Race briefing: The Otago Regional Council

Over the course of the local elections period, The Spinoff will be publishing primers on some of the most interesting races around the country. Today, Alex Braae casts his eyes over the Otago Regional Council contest.

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.


From Dunedin in the east to beyond Queenstown in the West, from Oamaru down to the Catlins, the area covered by the Otago Regional Council is massive. Not only that, the challenges faced by the range of places within the territory are vastly different. While Queenstown is the country’s leading tourist hotspot, other parts of the region contain intensive farming operations, and some areas are closer to wilderness. The ORC is responsible for bus services in Dunedin, and how irrigation gets managed in Alexandra.

What are some of the big issues for the ORC?

Start with water.

At least five current members out of 12 on the ORC have farming backgrounds, which is relatively consistent with high rates of farming representation on regional councils around the country. That’s partly because regional councils deal so much with issues around water, the lifeblood of farming. In fact, one ORC member even has direct experience of these exact issues coming together. Andrew Noone, a farmer running again in Dunedin, was fined last year for letting sheep trample around in a waterway.

And it was clear in the ORC’s pre-election report that water issues were the top priority, particularly as the ORC will have to play an active role in delivering central government policy on improving waterways. But at the same time, the ORC also manages irrigation permits, some of which are expiring soon because they were first issued during the Gold Rush. That creates almost the perfect conditions for tensions.

Then there’s transport.

For bus services in Dunedin and Queenstown, this is actually an area where things are going pretty well. The ODT reported last week that bus trip numbers are up, along with revenue from the bus system, and public satisfaction is high. However not everyone is happy. School principal Tony Hunter, running this year in the Dunedin constituency, led complaints against changes to the schedule last year.

And climate change. The ORC’s work in this area has been slow to date, despite increasingly obvious and multifaceted risks to the region, mainly involving not enough water going to drought susceptible areas like Central Otago, and too much water sweeping up over low-lying coastal areas such as huge swathes of Dunedin. The pre-election report indicated work would be accelerated over the coming term.

Air pollutionThe geography and climate of the Otago region means that smoke and carbon particles can hang around a long time, which along with the toasty attractiveness of an open fire on a cold night means that air quality can get pretty low pretty quickly.

And Iwi representation: Earlier this year there was a major stoush over the representation of Ngāi Tahu on the ORC’s policy committee. The proposal to include two iwi reps successfully passed through the ORC, but it certainly wasn’t an easy process.

What are the races?

The area is divided into four areas. The Dunedin constituency gets six spots on the regional council, which is the most for an individual area. Dunstan, which covers Queenstown, the surrounding Lakes District, and much of central Otago, has three spots. Moeraki, which includes Oamaru and those famous weird big boulders, has one spot. And Molyneux is centred around Balclutha, and gets two spots. A full list of candidates can be found here.

Who are the most high-profile candidates?

People often sleep on the importance of regional councils, but not in Otago. Here, a relatively star studded field has lined up for the contest, including a cluster of former MPs. Former National MP, Whanganui mayor, talkback host and Dancing With the Stars contestant Michael Laws will be going for re-election in Dunstan. Former minister for the environment Marian Hobbs is running in Dunedin, as part of a Labour ticket. Short-lived ACT MP, and former Dunedin City Councillor Hilary Calvert will also be going for a Dunedin seat.

Who else?

Among the others running in Dunedin, former water quality scientist and current deputy chair Gretchen Robertson is having another crack. Scott Willis, an environmentalist who plays a leading role with windfarm developers Blueskin Energy Ltd, is running on a Green Party ticket. Tim Mepham, another advocate for wind power, is also running. Matt Kraemer has recently been campaigning hard to get Baldwin St the ‘steepest street’ title back. And Michael Deaker is a local patron of the arts and a relatively prominent republican.

And the other wards?

Molyneux has drainage expert Carmen Hope running for re-election, with another seat up for grabs among five candidates. Dunstan has Graeme Bell standing again – he’s a long serving local government representative who has an unbroken 55 year long passion for the Alexandra merino shears competition. Gary Kelliher, a farmer, is hoping to come back after a spell in the wilderness. Also in Dunstan, Alexa Forbes is stepping away from the Queenstown District Council, where she built a reputation for environmental and community work.

Running in Moeraki, there’s former Waitaki mayor and NZ First candidate Alex Familton. Gail May-Sherman is running on a platform of environmentalism and climate transition. Kevin Malcolm is a big deal in the North Otago agribusiness world. There is also a candidate called Judith Mary Borrie Stevenson who returns very little information online. Voters in this constituency can hardly complain about a lack of choice.

And who isn’t standing?

Current ORC chair Stephen Woodhead is stepping away after five terms. Doug Brown, a farmer who is the sole representative for Moeraki, will not be running again. One of the three Dunstan reps, Ella Lawton, moved to Invercargill during the term, so she won’t be standing again – however she endorsed Alexa Forbes as a replacement with strong environmental credentials. Lawton’s tenure on the ORC was very brief, taking over the seat in a by-election after her mother Maggie Lawton died in office.

What about the voting method?

First Past the Post, and depending on which constituency you’re in, tick as many places as there are.

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.

The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.