Tory Whanau, Nīkau Wi Neera, in front of Wellington Airport
Tory Whanau, Nīkau Wi Neera, in front of Wellington Airport

OPINIONPoliticsJune 4, 2024

Tory Whanau just made her most impressive move as mayor – it may cost her

Tory Whanau, Nīkau Wi Neera, in front of Wellington Airport
Tory Whanau, Nīkau Wi Neera, in front of Wellington Airport

Getting the votes to sell the council’s shares in Wellington airport was a skilled piece of dealmaking, but it opens the Wellington mayor up to some big political risks.

Windbag is The Spinoff’s Wellington issues column, written by Wellington editor Joel MacManus. Windbag is made possible thanks to the support of the Welly 500.

The Green Party prides itself on ideological purity. For most of its existence, it’s been able to hold itself to that high standard. Purity is easy when you have no power. As Tory Whanau is learning, there is no job in politics where you have to sacrifice purity for pragmatism more than as a city mayor. 

On Thursday, Wellington City Council voted on its Long Term Plan. The final signoff will come in June, but this was the last opportunity for major changes. The most significant decision by far was the vote to sell the council’s 34% stake in Wellington International Airport. Councillor Tim Brown, a former chair of the airport company, put the idea forward to create an investment fund to support the council’s insurance shortfall. Whanau saw the sale as an opportunity to find some much-needed fiscal headroom, diversifying the council’s risk while allowing more borrowing capacity and more funding for core services.

There was a strong backlash from the left. Labour councillors were against it from the start. Anything that could be derided as privatisation is a no-go in Labour circles, even though the council’s minority stake never gave it any real control over the airport. Several Greens turned against Whanau too; Wellington Central MP Tamatha Paul said the sale was against “fundamental” Green principles. Councillor Nīkau Wi Neera even suggested he might leave the Green Party. There wasn’t a lot of support from the right of council either, where some councillors have been running a self-described “campaign of disruption” against Whanau.

Despite all that, the airport sale passed 10-8, with one of the most interesting vote splits we’ve seen in this council term. 

The vote count for the airport sale. Photo: Twitter, Nīkau Wi Neera.

Alongside Whanau as the 10 votes in favour are Tony Randle, Nicola Young, and Diane Calvert, three dyed-in-the-wool conservatives who have no love for the mayor. Tim Brown and John Apanowicz are centrist business guys, and were keen on the sale from the start. Liz Kelly and Holden Hohaia are iwi representatives. Sarah Free is a former Green who is now a swingy independent. The only fellow Green vote is from Laurie Foon, the deputy mayor. 

The votes against are four Labour councillors, two Greens, plus Iona Pannet (a former Green), and Ray Chung, who has already announced his plans to run for mayor against Whanau

Whanau pulled the winning votes together with some impressive pieces of horse trading. The Khandallah Pool survived closure for another year, giving Diane Calvert a short-term win. Nicola Young got continued funding for central city CCTV cameras. The council dropped its plans to introduce metered parking in suburban centres, a big issue for Tony Randle. In fact, the suburban parking was such an obviously unpalatable proposal that it may have always been intended as a sacrificial lamb.

Whanau made her ability as a dealmaker a core part of her election pitch; she talked at length about her role as Green Party chief of staff working with Labour and New Zealand First in the coalition government. This is the first time she has demonstrated that ability as mayor on a high-stakes political issue. (There were a few deals behind the scenes made during the District Plan, but it didn’t end up mattering as much because the vote margins were quite wide.)

It’s a good sign for Whanau and her team. She showed the old-school political dealmaking ability that a mayor needs, and which Wellington hasn’t had in a long time. Andy Foster was basically allergic to it. Justin Lester wasn’t a natural either. 

But now Whanau finds herself politically vulnerable. Until this point, the Greens and Labour have been in lockstep on council. Now, Whanau is offside with most of her own party, and especially with Labour. The airport sale has become a wedge issue, and a deeply emotive one.

Unions Wellington’s campaign against the airport sale was well-organised and motivated, and polling suggests they had voters on their side. Turnout to their public meetings against the sale was high, and they packed the council chamber with supporters for their submission.

Unions Wellington supports presenting to council against the airport sale. Photo: Twitter, Ben McNulty.

For the first time, there is a platform for a Labour-aligned candidate to rise up and challenge Whanau from the left. Already, rumours are swirling. Fleur Fitzsimons is a name that keeps popping up – though she may be more interested in having another crack at the Rongotai electorate seat. 

The bigger risk for Whanau is if this starts a backlash within the Green Party. The party is democratic to a fault, and the membership is notoriously purist in their ideals. If party members revolt against endorsing her for re-election, it will put Whanau in a tight spot. 

By selling the airport shares, Whanau valued pragmatism over purity and got the win she believed was necessary for the council. She’d better hope it was worth it. 

Keep going!