Westland mayor Bruce Smith has become an unusually prominent political influencer through a Facebook page he runs. But is it all above board? Alex Braae gives him a call.
If you wanted to know what was going on in Whanganui around the 1860s, a great place to start would be reading the Evening Herald, a newspaper edited and published by future premier John Ballance.
If you wanted to know about the West Coast in the 21st century, the 27,000-strong Coasters Club Facebook page would do the same job. It publishes historic photos, articles about Coasters who’ve done good, weather reports and images of beautiful scenery.
It’s also an outlet for Bruce Smith, the sometimes-controversial Westland District mayor, to publish long video messages about his policies, campaign in elections, promote a select group of industries, and even dabble in what some critics have described as climate change denial. And in the modern world of online political influencers, Smith has been wildly successful.
The Coasters Club is one of those Facebook pages that dominates the feed. Regular and varied posts, some of which get very decent engagement, mean that once you’ve liked the page you’ll see a lot of it in the ambient noise of social media.
The acknowledgement that the page is wholly owned by a local politician is in full view, if you know where to look. The disclaimer is right there in the “about” section – “the Coasters Club is owned and operated by Rayce Resources Ltd and Bruce Smith”. But there’s no similar disclosure on the associated website’s “about” page, and besides, those just seeing posts in their Facebook feed won’t see the acknowledgement.
Right now the pinned post on the Facebook page is a long post outlining Bruce Smith’s thoughts on the government’s Three Waters proposals. At the time of writing, it had been there at least a week, and had far higher engagement than other posts. The mayor has massively broadened his political reach through the page, even though it is ostensibly about the Coast as a whole.
Is that fair? I put it to Smith that people might like the page based on one type of post, and then be served up something completely different, and in the process be misled about the purpose of the page. Does he agree?
“No, I don’t. And apart from anything else, it’s my page. If people don’t want to follow it, all they have to do is not follow it,” said Smith.
Smith said he started the page before he had any political aspirations, intending it to be something of a retirement project, and to help bring in domestic tourism to the region. His previous career had included being chairman of Hokitika Airport, a trustee of the Westland Bank, and a former regional councillor.
He’s got a reputation for playing a bit fast and loose. A 2019 auditor-general report slated Smith and a fellow councillor for going ahead and ordering a stopbank in Franz Josef to be built, without council backing or consultation with experts. Smith defended the $1.3 million project on the grounds of it being justifiable emergency work. In 2013, on an unrelated matter, Smith was found to have defamed fellow Development West Coast trustee Frank Dooley, though this was comprehensively overturned on appeal.
“I’ve never been afraid to say what I think, and that ruffles a lot of feathers at times, but quite frankly I don’t care – I’m here for the Coast, and I’ll be doing what I think is in the best interests of the Coast as long as I live,” said Smith.
Smith’s election wins have been pretty close, with margins of several hundred votes each time. The Coasters Club page has also been a place to post campaign material [with authorisation statements, when required by law], and it’s conceivable that support built up through the page pushed Smith over the line.
In one such post ahead of the 2019 election, Smith described his loyalty to the Coast as “unmatched in this election” – in other words, he was the local champion, and his interests were inextricably linked with the interests of the district.
Did the page help him get elected? “It certainly wasn’t a negative,” said Smith, though he reiterated that was never the purpose of setting it up in the first place.
“So then hooking in as mayor, there’s a reality that it does open a lot of doors. And it is political – it’s something that’s part of life for me. I live a political life, and not necessarily for any party, but I certainly very strongly advocate for the Coast,” said Smith. Hokitika is a small place, and people naturally end up wearing different hats, particularly if they’re involved in politics.
This sort of association between an individual politician’s fortunes and the wider public isn’t new, and in fact all effective politicians try to do a version of it. It is highly likely the branding of Jacinda Ardern as leader of the “team of five million” helped Labour win a majority at the 2020 election.
What’s less common is for those political interests to also have connections to business interests. Rayce Resources is a Hokitika-based investment company run by Smith and his family, which in the past has had shareholdings in mining operations.
Mining is a significant industry for the West Coast – in fact, it is one of the last regions of the country where that is still true. And posts on the Coasters Club page certainly push a point of view in favour of mining, and against regulatory impediments to more mining. SNA legislation (Significant Natural Areas) is a particular foe, with admittedly huge swathes of the region’s natural biodiversity on private property in line for protections.
Smith is entirely unapologetic about pushing his pro-mining views, and said he “absolutely” felt they were reflective of the Coast as a whole. He has big ambitions for garnet, ilmenite and coal mining to grow. Smith is also strongly in favour of expanding fishing and forestry in the region.
Conservation organisation Forest and Bird – a group described as “elitist” on Coasters Club posts – has argued strongly in favour of SNAs and protections against mining on conservation land. The enmity between mining interests and Forest and Bird appears to be mutual. Smith mocked their ability to gather local support, saying if they had a meeting on the Coast, “we could rent them a phone box that’s not being used, they could all meet there”.
In response to the criticism from the page, Kevin Hague joked that “if you’re on the wrong side of the Coasters Club you know you’re doing something right”. The former Green MP and Forest and Bird CEO stressed he was speaking in his personal capacity, rather than on behalf of the organisation.
“The tragedy is that people from elsewhere around the country who don’t know any better may stumble upon the group and assume it’s somehow representative of West Coast views – it really, really isn’t,” added Hague.
A local conservation worker who declined to be named was one of those dissenters. “It can be hard to literally put your blood, sweat and tears into trying to protect the environment here when it feels like some others that live on the Coast are so ready to just rape and pillage the land if they can make a quick dollar from it,” said the conservation worker about the messaging on the page. In particular, they highlighted a since-deleted post that implied the floods that recently hit the West Coast were not the result of climate change, in contrast to the views of climate scientists.
Smith couldn’t recall why that post had been deleted, though said there is an admin of the page whose role is to take down anything racist, or that might create a defamation risk. But for the record, what are Smith’s views on climate change? Does he see a greater risk to the Coast from climate change, or from government policies aimed at dealing with climate change?
“Well if you refine the question and said the current government policies, which are spread across so many aspects of life on the Coast, I would see current government policies as the greatest risk the Coast has at present,” said Smith.
“The climate’s been changing ever since I’ve been a kid,” he added.
Smith doesn’t intend to run for Westland mayor next year. But he believes the regional council is struggling, and might put his hand up for that. “I think I can add some value at regional,” he said. The total population of the West Coast is a bit over 30,000, and if Smith runs, it is certain a lot of them will end up seeing his electioneering in their Facebook feed.