The two loud, angry campaigns that could swing the Auckland local elections

The power balance of the incoming Auckland Council could be decided by two overheated local debates about a golf course and a carpark. Hayden Donnell reports.


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.


Albert-Eden local board member Graeme Easte had only just started his sentence when the shouts started ringing out. “Bullshit,” a man yelled. Then louder. “BULLSHIT.” Easte had been trying to sell the crowd on his board’s plan to reduce Chamberlain Park golf course to nine holes in order to make room for sports fields, cycle paths, and open space. It wasn’t going well. Before he’d even got up to speak, Auckland Horticultural Council member Graeme Milne had called him “Judas Easte”, not knowing he was in the room. Milne also dubbed Albert-Eden board chair Peter Haynes “Lucifer Haynes”, and City Vision “Shitty Vision”. The more Easte talked, the more angry people got. “You little prick,” one man muttered. 

Easte was speaking at a meeting hosted by Save Chamberlain Park (SCP) in the Western Springs Garden Community Hall. SCP was founded by Geoff Senescall, and is now supported by a cabal of local golfers, a loose cluster of environmentalists, and a few politicians. Its sole purpose is to torpedo City Vision’s plan to divide the park. In the last three years, it has won a temporary injunction in the High Court, started a popular petition on Change.org, and slowly turned the Mt Albert community Facebook page into a roiling ever-war. Now the group is running a noisy local election campaign for control of the council seats and the local board in Albert-Eden-Puketāpapa. If it’s successful, the fight over Chamberlain Park may end up as one of two community battles which swing the power balance of Auckland’s incoming local government. 

The flyers were the first thing people saw on their way into the meeting. Save Chamberlain Park has been distributing versions of them around Owairaka. They show a golf course strewn with crosses; one for every tree in sight. A bulldozer and a chainsaw levitate over the pristine land, poised to do their terrible work. The group’s understated election slogan is “stop the chainsaw massacre”. Their argument is that putting sports fields on the park will mean felling 1000 trees, destroying pristine open space, and killing the golf course forever.

ONE OF THE FLYERS FROM THE MEETING

A lot of that is nonsense and exaggeration. The board’s plan would include major wetland restoration work and large-scale tree planting. It wouldn’t remove much open space; the land is becoming a public park. Though the potential for tree felling is concerning, and something the board needs to explain, no-one really knows how many trees are at risk. There’s still no detailed plan for the park’s redevelopment, and Save Chamberlain Park’s figure is based on an amateur count carried out by two of its supporters. 

One of the tree counters, Dr Louise Kane, spoke at the meeting. She admitted she wasn’t an arborist and that she got put off when it started to rain part way through the effort. At least she genuinely cared about the potential felling. Many in attendance seemed to see the trees more as a cudgel to use in the defence of a beloved hobby. When Senescall started the group, his primary argument was that golf should be 18 holes. That has given way to a more palatable environmental case, but as the night wore on, the crowd’s attention was drawn back to that first concern. Golf was a growing sport. There weren’t enough golf courses. It was madness to want to halve their one.

The obvious counter-argument is that reserving 33 hectares of prime central city land almost exclusively for golfers is an unfair use of space*, especially when the Albert-Eden-Puketāpapa area is short of sports fields, open space and recreational facilities. Many locals resent the fence cutting them off from the course, and hate having to risk being brained by a golf ball if they want to access it.

Those arguments didn’t fly inside the community hall. Easte and his City Vision colleague Miles Thomas got shouted down for suggesting the park would be better utilised if it was opened up to the community. “Do the bloody maths,” Save Chamberlain Park supporter Wayne Gillies yelled after Easte argued the 60,000-odd rounds played annually at the park were mainly undertaken by a comparatively small and shrinking cohort of committed golfers. Disgusted boos rang out when Thomas suggested the golfers might be selfish.

After the meeting Save Chamberlain Park supporter Gillies, who was also responsible for the earlier “bullshit”, ranted about what he saw as the insidious targeting of golfers as a group. “Call them golfers, that’s a way of demonising them. They’re demonising golfers and suggesting that they’re selfish. Same as demonising Jews, or demonising Muslims for being Muslim because they practise something.” Surely those two things aren’t the same though? “They are,” he said. 

The meeting doubled as a campaign rally for the right-wing Communities and Residents ticket, which has long opposed the Chamberlain Park plan. Every speaker urged the audience to vote City Vision out. Some explicitly backed C&R. A host of C&R candidates were in attendance, including former mayoral candidate Mark Thomas and aspiring deputy mayor Christine Fletcher, both of whom are running for council in Albert-Eden-Puketāpapa. Thomas recognised Chamberlain Park was a potential wedge issue in his fight to unseat incumbent City Vision councillor Cathy Casey. “Certainly there are a lot of people who are vocally opposed to [the plan] – a lot more than who are vocally in favour it,” he said. He denied that he’d only sided with Save Chamberlain Park over the potential vote windfall though. “I read the business case and I looked at the cost-benefit analysis. This is negative… it doesn’t return the value it’s destroying.”

Fletcher is a staunch Chamberlain Park opponent, but was also representing her running mate, John Tamihere. He launched his mayoral campaign at the course, and has vowed to stop it being divided. “Our parents and grandparents learned to play there. On the 19th hole they learned to court there. That’s why as mayor I have raised the retention Chamberlain Park at all costs,” he said at a recent meeting on the North Shore. “It links across the road with Western Springs. With MOTAT 1, MOTAT 2. It’s one precinct. It’s the people’s precinct.”

The local referendum on the fate of the course probably won’t make a huge impact on the mayoral race. It’s much more likely to shape the makeup of the Albert-Eden local board. The board is currently majority held by City Vision, but if the meeting at Western Springs showed anything, it’s that they’re losing the PR battle. Easte and Haynes are capable, but they’re not great salesmen, and they’re up against an aggressive, almost overwhelming, hyperbolically negative opposition campaign. Either could lose their seat, allowing C&R to reshape the board’s priorities for a growing, inner-city area – that is, unless the capable, young, progressive, independent candidate Victoria Tupou is the one that takes Easte’s seat instead.

Across town on the North Shore, a similar kind of campaign is unfolding. The fight over the future of a carpark in central Takapuna has been going on for almost a decade, but has come to a head recently, with council moving to progress a new town centre on the site

The decision has set North Shore’s surprisingly progressive councillors, Chris Darby and Richard Hills, against members of the Devonport-Takapuna political establishment and a large, vocal section of the Takapuna community. There haven’t been many public meetings on the topic since a fiery one last year where mayor Phil Goff was repeatedly heckled with shouts of “he should be sacked”, but the pro-carpark campaign is active online. The ‘Save Takapuna Carpark’ Facebook page set up by the lobby group Heart of Takapuna has been updated with this extremely chilled out header image.

Pro-carpark pages are populated with equally chilled out comments such as this one.

 

A Change.org petition has been set up by one ‘Alan Wake’ aimed at stopping the carpark development.

The only problem: there are no details about Alan Wake’s identity, and there’s some suspicion he’s actually an invented character ripped from a popular video game.

Meanwhile, Auckland 2040’s Richard Burton has weighed in on the North Shore council race. Burton’s group was last seen catastrophising over the Unitary Plan at the worst council meeting of all time. He’s now changed its name to Takapuna 2040, and has sent an email to supporters urging them to vote out Darby and Hills over their support for the carpark development.

A SECTION OF THE EMAIL FROM BURTON

Several prominent North Shore politicians have already aligned themselves with the anti-Takapuna town centre faction. One of the top council challengers, Grant Gillon, started out campaigning to keep the carpark before switching to favour an alternative plan put forward by designers, Richard Reid & Associates. Heart of the Shore, a ticket standing for the Devonport-Takapuna local board, is made up entirely of pro-carpark campaigners, including Ruth Jackson, Trish Deans, and Iain Rea of Heart of Takapuna. And as in Chamberlain Park, Tamihere has attached himself to the anti-change crowd.

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Hills is the representative most at-risk. His majority over Gillon at the 2016 election was just 130 votes. An influx of single-issue voters could put his job in jeopardy, and with it, Goff’s progressive majority in council. Hills said he’s not worried, partly because people vote on a “myriad” of issues, and partly because consultation from both council and Colmar-Brunton has consistently showed majority community support for transforming the carpark into a town centre. “It was one of the biggest turnouts ever on a single issue and 60% of people supported the development,” he said. 

The question though is whether the majority of the community will vote. Turnout in the 2016 Auckland local election was just 38.5%, and there are few more reliable ways to get people to actually return their ballot in local elections than opposing things they’re mad over. It’s possible the anti-change campaigners in both Chamberlain Park and Takapuna will be a deciding factor in the final tally even if they’re a minority of the population. After decades of underinvestment in infrastructure, the city’s governing body and local boards could once again see an influx of candidates who are primarily distinguished by their ability to say no to things. The question is whether that would slow Auckland’s incremental progress not just on developing Chamberlain Park or Takapuna, but on issues like public transport upgrades, environmental improvements, and housing intensification. If that happened, it really would be bullshit.

*Full disclosure: the people who have argued this include me.

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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