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Local Election-Dunedin

Local ElectionsSeptember 17, 2019

Race briefing: Dunedin, the left-wing utopia/drunken hellhole of the south

Local Election-Dunedin

In our latest local elections 2019 race briefing (read the rest here), Josie Adams assesses the bastion of progressive virtue that is Dunedin/Ōtepoti.

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.


Dunedin, or Ōtepoti, is also known as “the Edinburgh of the south”. Edinburgh is known as “the Athens of the north”. This means Dunedin is only a couple of degrees removed from Athens, which is immediately obvious when you glance at its strange and disgusting past: the hauntings and seasonal affective disorder deaths of Larnarch Castle, the Undie 500, and the time an aspiring Prometheus, Captain James Kelly, set the entire town on fire so that Māori couldn’t attack it. This city has truly been put through the wringer, and the hardy citizens who have evolved from its drunk, dark depths demand the best from their local representatives.

This hellhole of Te Waipounamu is home to around 130,000 people, including more than 30,000 tertiary students. This skews the population toward university demographics: Dunedin has a lower median age than most cities in New Zealand, and a slighter higher percentage of women. Incumbent Mayor Dave Cull is stepping down from his three-term reign at the very nice age of 69, so these nubile voters will have a plentiful bounty of 14 mayoral candidates to choose from.

What are some of the big issues for Dunedin this election?

It’s been six years since I voted in the DCC elections and the exact same issues are still cropping up. Let’s start with public transport. For as long as the St Paul’s bells have rung, affordable and available public transport has been in demand. In 2013 OUSA managed to negotiate a student discount for buses, but they still have a limited range and the prices keep creeping up.

Biking is an alternative mode of transport, and it’s true that some headway has been made on Dunedin’s cycleways, but more work needs doing. Heavy-traffic roads like Crawford Street have some painted-on acknowledgement of cyclists, but nothing to improve their safety. With a sharp rise in peak hour traffic congestion over the past few years, it’s more important than ever for Dunedin’s streets to incentivise alternative modes of transport.

In terms of arts and culture, Dunedin residents have historically been very well sated. However, there’s been a slight decrease in satisfaction over the past couple of years. The heritage buildings, as always, need more investment and repairs. The museums, galleries, and libraries have seen a decline in visits from residents, indicating they could use a little freshening up. 

Who’s running for mayor?

No fewer than 14 people are running for mayor in Dunedin. They include:

Aaron Hawkins has been putting in the hard political mahi for years. He’s currently chair of both the community and culture committee, and the Dunedin refugee steering group. He’s also big into the arts, sitting on the Dunedin Fringe Arts Trust board and the Blue Oyster Arts Trust board. No surprises there; he’s a broadcaster and writer by trade. Elected to council in 2013, Hawkins was previously the breakfast host at Radio One, and led the radio station’s efforts to resist privatisation – successfully. Going forward, he’ll keep pushing for better public transport and housing. He has also sworn to pull back on “gamesmanship” in council meetings. If he wins in October, Hawkins would be the first official Green Party candidate to win a mayoralty in New Zealand.

Lee Vandervis is Hawkins’ nemesis. He’s had four terms on the council, and was the highest-polling councillor last election. Notably, Vandervis is the only person on this list not to respond to the Policy Local web app questionnaire. Policy Local is a fantastic tool for learning about the policies and personalities of candidates in your area. Just think it’s funny how Vandervis hates a transparent democratic process is all. According to the Otago Daily Times, Vandervis was the subject of 11 complaints of inappropriate behaviour this term, which is arguably too many. He hates wasteful spending, wants to increase funding to the Mosgiel pool, and grumbles every time the environment is brought up. He’s also, bizarrely, the local ban 1080 candidate.

Scout Barbour-Evans is a new parent. They’re also currently a student, which in any other city might be a drawback, but Dunedin isn’t just a student city; it’s the student city. They’re born and raised in beautiful Dunners, and have a huge stake in its future so are less likely to make short-sighted decisions. They’re interested in improving the availability and quality of housing in the city, but that’s only the first step in their overall goal of making Dunedin a place where students want to stay after graduating.

Rachel Elder never has a bad word to say, unless it’s about bullying. She doesn’t like that! Elder has been on the council for one term now, but some suspect she still does not understand how it works. Her policies are pretty straightforward: encouraging economic growth via Dunedin’s burgeoning start-up scene, improving recreation facilities, and walking in nature.  Outside of that, she just wants everyone to get along. 

Who will win?

Aaron Hawkins has proved himself as both a councillor and a leader. He has the backing of the Green Party, which you’d think would alienate some of Dunedin’s upper crust, but his community work, presence in the ODT, and constant suit-wearing have won them over. More to the point, the man loves a debate even more than our Local Elections editor Hayden Donnell. If elected, Hawkins could go full Shadbolt.

What is the voting method?

The best one: Single Transferable Vote (STV)

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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