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An artist’s rendering of the upgraded Golden Mile
An artist’s rendering of the upgraded Golden Mile

PoliticsNovember 3, 2023

Who’s behind a bizarre new poll about Wellington’s Golden Mile?

An artist’s rendering of the upgraded Golden Mile
An artist’s rendering of the upgraded Golden Mile

A survey that asked Wellingtonians’ views on proposed changes to the capital’s city streets claimed 66% of respondents were opposed. But with claims quickly emerging that the questions were biased, Joel MacManus digs a little deeper.

The Spinoff was contacted by three people this week who had been polled about Wellington’s Golden Mile upgrade, the Let’s Get Wellington Moving project that would add bus lanes, widened footpaths, bike lanes, parklets and new greenery on the 2.43km stretch from Courtenay Place to Lambton Quay, while removing general traffic and car parking. One of the people polled described the questions as ‘really overtly biased’. Another called the survey ‘so biased a senior secondary school student would be ashamed’.

The poll was released publicly on Wednesday afternoon, and picked up by The Post and RNZ the next morning. It claimed 66% of respondents were opposed to the Golden Mile changes, including the majority of Labour and Green voters who were surveyed.

It’s certainly a surprising result, especially given Wellington recently elected a Green mayor and two Green electorate MPs, all of whom were major supporters of the redevelopment, which is being jointly funded by Wellington City Council and Waka Kotahi.

Lambton Quay

But the survey questions used emotive language, focused on the negatives of the project without mentioning any positives, and emphasised the costs of unrelated council projects. 

The first two questions were: “Have you heard of the proposal by Lets Get Wellington Moving [sic] to ban motor vehicles, except buses, from the Golden Mile stretching from Courtenay Place to Lambton Quay at a cost of $139 million?” and “Do you think the Wellington City Council should commit to spending $139 million, (of which the outgoing Government pledged $71 million) on the Golden Mile project considering the blowout in the Town Hall renovation and growing Council debt?”

The poll was run by Curia and commissioned by the Guardians of the Golden Mile, a group opposed to the proposed changes. 

Guardians of the Golden Mile is led by Barry Wilson, a retired lawyer who has dedicated himself to stopping the project. He established SOS Courtenay Place in 2019, which has since morphed into the larger Guardians group, which represents several businesses opposed to the changes. 

On being contacted by The Spinoff, Wilson denied the questions were skewed or intended to produce a predetermined result. “We don’t think it’s slanted in any way,” he said. “We have faith in the research.”

He said the repair costs on the town hall should be considered a material adverse change and require the council to rethink its spending on the Golden Mile upgrade. (It’s worth noting here that Wellington City Council committed its share of the funding in June, and Waka Kotahi approved the central government funding in July.)

“Our angle is this: everything is changing, and the council has no radar or compass. During Erebus, we flew a plane into a mountain because it had the wrong coordinates and the pilot didn’t have his directions,” he said.

When asked if it was appropriate to compare the Golden Mile changes to the Erebus disaster, a metaphor he also used on RNZ’s Morning Report, he said, “No, it’s not a comparison. I’m just saying when you have the wrong coordinates, you’re lost. The Titanic was the same. When you’ve got problems running left and right and centre, including the Michael Fowler centre [which needs earthquake strengthening], you have to adjust.”

A rendering of the proposed Golden Mile changes

Wilson repeatedly complained about mayor Tory Whanau throughout a 15-minute phone interview, calling her an “exasperating person” who “doesn’t have a clue about money”. He said his group’s submissions had been repeatedly brushed off by Whanau and council staff. “She’s a pompous person of the first order. Is that Green democracy or Brownshirt behaviour?”

Curia, the polling company run by National’s pollster of choice David Farrar, is generally considered to be a reliable outfit, and there’s no suggestion that their methodology was shoddy. Polling companies typically offer advice to clients about how to word questions to get accurate outcomes, but clients don’t always take these on board. 

Wilson said Curia wrote the questions. Farrar said the questions were mutually agreed upon. 

“Results are responses to the questions. It is important that they are always seen as that,” Farrar said. “Curia works with clients to word questions so that they can be succinct and clearly understood by respondents.” 

Farrar denied the questions were loaded or intended to produce a particular outcome, and said he believed the poll was accurate. “Differently worded questions can and do impact what proportion agree with a proposition, but this is usually only by a few percent.” He added that his personal view was that Lambton Quay should be fully pedestrianised, without car or bus access. 

Mayor Tory Whanau dismissed the poll.  “If you can’t trust the questions, you can’t trust the results,” she said in response to questions from The Spinoff. “A last minute ‘poll’ commissioned by an outspoken and outflanked opposition group should be seen for what it is – a desperate attempt to prevent progress in the city.”

Wellington mayor Tory Whanau (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

A 1,000-person poll isn’t cheap. Wilson wouldn’t confirm how much the group paid, but said it was “a significant sum”. One political insider The Spinoff spoke to suggested $10,000 as a rough estimate. 

But with questions so designed to get a certain result, it’s questionable whether any actual decision-maker would take it seriously. It’s a shame, because it’s rare to get quality polling on local issues, and it would have been useful to see the results of a real poll. 

The Golden Mile project has gone through multiple rounds of public consultation over several years. Voters elected a majority of councillors who support the project. The council has already had several rounds of approval and funding votes and rejected a no-confidence vote earlier this year by a majority of 9-7. 

Tory Whanau campaigned for mayor by promising to continue the Golden Mile changes, and she is under no obligation to drop a local project just because central government has changed. 

This poll ultimately won’t make a difference. The contract to complete the Golden Mile construction is set to be signed in the next few days, and there’s no reason to think that the mayor or the council will be swayed enough to pull out of a multi-year project at the last minute. 

The full poll can be found here

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