Penny Hulse is retiring after a 27-year council career. She talked to Hayden Donnell about the reasons she stood down, the councillors she can’t stand, the Tamihere vs Goff battle, and her secret to staying sane during even the worst council meetings.
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.
Before she delivered her valedictory speech at Auckland Council, Penny Hulse stood with her hand on deputy mayor Bill Cashmore’s shoulder. He smiled ruefully. Cashmore, a National-aligned farmer from Franklin, and Hulse, a lefty environmentalist from West Auckland, have formed an unlikely friendship over the last six years. He’ll probably miss that in the dark days of the next council term. But he’ll miss Hulse’s talent for negotiation a lot more. The Waitakere councillor has never been a bombastic or attention-seeking politician like the three mayors she’s worked with – Sir Bob Harvey, Len Brown, and to a lesser extent, Phil Goff. But she’s uniquely skilled at the less public parts of the job: wrangling recalcitrant councillors and dragging them kicking and screaming into some form of compromise; essentially running the city behind the scenes.
That’s never been more evident than in the last term of Auckland Council. Hulse was given the chair of council’s Environment and Community committee by mayor Phil Goff following the 2016 election. At first she saw the job as a little insulting, given she’d served the last six years as Brown’s deputy mayor. But the committee has become an unlikely powerhouse on council, advancing the major water quality program Safe Swim and compiling a long list of hard-won resolutions on diverse topics, from kauri dieback to Chamberlain Park and the Takapuna town square development.
Despite her achievements, Hulse is retiring this election after 27 years as a councillor in two different authorities, and she doesn’t regret the decision at all. She sat down for an hour-long interview to explain why.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Hayden Donnell: When did you know that you had to retire?
Penny Hulse: My birthday last year. I was really clear, I just thought ‘what does my next year look like?’ and I thought ‘I’m going to turn 60, do I keep doing this, because if I stand one more time I’ll be 63 and then you’re going to be 65 blah blah blah’. And then I looked at someone like [Waitematā councillor] Mike Lee, who I think has no idea when to go, and I thought ‘I don’t want to turn into one of those, I don’t want to turn into a councillor who everyone’s quietly rolling their eyes at and saying ‘it’s time to shuffle off’. And 60 felt like a good time to go.
So you’re leaving them wanting more?
Part of me fondly thinks that might be true. I don’t know if it is.
Was it that you saw the council and thought, ‘This is too filled with 60-year-olds already’?
I did a speech yesterday at Waikato University about diversity and someone said ‘so, for middle-aged candidates, what’s the best thing they can do for diversity?’ and the Muslim woman sitting next to me said ‘they can choose not to stand’. Todd Niall did a really good piece on why he was leaving Radio NZ, and in his farewell speech he said ‘we talked really well about looking at the changing face of who our community are, and thinking about who I am, and do I represent that anymore?’. And I don’t think I do, and it’s time to make space for people who do that.
It’s funny though, you’re female, and probably a voice that reflects what those communities need. People who aren’t stepping down are people like Wayne Walker, Mike Lee, whoever, so why are you the one who has to go? Grant Gillon might be back!
Oh God help us, what a tragedy that would be. Every now and then I do think, ‘oh shit, I might not be that young and I might not be that diverse, but I’m diverse-adjacent’. But there’s also a point where you think ‘I’m a bit tired of carrying the weight of a lot of this council’. And I can feel myself starting to get a bit burnt out as well. And, again, there’s nothing more damaging than having people around the table who stay when they are getting burnt out and frustrated.
You’re tired, basically?
Yeah, a little bit. I’ll be really honest, I love working with a whole bunch of people who are really focused on what we can do for good. I’ve just run out of patience with people around the council table who simply use oppositional tactics to get re-elected. Find an angry crowd, whip them up, boom, my election platform is set. Whereas the way that I work, and the way that people like Linda [Cooper] or Bill [Cashmore] work is ‘let’s get those people in, what’s the issue, how do we resolve it and let’s sort it out for them’.
This council has this weird version of party politics, where it’s not divided along right and left so much as what I think of as progressive and conservative, pro and anti, positive and negative…
Absolutely. I don’t want to burn bridges but it’s the A team, B team nonsense that people get on with. You know, ‘oh there’s an A team and a B team and the mayor’s made that happen’. Actually there’s one team that gets on and tries to resolve issues, and there’s the other team who is happy to foment issues and use that to bind themselves together. And it’s such a waste of time, it’s such a stupid way to do politics because it doesn’t actually progress anything, it just stays internally focused, the politics stays in the room, and the progress of city building, it doesn’t allow for that to happen. And the community just watches and goes ‘well that’s kinda vile, what a gross bunch of in-fighting muppets they are’ and what is the good of that?
Sometimes I’ve seen you chairing meetings, just listening to people, and you’re totally silent on the face of it, impassive, but I can sort of see a hint of extreme exasperation, bordering on rage, bubbling away underneath.
[Laughs] Yes, well-observed. I’m quite proud of the fact that I’ve never used the F-word when I’ve been chairing. The staff know my little secret, which I’m happy to share, is that I take notes all the time, but sometimes I write my thoughts down on paper – I learned that from [former Waitakere deputy mayor] Dorothy Wilson – writing notes, writing notes, impassive, but the notes are…
“Dear Jesus, fuck, God”
…pretty much, yeah.
So sometimes when you’re on that web cam…
…and I’m writing, you do not want to know what’s on those notes. ‘Fucking kill me now’ to quote [legendary Waitakere PR woman] Fiona Cunningham.
Now that you’re retiring, what are the big unpopular ideas that you support that you can be open about?
What are my unpopular ones? I’m comfortable with putting up rates, absolutely committed to increasing urban density and height, slowing cars down, building cycle lanes, pedestrianising streets in the city centre.
Well I said it at the Waikato last night – don’t ever vote for anyone who says they’re going to reduce rates or keep rates at zero because it’s bullshit, it can’t be done.
Golf courses? That’s the one I’m thinking about
I’d happily see some of the golf courses developed. I think it’s an absolute bloody travesty that we have to look at the subsidy per player for some of these things.
Remuera Golf Course, you could put a few apartments on that, maybe a bit of park land, would you be okay with that?
I’ve always been fine about developing the Remuera Golf Course. Maybe I shouldn’t say that if I want to get some directorships from some large companies.
What about: we should pedestrianise just about the entire city centre?
But then why doesn’t it get done?
Because always we are a bit overwhelmed by [the fact] we have to protect every last detail around bus and transit routes and things like that.
You could put cones over Queen St and pedestrianise it
That’s what we thought. Ludo [Campbell-Reid] and I were going ‘why don’t we just do it?’. Who drives down Queen St? I haven’t driven down Queen St in years. Why would you drive down Queen St? It’s an insane thing to do. No-one would notice. Let’s do it.
Can I get on with the classic ‘retiring councillor’ questions? Who’s the best of the three mayors you worked with?
My love for Bob [Harvey] is unabated.
Will you say the worst one?
No… Bob. It has to be doesn’t it? Of course it is. Bloody nutcase. The number of times we used to walk out of the mayor’s office going ‘I cannot believe that he thought he was going to do whatever we’ve just managed to talk him out of’.
Mike Lee [laughs]. No I think there’s worse than Mike. Mike’s done some amazing work. We worked on the Waitakere Ranges protection act together, but I can’t work out why as a senior leader in the council he is so anti-everything that the council is trying to do and that he doesn’t offer an alternative, work on an alternative, work on positive policies, or contribute full-stop.
The worst councillor changes issue by issue to be honest. We all have our worst councillor day. And I know this sounds very Pollyanna-ish, but I have to believe that within everyone, we all try and be the best councillor we can be. We just have a completely different view of what that is.
Best moment in politics?
Crikey. Oh my God. See I’m not one of those people, I don’t have that.
Maybe this will be easier than best moment. What’s your worst moment?
Finding out about Len’s affair is absolutely one of the most challenging moments of my life really.
Why? Where did you find out? What did you do?
I was opening a bathroom store down in Victoria Park and I got back to work and was called into Len’s office and Len wasn’t there and the staff told me and I just about fainted. And then the media were there and the TV cameras and it was pretty rough.
I just find it so surprising that you were this set back and horrified and disappointed, and a lot of people see politics as ‘they’re all rooting each other, none of them have any ethics’. Does it show naivety? Is that the wrong perception that people have of politics?
Sadly, I think that politics is a lot more boring. At least in this council, there’s not much of that kind of thing. Look at us, you’d have to say ‘yep, and we understand why’. But I’m still hugely fond of Len and I think he got an unnecessarily hard time from a bunch of people claiming moralistic reasons but it was just politics. That said, I wasn’t so horrified by what Len had done, it was just such a deep sense of ‘oh my God this is just going to be really hard. This is going to be hard on him, this is going to be hard on Shan, this is going to be hard on the council, this is going to turn to shit’.
What is the most important-slash-frightening council race this time around?
I’m worried about the North Shore. I think Richard Hills and Chris Darby are fantastic councillors. They’re future-focused, they’re brave, they’re across their portfolios, and I think some of the opposition trying to get rid of them aren’t.
The other one I think is Waitematā?
Actually, yeah, I was worried about the North Shore, but when you do the numbers, looking around the council table, if Pippa Coom wins Waitematā, the council will be a progressive council. If Pippa doesn’t win Waitematā, it will be difficult to be a progressive council. It basically tips on one person.
Do you think John Tamihere can win?
I think he may take it close.
Do you think that Phil Goff’s running a good campaign?
To be honest, I think that running a good campaign – that’s not the answer. You could run an extraordinary campaign, the voters however are in no mood to listen. With a large layer of Aucklanders, they are so disenfranchised, angry, fed up, turned off, uninterested, left out of the whole super city machine, that it’s like trying to hold an elegant argument with someone who’s had too much to drink. They’re just like ‘nah i’m not interested, don’t give me that bullshit’.
And John Tamihere’s rounding up those people that have had too much to drink, to extend your metaphor, and saying ‘let’s go fight’.
And that’s a little bit what’s happened. So I think Phil is running a good campaign, but he’s just running perhaps the wrong campaign for those people. And I’m not unsympathetic to those people who are fed up and disenfranchised and angry because I think some of that is a result of the super city amalgamation. We’re simply too big to respond to a lot of what the community needs, and the community’s pushing back, and we haven’t found the right way to engage and address those issues.
What’s your most important advice for Phil if he wins the mayoralty again?
I think the council, and this is said seriously, the council needs to lighten up a bit. We need to find different ways of talking to our community. We just take ourselves so seriously about everything. Every now and again we just need to go ‘well, that wasn’t a great idea, I’m sorry about whatever that was, let’s do something else’. We need to be able to be a little bit more responsive, more authentic, and we just need to reform our relationship with the community.
Are you looking forward to shedding the identity of ‘politician’?
People don’t see politicians with affection. It elevates you to a different standard, you mean something when you walk into a room as politician, right?
Well, you mean something, but to some people it means that you’re only there because you want to get elected, it means that you’re there and you can be the object of derision and hatred. To maybe one or two people there you are a commodity depending on their view of your politics and what you do.
And you’re a thing to be opposed or supported, rather than to be interacted with.
Yep. And that’s what I’m not going to miss. That fills me with joy, I love the feeling that that’s not what I’m going to be anymore. I can’t wait.