The motley crew trying to overthrow the old guard in the Far North

For decades, local politics in the Far North has been dominated by conservatives. This election, a gang leader-turned-Man Up organiser, a former Green Party MP, and the lead singer of Opshop are among those trying to take down what they call the ‘old boys club’. Hayden Donnell heads to the winterless north.

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On the main street of Kaikohe, four shops are closed within the space of 60 metres. Empty buildings are scattered along the road. Some have decorations inside, aimed at fooling people into thinking they’re still occupied. 

Far North mayoral candidate Jay Hepi is in his election headquarters nearby, recounting how he’s watched the town becoming more degraded. “I’ve seen this place go from the hub of the north full of life, full of infrastructure, now to this. The life’s being sucked out. If we allow it to go another three years it’ll be nothing but a ghost town.”

Just down the road, incumbent mayor John Carter is at the Far North District Council headquarters, talking about how great things are looking for Kaikohe. There’s an industrial park being developed, backed by the Provincial Growth Fund. A new geothermal power station being built by Top Energy. A cycle path bringing tourism.

“In 20 years time we could have a town that’s bigger than Kerikeri,” says Carter. “There’s a lot of good stuff and very good people up here who are working their bums off to make a difference. And the last thing we need is another slash-and-burn exercise, and then start back at the drawing board where everything bloody falls apart and then takes another six or eight years to rebuild again. It’s crazy.”

The clash between Hepi’s call for change and Carter’s steady-as-she-goes conservatism is at the heart of the Far North local election race. Where Carter sees a district making tracks in the right direction, Hepi sees a place stuck in decades of seemingly intractable poverty, suffering from a housing crisis and a multitude of social ills that council is doing too little to address. He’s not the only one. A record 90 candidates are standing in the district, with the field boasting former MPs, entertainers, and outspoken activists. Many of them are seeking to overturn the influence of what they call the ‘old boys club’ – the conservative network which has dominated national and local politics in the Far North for decades.

Many of the candidates are interesting, but none has a story quite like Hepi’s. He spent more than two decades as a leader in the Tribesmen and the Rebels Motorcycle Club before spinning out of control, losing his family, and responding by turning his life around. “You know, you have money. You have everything in your hand. But when you lose your children and your wife and they’re not coming back – that’s the most important thing in a person’s life,” he says. “That was the essence of the transformation of myself after 25 years of being in a motorcycle club.”

JAY HEPI AT HIS CAMPAIGN HEADQUARTERS. Photo: Hayden Donnell

Hepi credits Destiny Church’s Man Up programme with helping him make that transformation, and his association with the church has defined his campaign. Destiny’s leaders, Brian and Hannah Tamaki, have given Hepi substantial backing, even showing up in person to support him at a Meet The Candidates meeting in Kaitaia. Several council candidates say volunteers associated with Man Up have been trawling markets in the Far North for weeks, signing people up to the electoral roll and promoting Hepi over loud hailers. One candidate described being blocked from leaving a post office by a Hepi volunteer who refused to give his identity. Another said she asked one of the volunteers the location of a pro-Hepi event. “He said ‘I don’t know, I’m from Auckland’,” she says.

Carter says many of the volunteers helping the Hepi campaign have been sent from Destiny in Wiri. “In my view it’s not going down well up north here at all. I think it’s doing him a disservice frankly.”

Hepi tries to downplay his association with the church, though that effort is undermined a little by the fact he has a framed photo of the Tamakis in the corner of his campaign headquarters. 

He says his campaign’s aggressive tactics are part of an effort to lift turnout among Māori, which has lagged behind that of the district older, Pākehā population. “I’m doing it for the Māori people who are stuck in poverty. Stuck in oppression. Stuck in a rut.” Hepi wants to make iwi land more productive, revive Kaikohe, and “end meth”. Carter, who once called talkback radio station pretending to be a “workshy Māori” called Hone, isn’t credible when it comes to working to better provide for the district’s Māori population, he says.

Carter rejects that characterisation, and says he’s working hard for Māori in the far north. Hepi isn’t buying it. “John Carter’s coming up with ‘there’s this happening, there’s this happening, we’ve got a lot of stuff happening’. But he’s been in there for six years. It’s time for a change.”

They don’t share a religion, but that’s one belief Hepi has in common with Sue Bradford. The veteran anti-poverty campaigner and ex-Green MP is one of a record 15 people standing for three council spots in the country’s northernmost ward, Te Hiku. “There’s a lot of people standing from what I’d call the old boys network who have been on and off council for some time, and there’s a feeling that they’ve done their time,” she says.

If Bradford gets onto council, it will be her first elected role since leaving parliament in 2009. She’s running on a platform focused on climate justice, and is particularly concerned about the district’s housing crisis, which affects its Māori population most acutely. “I think people in places like Auckland have no idea, she says. “Housing is proportionately just as big, if not a bigger, issue up here in terms of grossly substandard housing. People basically camping. Living under canvas or in shelters. Or massive overcrowding. Living in very poor housing.” 

SUE BRADFORD AT THE FAMOUS MANGONUI FISH SHOP. Photo: Hayden Donnell

Bradford acknowledges council can’t solve housing issues on its own, but says it could be working more closely with iwi, hapu and community groups to set up social housing, or facilitating extra investment from government and developers outside the region. 

Carter is dismissive of the idea council could play a major role in fixing housing issues, and scoffs at pro-housing council initiatives like Auckland’s Unitary Plan. “You need to understand what council can do and the limitations,” he says. “Any time council spends money, council doesn’t have money. It comes from ratepayers. Any time we go and spend, it’s someone else’s money we’re spending.”

Lawyer and Te Hiku candidate Sacha Kearney-Yanke says that’s a cop-out. “Council plays a huge role in housing affordability and supply. It likes to say that’s a market issue but it’s not. The reality is that the cost of a house has been determined in large part by how easy it is to build.” Kearney-Yanke is a first-time candidate. She initially said no to standing, but reconsidered after a series of conversations with people who told her council was stymieing important community initiatives. “It was like the universe was sending me signals,” she says. “I thought ‘well, I talk and think of the need to make positive change so much and yet I’m just dismissing it.’”

SACHA KEARNEY-YANKE. Photo: Hayden Donnell

Like Bradford and Hepi, she wants council advocate more strongly for Māori, who she says have been sidelined by the district’s largely white, conservative voting population. Her concern goes back to her time at Taipa Area School, where she was surrounded by what she calls “staggering poverty”. “I left thinking ‘if there’s anything to do to help this, I’ll do it’,” she says. “Māori have largely been rejected and far from represented here. Disparaged and ignored by the political structures that have been voted in by a sector of society that doesn’t represent them. That’s been very frustrating to watch over the course of my entire life.”

Jason Kerrison is also focused on poverty and Māori engagement, but the Opshop lead singer’s proposals are a little more unorthodox than his fellow progressives. He’s in the process of trying to turn his property near Kaitaia into an industrial hemp farm, and sees the versatile plant transforming the Far North’s economy. “I see just locked up potential and prosperity here. Everyone should be doing well here if they want to. That’s why I would advance a paradigm shift and expansion into industrial hemp. It’s sustainable agriculture.”

JASON KERRISON’S CAMPAIGN PHOTO

Kerrison is relentlessly visionary. He wants to build an low frequency international airport in Kaitaia out of hempcrete. But it’s not just hemp. “Have you heard of blockchain?” he says, before launching into a talk on how he would use the technology to put himself out of a job, by allowing residents to vote on every aspect of council business via app.

The singer entered the race after posting on a series of community Facebook pages, asking what people wanted out of council. He got hundreds of responses. “People wanted everything from [cleaner] waterways to recycling and deeper engagement with tangata whenua. Leadership across all spectrums. Pretty much everything unfortunately,” he says. 

Since then, he’s run his own candidate account like a community news page, interviewing many of the other candidates standing for council and the mayoralty. His motto is “he waka eke noa” – we’re all in this together.

Dave Hookway isn’t sold on that theme. The outspoken Bay of Islands-Whangaroa councillor has criticised Carter and the council leadership relentlessly. He’s running for mayor alone this election, on a platform of completely overhauling council’s governance. In his mind, it is failing Far North residents, and needs to be more open, responsive, and reflective of the diverse community it represents. As evidence, he points to a series of documents, including a recent resident opinion survey showing only 31% of Far North residents are satisfied with the council’s performance, 27% of people are satisfied with its reputation, and 22% think it’s trustworthy.

“Carter’s only promoting the same,” he says. “Remember he’s had decades up here as a politician as well. And the people that I’ve been hearing from say they’ve put up with promises of change for decades.”

Carter responds by claiming Hookway, who has a full-time job as a wellbeing advisor at Northland DHB, is acting on incomplete information because his council attendance record isn’t spotless. “When you don’t turn up to the meetings and then stand to the side and criticise, that’s because you don’t know. The fact is there’s lots of really good, positive stuff happening. We know there’s stuff to build on. We’re building on it,” he says. 

Even if Hookway has a point, several candidates are worried about how he’s expressing it. “I can see that there’s a huge amount that needs change, but if we’re going to just label it dysfunctional and broken and that’s going to be the basis of your campaign, it’s necessarily not going to be effective because it switches voters off,” Kearney-Yanke says.

At the Mangonui Hotel on a Wednesday night, that fear seems to have manifested. Few people have even heard there’s an election on. They say local politics is pointless; that voting hasn’t ever made a difference. Troy, who’s in his 50s, says he’s never voted for a local politician. If the current voting statistics are anything to go by, the pub is a snapshot of the district as a whole. As of last week, only 21% of enrolled voters had cast a ballot – 2% less than at the same point in 2016. 

One of local government’s paradoxes is that the more change is needed, the harder it is to effect. Often the more a place struggles, the more likely it is that voters will feel alienated from the democratic system. In other words: when people dislike the status quo, they tend to leave the voting up to the people who want the status quo to remain.

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“It’s terrifying because this is such a vulnerable ward,” Kearney-Yanke says. “Certainly there’s a screaming need here but we’ve got this massive field and this disengaged, largely disinterested population. When we present them with a ballot paper that’s got 15 names on them, how do they navigate that? Everyone’s saying the results are going to be totally unpredictable and they’re right.”

If that’s true of Te Hiku, it’s true of the Far North as a whole. Hepi says he’s sensing a “revolution”. Bradford may have been told at political meetings that the old guard is on its way out. Kerrison may see a bright future. But a single election with a host of bright new candidates may not be enough to convince a large swathe of disenfranchised people to vote. Their optimism could be misplaced. Come Saturday, Carter may get his wish: three more years of the same.

*You can read the report summary at page 167 of this agenda

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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