlier in the year calling for people to stand for the GRWC, out of fury over how the buses were mishandled. “And now I’ve got 22 rivals for five seats, so be careful what you wish for.”

A seemingly endless parade of candidates followed. There was Roger Blakeley, a wildly high-powered public servant with a career that included jobs like chairing the OECD’s Environment Committee. There was Thomas Nash, who was too modest to mention that he is a Nobel Prize winner. There was Troy Mihaka, front of house manager at BATS theatre, and gave a beautifully enunciated and emotive performance. There was a postie called Alexander Garside who mused philosophically on the concept of density. There was even a taxi driver called Bryce Pender, who took a break from his shift just in time to deliver the final speech of the night. 

In between the blocks of speeches, people stood up to have deep discussions with each other about policy, climate change, their neighbourhood. It was warm and jovial, and not just because of the wine on the refreshments table. Wandering between the small knots, you’d pick up snatches of animated conversations, or some technical detail or other, and ideas flowed from candidate and citizen alike.  

But was there really such a difference between the two? Increasingly, it became clear that there wasn’t. It’s very easy to look upon politicians – local body politicians especially – as venal, small-minded mediocrities. But the people putting themselves forward for this election didn’t fit that mould. It was as if dozens of them had simultaneously had the same thought: that someone had to do something, that problems weren’t being addressed, people weren’t being looked after, and something had to be done about it. And it was like everyone standing had shared another thought – that they should put themselves forward not to lead, but to serve. 

Will many of them ever become elected representatives? Probably not. Should many of them become elected representatives? Absolutely not. But regardless, their candidacies came across more as expressions of love for their homes and communities. The same seemed true of the people who came out to listen to what they had to say. 

Perhaps it is Wellington itself that inspires such devotion. Perhaps it is just what good citizenship looks like. But in an election season dominated by the divisive, it was nice to share an evening with people who all wanted to make a contribution.

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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