Race Briefing: Gisborne, aka the ‘farewell mayor Meng Foon’ election

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, Alice Webb-Liddall looks at the Gisborne District Council election.

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.

Where? 

The Gisborne District Council is bordered by the Bay of Plenty and Hawke’s Bay districts. It’s a relatively small section of the East Coast of the North Island, and home to approximately 49,100 people. In 2013, almost 50% of the district’s population was Māori, creating unique opportunities for the GDC to partner with the District’s iwi groups when making decisions, especially those concerning waterways. Meng Foon, now Race Relations Commissioner, was the GDC Mayor for 18 years, and his fluent reo Māori was a huge asset to the council. 

What are some of the big issues for the GDC?

Recently-departed mayor Meng Foon has one answer: Water.

Two of Gisborne’s rivers, the Waipaoa and the Waiapu, are among the world’s most silty rivers. A February report said 15 million tonnes of sediment was flowing from the Waipaoa river every year, into Tūranganui-a-Kiwa, and the Waiapu river produces almost double this amount. 

The Billion Tree Project is forecast to help with a lot of the erosion that’s leading to the excess silt buildup, but the council has also had to put in new bridges in the past few years as the riverbeds rise from the settled sediment. 

There’s also the problem of the depleting Makauri aquifer, which supplies water to farms in the area. At this stage the amount being taken from the aquifer is more than it can regenerate naturally, so trials are underway to pump water from the nearby Waipaoa river. Water levels in the aquifer have been declining by around 0.1m each year since the 1980s. This project was outlined in the GDC’s pre-election report as one of the council’s ‘Major Projects.’

Then there’s roads.

Heavy logging trucks and other freight vehicles still use some of the main roads in and out of Gisborne for their transport routes. Due to this heavy (literally) traffic, the roads in and out of the main centre require constant repairs. The GDC spent 34% of their budget in 2018 on Tairāwhiti roads – compared to the 14% spent on environmental services and protection, their next highest spend.

Also, iwi representation.

While the former mayor’s reo Māori knowledge was handy when it came to iwi negotiations and relationships, the high number of iwi and Māori population of Gisborne means there were always conflicting views between Council and the different iwi themselves. Te Aitanga a Mahaki recently accused the GDC of racism, saying they were being “taken for granted” over rights to freshwater management. Whoever makes it onto the council and into the mayoral seat will have to have extensive knowledge about the iwi in the GDC catchment and te ao Māori.

What are the races?

The district is divided into five areas. The largest representation goes to Gisborne, with nine seats. Each of the other four wards get one elected councillor. These wards are the Matakaoa-Waiapu Ward, the Taruheru-Patutahi Ward, the Tawhiti-Uawa Ward and the Waipaoa Ward, as well as the mayoral seat. There are also seven seats on the Tairāwhiti DHB. A full list of all candidates can be found here.

Who’s running for mayor? 

With long-standing mayor Meng Foon having recently departed his post for the title of Race Relations Commissioner, the position of mayor is wide open again for the first time in almost two decades. Three people are running for this position.

Former National MP Ross Meurant is taking a punt at the mayoralty. He was an MP for Hobson (Northland) from 1987 to 1994 and has written many books, including The Red Squad Story which detailed his time in the NZ Police during the 1981 Springbok Tour. 

Going up against him are Rehette Stoltz, the current deputy mayor, and Meredith Akuhata-Brown, a two-term councillor. These two have been picked as the strongest contenders for the position. Stoltz will get a small taste of the top job as she takes over from Foon until the election. Akuhata-Brown, if elected, would be the district’s first Māori mayor, and if she or Stultz are elected, they will be the district’s first female mayor.

How about the wards?

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Four of the wards only get one representative. The Tawhiti-Uawa Ward seat will be going to Pat Seymour, who is running uncontested. The fight over the Matakaoa-Waiapu Ward seat has been a close one for the past two elections, with two fighters in the ring: Bull Burdett and Kerry Kururangi. Three years ago Mr Burdett retained the seat by 391 votes to Kururangi’s 249, and in 2013 by 343 votes to 256. What will 2019 have in store for this long-running rivalry?

The Taruheru-Patutahi Ward has two contenders, Sandra Faulkner and Malcolm MacLean. MacLean currently holds the seat. He found himself in hot water in 2018 for allegedly saying that “not enough Māori were killed” (presumably during about Cook’s 1769 landing, but it’s unclear from stories). Faulkner is a Federated Farmers provincial president, and says she’s committed to working to address “access, energy and communication needs [so they’re] capable of coping with increased growth and climate change”.

The Waipaoa ward has five contenders, and the current councillor Graeme Thomson isn’t standing again. Twenty-five people are standing for election in the Gisborne ward, which has nine seats. Two of the current sitting councillors in this ward are not standing again.

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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