Author Josie Adams, right, and Masterton candidate Tina Nixon's infamous billboard.

Chainsaw lessons with rates-slashing billboard idol Tina Nixon

Tina Nixon, Masterton mayoral candidate and chainsaw model, is leading one of the tightest campaigns rural NZ has seen. Josie Adams headed to the Wairarapa to learn about Nixon, chainsawing, and voting in rural NZ.

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Despite the now-famous billboard showing her wielding a chainsaw, Tina Nixon prefers using a weed whacker. A chainsaw and a weed whacker are very different in practical terms, but symbolically they both cut the chaff, or rates, or the legs out from under the competition.

In Masterton, she doesn’t have much to chop. Only three other people are running for mayor. The campaigns are small: door-knocking and a spot of local newspaper coverage. Only one council candidate, David Holmes, had his billboards damaged. After a small investigation it was determined the culprits were some angry bulls.

The raging hormonal destruction of pastoral beasts is about the most fuss you’ll find in Masterton this election. A couple of folk at the pub say they’ll probably vote for the current mayor, but can’t name her. It’s Lyn Patterson, currently running for her third term. Turnout is down nationwide, though Masterton is bucking the trend. It’s up a few points on the last election. 

Maybe the difference is Nixon’s campaign. Right now, she’s the loudest sound in Masterton. It started with the rattling of a chainsaw, and moved into a declaration that she’d donate 10% of her mayoral salary – ‘Tina’s Tithe’ – to the wider community. She’s the only person kicking up a stink in this election, and people are starting to recognise her name along with her billboard.

Despite her many policies, I was hooked on the chainsaw. I made the long trip south to demand she teach me how to use one. She pulled up in a hot red car, and stepped out of it looking exactly the same as the giant portrait painted on the car door. She may only own one blazer, but damn it’s a sharp cut.

She shook my hand and grinned. “You can’t vote here, so I can buy you a drink.” She’s very to-the-point. She’d already called ahead to the Stihl store, where she’d organised a chainsawing tutorial. Apparently Masterton’s Stihl store is the best in NZ. Is that in terms of sales or customer service? “All of it,” said Dean Goodin, my chainsawing tutor and one-time contender for the title of New Zealand’s greatest cricket fan. He handed me chaps to put on, which he swore would stop the blades of a top-notch Stihl hacking through my legs. I didn’t test the theory.

He ran me through the steps: press this button, turn this switch, put your foot here, and pull. Pull again. Hang on a minute. It hadn’t been used in a while, and Goodin gave the throttle a couple of warm-up pulls.

Finally, I was a member of the Nixon chainsaw massacre. I turned around to see her cackling; it turns out she can hardly use a chainsaw. We’ve all been had!

“I suppose I’ve never taken myself seriously, but I take what I do seriously,” she said, as a way of explaining the chainsaw billboard. “Against the advice of every one of my extremely qualified PR friends I decided to give it a crack – it’s not the most flattering photo but it speaks to what I’m going to do.” Terrifyingly, she didn’t elaborate on this.

Tina Nixon sans chainsaw, just the way she likes it. Photo: Tina Nixon’s campaign

Nixon is practical about local government and her role in it. She only plans on standing for two terms if elected, because she believes in constant renewal. “We need fresh ideas, not shiny bottoms.”

Masterton’s population is renewing itself, too. In 2015, the council – with Nixon’s help – launched the My Masterton campaign, which brought 25 new families to the town in one month, along with a constant drip of middle-aged folk selling their properties in the cities and buying local businesses.

The town has already reached its population projections for 2025, thanks to the Aucklanders flooding it with gastropubs and software companies. The infrastructure can’t handle it. The town’s water system is old and crumbling, and will take millions of dollars to fix; farmers are losing land and profits due to carbon offset planting; and central government keeps asking the regions to meet constantly renewing requirements without stumping up much money for them. 

Nixon’s slogan, “no mucking about,” plays well with this crowd. “Farmers love that one,” she said. It’s an appropriate slogan for someone with such a passion for gardening tools. 

Nixon thinks she’s got the fight and experience to live up to her election catchphrases. Her background includes banter with Shane Jones and campaign donations from Matthew Hooton and Deb Coddington. She’s got friends in rich places. She was a journo and a communications whizzkid back in the day. In short, she has a hell of a network.

Why would someone like that move to Masterton? Maybe she sees something big in the town’s future. When she first arrived, she had a job as the council’s economic development officer. She’s now the business development advisor at Rangitane Tu Mai Ra, the post-Treaty settlement iwi trust, and was an adviser at the Taratahi Institute of Agriculture until it closed last year. She’s also on three local boards. 

Nixon knows what people think of rural councils. “The productivity commission says – in a much nicer way than this – that most councillors are a bunch of useless numpties with no understanding of governance of finance, and so really aren’t capable of handling the big stuff.”

I asked her if she thinks this is true. “Yeah, I do, actually. And that frightens me. I’m certainly no governance expert – I’m on some very small companies, not-for-profits and Māori incorporations. That hardly gives me big creds. But most of these other people do not have backgrounds that help them understand the finance stuff.”

She’s also scathing about council infighting and inefficiency. As an example, Nixon tells a harrowing story about a failed joint dog pound. The disaster’s roots go back to 2017, when the idea was floated of Carterton, Masterton, and South Wairarapa joining up and forming one big supercouncil. Carterton said no, and as revenge Masterton refused to build the pound with them. Now dog storage in both areas is extremely inefficient. “It’s really short-sighted. Not on my watch. That sort of stuff has to stop,” she says.

Politically, Nixon’s a blue-green. “In all honesty, I probably lean more toward the green,” she said. For some critics, it’s hard to see blue economics and green social and environmental goals ever matching up. In the Wairarapa, being “green” means making sure the land you farm on is sustainable, rather than driving electric cars or going vegan.

When I asked her about the climate bill, she was pretty unenthusiastic for a self-declared greenie. “I don’t think what the government’s asking of farmers is realistic,” she said. “It’s got to be stuff that’s doable. You just can’t up and impose changes that are possibly going to leave people with no profit for four or five years.”

She doesn’t like the phrase “climate emergency,” either. “I’ve lived through emergencies, and I don’t think it’s the right thing to call this. Old people are getting really scared, kids are terrified, and you have a lot of confused people in the middle.”

Nixon’s worried about climate anxiety contributing to New Zealand’s already devastating suicide rate. “Stop frightening the bejesus out of old people, and giving young people no hope,” she said. “I don’t know what the answer is. It’s really tough.” She’s been personally affected by a friend’s death very recently, and the topic is sore. 

She feels for the farmers who are emotionally struggling. Accusations of dirty farming have deeply affected the community, she says. “I’ve never seen farmers so despondent. They were embarrassed, and shamed, and that’s not right.” The riverways around Masterton are much cleaner than in other agricultural centres, she said. “Everyone should be looking to the Wairarapa farmers for solutions, not problems. They’ve been riparian planting for 20 years. They know how to prevent erosion. Generally, people here really understand that clean-up stuff.”

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Nixon’s chainsaw is pointed at broad-sweeping central government mandates that don’t speak to, or understand rural communities. It hacks at the crumbling waterways. And it slices through the billboard competition: “Her design spoke to her purpose,” said the team at The Sign Factory, where the billboard was made. Hovering around the stacks of future hoardings is the store’s staff, which includes a cockatoo and three large dogs. “Yes, it definitely has artistic merit.”

Whether we’ll see that artistic merit translate to success, and a sharply-tailored Nixon wielding her grandson’s tiny Stihl to cut the mayoral ribbon, only the voters can say.

Masterton has a ballot bus stopping at eight different places in town this Friday, so if you missed out on postal voting it’s not too late!

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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