Race briefing: Great Barrier Island, home to the highest voter turnout in Auckland

In our latest local elections 2019 race briefing (read the rest here), Josie Adams looks at the battle to wrest control of the beautiful offshore outpost, Great Barrier Island/Aotea.

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Where?

Great Barrier Island, also known as Aotea, is the sixth largest island in New Zealand and home to a massive DOC reserve. It’s also a reserve for fourth-generation hardasses, with a population of  almost 1000 off-grid islanders. The 285 square kilometres of rocks, birds, and pigs lies in the Hauraki Gulf, about 100km north of Auckland.

Contrary to popular belief, the island is not filled with hippies driven off Waiheke Island by rising property prices. No, Barrier is filled with old whaling and mining families who have turned their outdoorsy energy toward the fierce protection of pāteke (brown teal ducks) and the patronage of an Irish pub. The island has no power, water, or sewage systems; it’s every man and duck for himself out here.

There is no campaigning on Aotea, but it still has the highest voter turnout in Auckland. This incredible achievement is down to a few factors, but the first is that everyone knows everyone, so word-of-mouth is enough. More than that, the islanders vote in droves because their local board has more impact on Aotea’s day-to-day running than Auckland Council. The island is associated with the council by its funding sources and its geographic placement, but beyond that the local board manages everything.

What are some of the big issues for Great Barrier Island this election?

The most universal demand on Aotea is for better conservation work. This is much less simple than it sounds; everyone has a different take on how to best protect the land and sea around them. A few people want to increase funding for DOC, which protects about 60% of the island. Most say they haven’t seen a DOC worker recently and, frankly, they could do a better job themselves. They’d prefer DOC funding was instead given to community groups dedicated to conservation activity, feeling this man/nature segregation is bad for both. Pāteke and man must live as one.

One environmental issue of particular concern is marine dumping. The Environmental Protection Authority has granted consent for 250,000 cubic metres of sediment to be deposited 25 kilometres east of Great Barrier Island annually. The sediment comes from Auckland city bays and marinas, and isn’t the most healthy thing you can feed ocean life.

There is an abundance of marine life around Aotea, and every person on the island is appalled at the prospect of it being damaged by tonnes of sediment. It would change the ecosystem, which Aotea fishermen rely on. Iwi have shown concern over the dumping, raising the concept of wai tapu, and how this would be affected in the long-term by dumping. National MP Nikki Kaye is one of those who’ve voiced disapproval of the EPA’s choice here. Any local board member will need to commit a monstrous amount of time and energy into combatting the dumping consent. It’s an exhausting task, but one a few candidates are prepared for.

There are no long-term rental properties on the island, despite half the houses being uninhabited. Because each house is set up with its own solar power, water and waste systems, many homeowners feel it’s both more uneconomical and inefficient to rent out their homes for the year than to rent them for a month in the summer – especially when 30 days’ AirBnB-ing in January can bring in as much money as a year’s rent. This means that whenever someone moves to the island, they have to build a house – and with a $30,000 solar power set-up on top of ferrying in building supplies, that’s prohibitively expensive to almost everyone. The current local board is struggling to find solutions, so new blood and ideas are welcome.

Without rental properties or new housing, it will be hard to attract the teachers and doctors islanders need. The married duo who currently run the island’s health practice want to retire, and there is currently no real child daycare.

Who’s running?

Luke Coles has been on the board since 2016, when he was elected as, allegedly, the youngest deputy chair in New Zealand local board history (everyone on the island said this but I can find no evidence). In his early 30s, he has more energy to devote to righting Auckland council’s many wrongs than some. He’s already progressed healthy waterways and education on the island, and this time around he wants to focus on housing and childcare. He’s a reluctant hero, saying he never wanted to be a politician but, well, here we are. He’s incredibly effective and everyone on the mainland and the island knows it. Good luck leaving politics now, Coles.

Pat O’Shea took one look at the rest of the candidates’ blurbs and found his point of difference: “I make no promises,” he says. Paddy, Pat, or Patrick (if you’re being formal) sees himself as more a community liaison type. He’s just here to listen. When asked about his platform, all the 24-year-old had to say was “I’m not old enough to have one of those yet.” He’s an amiable young lad with a good pair of ears and his heart screwed in right. His family has been on the island for more than half a century, so he has a good sense for what it needs.

Valmaine Toki lives off-island most of the time, but her exceptional CV might be enough to sway the voters. She’s tangata whenua of the island; both her parents were born and raised there, and her own children attended a local primary school. She served on this school’s board of trustees as well as on the Aotea Health Trust, the Motairehe Marae Trust, and the Ngāti Rehua Ngātiwai ki Aotea Trust. She’s also an associate professor in law, and was a member of the United Nations permanent forum on indigenous issues. She is, if anything, overqualified for the job.

Izzy Fordham is the current chair of the local board and has more than 15 years’ experience in local government. Like Coles, she sees the board’s role as “strong representation in council,” aka haranguing Auckland Council until they get things right, for once. Seriously, just give Fordham and Coles the money and let them run the island. Biosecurity, marine welfare, and developing local job opportunities are her other priorities. 

Sue Daly has been on the board for three terms already, and has a wide-ranging set of political interests: the environment, new industries, and “fewer rules”. She’s lived on the island since 1977, when she visited as a backpacker and fell in love. She’s been called one of New Zealand’s toughest gardeners. Daly sees Aotea’s community as potential world leaders in off-grid living; a more sustainable way of living.

Catherine Munro is another candidate who doesn’t live on Aotea, but who has connections with it. Her turangawaewae is in Motairehe, and she’s had five years’ experience as a trustee on the Ngāti Rehua Ngātiwai ki Aotea board. She believes she has the “analytical skills” to be of use on the board, and sees her role as kaitiaki for the island.

Bill Carlin was one of the residents who suggested a 30-year-old weir be removed from Awana stream, boosting the native fish population which had been blocked by it for decades. He hopes to make more transformative suggestions for the island’s ecology if elected, with adaptation to the climate crisis high on his list of priorities. 

And who’s most likely to win?

Pat O’Shea is a legacy candidate – three generations of his family have been on the board already, so he has to have a go. Most islanders seem sure he’ll get on. 

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Valmaine Toki is also a likely winner, as she’s proven herself more than competent at everything else she’s turned her hand to – there’s a big buzz amongst the islanders about what she can bring to the table.  

The three other spaces are likely to be filled by current board members: Luke Coles, Sue Daly, and Izzy Fordham.

What is the voting method?

The worst one: First Past the Post.

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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