The young candidates trying to take the reins in two of our palest, stalest councils

Two young candidates are trying to bring change to the staunchly conservative Waimakariri and Hurunui Districts in North Canterbury. But are their ideas truly new? Kim Nutbrown and Pattie Pegler report.

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This year two North Canterbury mayors are bidding farewell to long council careers. In Waimakariri, mayor David Ayers was first voted in as a councillor in 1983 and has now served nine years as mayor. In neighbouring Hurunui, fourth generation farmer and mayor Winton Dalley has been involved with the council for decades and has also served as mayor for nine years. 

At first glance, it seems like the mayors’ retirements could signal a sea change for these traditionally conservative districts. Hurunui has never had a female mayor. That record is guaranteed to end, with no male candidates are running for the position. Waimakariri councillors have an average age well north of 50. Some of the leading candidates in the district’s upcoming election are young, and new to local politics. But who are these people looking to replace North Canterbury’s old guard, and how much change are they really promising?

In the Waimakariri, 34-year-old ex-army officer Oliver Sanderson is campaigning on a platform of “real leadership, zero politics”. He may be North Canterbury born and bred – his parents owned and ran a pottery business and he was educated at the local high school – but he’s a new face. And his face is everywhere – on signs, billboards and in his own reasonably slick campaign video. 


But while other candidates have been toiling away at community board and council meetings, where has Sanderson been? He joined the army on leaving school and served as a soldier and then an officer, taking a break from the military for a while to explore the idea of joining the priesthood. On finally leaving the army in 2017 he spent a year working for a North Island council in youth development and then embarked on a law degree at the University of Canterbury. He has put that law degree on hold to run for mayor. 

“The different things I’ve done in my life have provided me with a unique wealth of experience that would only add value to carrying out the duties of mayor,” he says.

It’s his time in the army in particular that he feels gave him the skills necessary for the mayoralty. He argues the mayoralty is not a political position, but a leadership position, and touts the leadership skills he developed in the army. “It’s all about leadership and taking people with you. It’s not about control, it’s about wanting to get people involved,” he says. 

When it comes to policies, like most candidates he’s heavily focused on the 25% population growth projected for the district in the next 10 years. He’s keen on tackling traffic congestion; making sure elderly people are not socially isolated by providing them with good public transport and road safety is high on his agenda. In Woodend, a small town cut in half by a state highway, it’s a cause that will resonate with many of the residents who currently have no safe crossing points. He believes ensuring children and the elderly are cared for is important, as a reflection on ourselves as a society. It’s also the ultimate in uncontroversial. Who doesn’t want the elderly included and children to be safe?

On the more polarising issue of climate change there isn’t a lot being said by the majority of candidates. Sanderson, at least, makes his position clear. He may be running in the Waimakariri district, where current mayor David Ayers did sign the Local Government Leaders’ Climate Change Declaration, but Sanderson firmly supports Hurunui’s incumbent mayor and farming stalwart, Winton Dalley, who believes declaring climate emergencies is a ‘political stunt’ and one that is pointless for local government. 

Instead the council should focus on preparing for the effects of climate change – ensuring civil defence are up to the job of dealing with wildfires, floods and other natural disasters. Shunning the ‘politics’ of climate change is bold leadership, he says. For voters looking for fresh thinking on this issue, it may feel more like old views from a youthful face. 

In the neighbouring Hurunui District, mayoral candidate Julia McLean is also asking voters to change the status quo. However, in contrast to Sanderson, McLean believes Dalley’s decision not to sign the Local Government Leaders’ Climate Change Declaration was a missed opportunity. She wouldn’t dissent from the council’s stance and sign the declaration without their support, but believes the issue needs to be properly addressed. She would try to get consensus around the table.


McLean has been effective standing up for environmental issues this term. Her criticisms and scrutiny caused the virtual derailment of the Hurunui Water Project – a proposal to get the council to buy dry shares in a water irrigation scheme. Outgoing Mayor Winton Dalley and mayoral candidate Marie Black had to recuse themselves from meetings on the project because they were already shareholders in the scheme, leaving McLean with fewer combatants. 

“I was critical of the council process in dealing with that. I’m not here to rub shoulders, I’m prepared to ask the questions others duck from,” she says.

McLean showed her commitment to environmental issues again when an illegally dumped tyre pile in Amberley caught fire in 2018, expelling toxic smoke. She was critical of the handling of the issue by both district and regional councils, and has been proactive in seeking a cleanup.

McLean credits her life experience with teaching her resilience. She emigrated from Zimbabwe to New Zealand with her family when she was four years old. They were seeking a fresh start away from the brutal Mugabe regime. That experience has had a profound impact on her life, she says.

“It made me want to become a journalist and hold people to account and tell the important stories.” She pursued a career in television journalism, but just as her career was taking off, she suffered a horse-riding accident which left her in an induced coma with a head injury. At the time, she was six weeks pregnant with her first child. 

The tough times continued when the Christchurch earthquakes struck, leaving her Kaiapoi home red stickered. McLean found herself locked in a two-year battle to settle on her damaged family home. After finally reaching a settlement, the McLeans moved to Amberley in the Hurunui District. It was there she got her first taste of local politics – raising money for a new BMX track. 

“I needed a positive outlet to focus on. That’s when I got stuck into the BMX track, it was actually like therapy,” McLean said. Her efforts raised more than $130,000 for the track. This was her platform for running in the 2016 elections. After just a $70 campaign, she topped the polling and cemented her place on council. 

From the beginning McLean found herself rocking the boat with her council colleagues. She started a campaign to provide elected officials with childcare subsidies. Mclean raised the issue, along with Nelson City councillor Matt Lawrey. Their efforts resulted in the Remuneration Authority introducing a policy allowing councillors and community board members to claim back up to $6000 plus GST a year to cover childcare expenses for meetings and events. The Remuneration Authority decided to leave it up to each council’s discretion – despite Local Government New Zealand’s National Council recommending the policy be an automatic right.

McLean was the only councillor absent from a meeting in June when the Hurunui District Council voted unanimously to reject the subsidy. Some might say it was pettiness, but she chooses to look at the broader ramifications of the decision. “I’m disappointed because I think that it affects the diversity of people sitting around the table.” 

McLean is seeking the mayoralty as a way of securing a mandate for change. If she does get the job she knows she will have her work cut out getting others around the table to change their thinking. The Hurunui District Council was also one of only two councils to vote against having Māori seats on the National Council. “I don’t agree with that decision, I think that a council is about giving everyone in the community a voice and representation that’s the only way we achieve diversity and equality,” she says.

Neither McLean nor Sanderson are hedging their bets – it’s the mayoralty or nothing for both of them. They’re both keen to get people voting and want the community involved in local democracy, but there’s still a danger the response will be overwhelming apathy. In 2016 voter turnout was just 41% in the Hurunui and 39% in the Waimakariri.

The Spinoff local election coverage is made possible thanks to The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism click here.

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