Hamilton councillors have drawn headlines this year for being anti-science and insensitive to terror victims. At a mayoral debate on Wednesday, there were signs a campaign for change is gathering force.
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It was the night of Hamilton’s biggest mayoral debate, and Jack Gielen wasn’t going to let it go by without performing his local government rap. When it came to his final, 90-second speech, the candidate couldn’t hold back any longer.
“Stop executive fat cats’ salaries / and prefer contractors,” he chanted. “Stop elitists crapping on the poor / justice equality evermore.”
The performance was about as good as you’d expect from an aging religious fanatic who has been accused of stalking funerals on behalf of an offensive, evidence-averse suicide prevention service, but it was probably the most pointed piece of political criticism at Claudelands Event Centre on Wednesday night. While Auckland’s top two mayoral contenders are trying to break each other’s spirits through unrelenting emotional abuse, the eight candidates at Hamilton’s council-hosted debate only seemed to want to lodge criticisms in the form of carefully crafted riddles.
One of the night’s sharpest barbs came from 12-year council veteran Angela O’Leary, who said she “hadn’t switched councils expecting you to give me only the top job”. It was a reference to Paula Southgate, who moved from Waikato Regional Council to Hamilton City Council in 2016, and is now running exclusively for mayor. The roughly 14 people in the room who understood the reference were scandalised. Moderator Mike McRoberts probably experienced a flashback to his time reporting from warzones. Incumbent mayor Andrew King and challenger Louise Hutt tittered and looked over to Southgate, noting the sick burn.
It was left to the audience to deliver the debate’s actually offensive moments. One of them yelled “racist” as Tainui kaumatua Tame Pokaia opened the evening, apparently angry that a Māori man was speaking te reo Māori. At other times, there were audible grumbles as candidates spoke on topics like cycleways. When Hutt brought up the fact that the other candidates weren’t mentioning climate change, a man sitting near the front couldn’t take it any longer. “That’s because it doesn’t exist, you silly bitch,” he called out, loud enough for the people in rows around him to hear.
Thankfully the people on stage didn’t turn nasty as well. King and Hutt especially looked like unlikely buddies, or at least non-enemies. The council’s decision to order candidates alphabetically had placed the National-leaning mayor and his 26-year-old Green-affiliated opponent at the same table. King spent a good portion of the evening trying to show Hutt things on his phone. Were they memes? Texts? Did he need tech support? It wasn’t clear*.
He must have felt betrayed when Hutt, in response to a question on how she’d better engage the public as mayor, said she’d use her Facebook page all the time, and “not just in election years”. King wryly noted the implied criticism, even though it does appear he was on social media from 2016 to 2018. Weirdly, O’Leary seemed to take it more personally. “I actually have to refute some of the comments that I think Louise may have made,” she said, noting her work opening council up. “I was the first to have a blog, a website, a webcam,” she said.
Outside these rare owns, what did the candidates actually believe? O’Leary and James Casson had the most straightforward, rates-and-waste platforms. O’Leary said she would “rip up” King’s 10-year budget, which included a 9.7% rates increase in 2018/19. It was unclear how she’d muster enough support to do that, given the budget passed 10-3. As is traditional for rates-cutting candidates, she fudged her explanation of which spending she’d cut to pay for her promises, highlighting a $6.49 million property purchase in the city centre that’s already been approved.
At least O’Leary is socially liberal. Casson briefly attained national prominence earlier this year after posting a Facebook status saying the Christchurch shooter won with “each tear shed” over his victims. He’s against retaining council’s Māngai Māori seats. His mayoral campaign seems to be aimed at raising the profile of his council re-election bid. If justice prevails, neither will succeed.
King’s beliefs were harder to pin to a political philosophy. Though his alignment is right-of-centre, he seemed to see policy like accountants see numbers. In his mind, everything he’d done was obvious and logical. Raising rates 9.7% was necessary because the city was rundown and needed fixing up. Opening up the Peacocke development in the south of the city had to happen because past councils had promised it. Making off-peak public transport free was a no-brainer because the council was currently paying for buses to drive around empty.
Listening to him was almost calming, such was his utter certainty. He spoke in clipped, declarative sentences with no breaks or prevarications. His brain was completely smooth.
Hutt’s was more troubled. She was justifiably annoyed about the lack of attention council paid to the concerns of anyone who wasn’t white, able-bodied, and over 50 years old; frustrated that even when the debate turned to topics like public transport, most of the other candidates wanted to sprinkle their answers with reassurances they were extremely into cars. King: “I love my car”. O’Leary: “I’m a supporter of public transport but I also love my private motor vehicle.” Lisa Lewis: “What about tuk-tuks?”
Maybe that’s to be expected from a city where voter turnout was mired at 33.6% in 2016, and where no elected representative is under 40. But amidst the same-old local politics, there were encouraging signs. Southgate, one of the top contenders, talked about building a sustainable city where walking is a viable transport option. King, who established the council’s Māngai Māori seats, texted after the debate to say the racist who called out “racist” at Pokaia was “sad and shameful”. “Apologies as mayor on behalf of our city,” he said. And at a candidate cafe earlier in the evening, talented younger candidates made a case for changing the makeup of council.
Kesh Naidoo-Rauf was one of them. She put her name forward in Hamilton’s east ward after travelling to Christchurch as a volunteer after the March 15 terror attacks. “I came back after that and I had to keep giving help,” she said. “After Christchurch something happened and I feel personally I have to be doing more.” Sarah Thomson was another. She took government to court in 2017 for failing to keep its emissions targets in line with current climate science, and is now running in the city’s west ward alongside Hutt. “The tipping point for me was seeing that several Hamilton city councillors deny man-made climate change is a thing,” she said.
Many of the headlines on Hamilton City Council in the last year or so have been dispiriting. It has received criticism over the actions of some of its more embarrassing representatives, from Casson to anti-vaxxer Siggi Henry. The city has been the butt of New Zealand’s jokes for decades, to the point that The Tron is now a widely accepted name for it, even amongst locals. But Hamilton’s economy and population are growing fast, its median age is only 32, and the candidacies of people like Hutt, Thomson, and Naidoo-Rauf may be a glimpse of change on the horizon.
When McRoberts ended the debate around 8pm, the man who’d spent the evening loudly lamenting every mention of climate change made his final assessment. “Well that’s the saddest fucking lineup of fucking potential mayors I’ve seen in my fucking life, ” he said, before trudging off. The night may have had its share of discouragements, but here was a positive sign. If a man like that is deeply unhappy, Hamilton’s future might be looking bright.
* Hutt later refused to divulge what was on the phone. “It’s like the end of Lost In Translation,” she said.