Race briefing: Queenstown, jewel of New Zealand Incorporated

In our latest local elections 2019 race briefing (read the rest here), Don Rowe looks at the two horse race to control the tourism capital of New Zealand.

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.

Where?

Queenstown, the pride of Te Waipounamu, home of adventure tourism and gateway to Glenorchy, an all-time great shroom spot. The Queenstown Lakes District is a microcosm of the country at large, replete as it is with extortionate rents, laughable job security and throngs of rich trustafarians pretending to be broke. 

To hear incumbent mayor Jim Boult tell it, the fate of Queenstown and Wanaka is the fate of the country at large. Queenstown Inc is the flagship product of New Zealand Inc, and should the quality of the experience suffer, so too shall the nation overall. To hear other people tell it, Boult is a secretive dictator forcing change on a docile and frightened populace. That’s the marketplace of ideas, baby!

There are in the area of 40,000 permanent residents in the district and an average of 70,000 bedding down every night. During peak periods that’s more like 130,000, though most of them are imports and can’t vote. 

What are the issues in the election?

The airport: Queenstown Airport is a lightning rod for the concerns of locals who fear their district is unable to cope with the incessant growth of the tourism industry and the profit motives of self-serving operators. More than 2.3m passengers passed through Queenstown Airport in the last year. It’s also the busiest helicopter port in the country. Last year the Queenstown Airport Corporation proposed doubling capacity by extending the airport’s noise boundaries. There was a collective ‘fuck that’ from residents, and a real sense of NIMBY from the good people of Wanaka, but the question remains: what is to be done?

The visitor levy: Despite the hordes of tourists throwing money hand over fist at jet boat operators and burger mongers, the council is relatively strapped for cash. They’ve tabled a 10-year, $1b plan to overhaul infrastructure in the region but they’re a cool $300-400m short. Incumbent Jim Boult has proposed a 5% bed tax on accommodation providers – including AirBnB – which he estimates will raise $22.5m annually. Opponent Nik Kiddle, a hotelier, argues the tax is over simplistic, punishes accommodation providers, and favours Boult’s tourism interests. 

Housing: Beneath the staircase in my little brother’s house just outside the Queenstown CBD a young man is paying $80pw to sleep behind a door that only opens with a screwdriver – and he’s considered a lucky one. The 300 itinerant workers at the Lakeview campground are being evicted in the next few weeks, and many of them feel they’ve been betrayed by the interests of the rich whose homes they clean. Throngs of elderly are being forced out of the area too, as house after house is converted into Airbnb lodgings. 

Freedom camping: Basically everyone is pissed off about freedom campers. And fair enough, who in the country isn’t?

What $80 per week gets you in Queenstown (Photo: Don Rowe)

Who’s running for mayor?

There are three candidates for mayor, but considering one couldn’t even be bothered answering the Policy survey, this is pretty much a two horse race. 

Jim Boult is the incumbent mayor and self-admitted benign dictator of Queenstown. He’s a big dog businessman who ran Christchurch Airport through a terminal expansion and both earthquakes, and won the 2016 election with more than double the votes of his closest challenger – who was caught organising a smear campaign against Boult. He’s responsible for the ultra-popular $2 bus initiative, championed the 5% bed tax and says he’s standing again because there’s still work to be done. Boult has been accused of conflicts of interest relating to his directorship of tourism operator Wayfare, but that’s slightly ironic coming from his main opponent, hotelier Nik Kiddle.

Nik Kiddle, owner of the Villa del Lago luxury apartments, is standing for mayor for the first time in 2019. Kiddle has positioned himself as the anti-Boult, campaigning on a platform of honesty, transparency and community cooperation. Kiddle says Boult has failed to bring the community along with him, and that running the mayoralty like a business is the wrong approach. Kiddle strongly opposes a bed tax, a stance Boult has criticised as a conflict of interest of its own. 

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And who’s likely to win?

It’s hard to say. Some pundits see Kiddle as a strong challenger, a less opaque and dictatorial guiding hand. Others point to Boult’s track record of actually getting things done – for the first time, there are queues at bus stops in town and freeflowing traffic around the airport. Both candidates believe this is the most important election in years, and both tell me they’re convinced of a win. That being said, as a betting man, I would have to pick Boult based on his track record and the very real presence of a business elite in Queenstown.

What is the voting method?

The worst one: First Past the Post.  

Read more 2019 local election race briefings here and find out more about the candidates’ policies on Policy Local.

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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