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A Clash of Titans, southern style

The fast-growing Southern Lakes district – Queenstown, Wanaka and surrounds – currently faces enormous challenges. But the bigger problem? The body in charge is three hours’ drive away and seems reluctant to spend the money needed to fix them. Peter Newport explains how an upcoming by-election could become a referendum on the future of Otago.

It’s a story so epic it should be sung in Italian by people wearing Viking helmets, supported by a 500-strong chorus of ruddy cheeked townsfolk. And yet – it’s a by-election for the Otago Regional Council.

At stake though are fundamental issues around regional government and even bigger consequences for some high profile personalities in Dunedin, Central Otago and Queenstown. There’s also a few hundred million dollars in play.

Before we meet the cast of characters – here’s the story so far.

The Southern Lakes District is getting bigger by the day, but the environmental and public transport aspects of Queenstown and Wanaka’s growth challenges are managed from Dunedin by the Otago Regional Council – the ORC. The ORC is sitting on assets and cash worth around $500 million, but they don’t have a public office in Queenstown or Wanaka. All households in Otago pay ORC rates worth over $14 million a year.

The ORC has been accused of everything from being generally “useless” to planning to build a flash new $30 million headquarters in Dunedin while spending relative peanuts on widespread lake pollution and famously non-existent affordable public transport in Queenstown. Some power brokers in Queenstown and Wanaka want to the ORC shut down and replaced with a unitary authority that can better understand and fund fixes to local problems.

The ORC is widely perceived to be run by farmers and to operate in the interests of farmers.

Let’s look at the cast of characters.

Stephen Woodhead. Chair of the ORC. A farmer from Milton, south of Dunedin. First elected to the ORC in 2004 and Chair since 2010.

Dr Ella Lawton. Standing in the current by-election for the ORC following the death of her mother Dr Maggie Lawton who was elected to the ORC last year. Lawton is an Otago University MBA course lecturer in sustainable business practice.

Michael Laws. The famously disruptive and argumentative former MP, broadcaster and Mayor of Whanganui. A newly elected ORC councillor. He runs a PR consultancy and lives in Cromwell. He backs Lawton.

Garry Kelliher. Standing against Lawton in the by-election. He’s a farmer based just outside Alexandra. He lost his ORC seat to Michael Laws by just five votes last year and wants it back.

Michael Laws, left, and Gary Kelliher

It would be too simple to paint these characters as “farmers” or “environmentalists”. Everyone involved is too smart for that. The farmers are bending over backwards to present their environmental credentials and the environment lobby is making it clear that they are at least pro-business if not exactly pro-(intensive) farming.

But who is playing straight and who might be bending their position to encourage public support for the ORC or get votes in the by-election?

First, here’s the case against the ORC, followed by chair Stephen Woodhead’s response. Clearly the chairman is not in any way involved in the by-election, but this is the background against which the by-election is being fought.

Many civic leaders and residents beyond Dunedin want local representation and control. They make the point that Central Otago and Queenstown/Wanaka may soon be bigger than Dunedin and that the ORC is still focussed on Dunedin. There’s a widening cultural gulf between conservative Dunedin and the booming Southern Lakes.

The ORC shut its one-person Queenstown office some years ago. Now the ORC says it might re-open the office, maybe sharing office space with the Queenstown Lakes District Council. The QLDC has responded saying they have no spare office space.

The ORC has been accused of sitting on a pile of cash and a mountain of assets while not investing enough in either environmental or transport problems beyond Dunedin. For instance, they have only earmarked $100,000 for controlling wilding pines throughout Otago. The Government has said that without proper control 20 percent of New Zealand will be covered in these weed-like pine trees within 20 years unless something serious is done. It’s a major environmental issue. The ORC spend has been equated to “one guy on a chainsaw”.

Wilding conifers in the South Island high country. Photo: doc.govt.nz

Media reports have referenced a culture of fear within the ORC with a leaked staff survey in 2015 showing only 27 percent had confidence in the ORC leadership. Staff turnover has been high with $236,000 paid out in personal grievance claims since 2014.

New ORC councillor Michael Laws has consistently accused the ORC of being “useless”, not spending enough and being “Dunedin-centric”.

At recent annual plan hearings the ORC came under intense fire from a formidable variety of Queenstown people, including Forsyth Barr chairman and former Otago University chancellor Sir Eion Edgar. The ORC said at the time they understood Queenstown’s “passion”. The “passion” reference was broadly interpreted as being patronising, an attempt to classify Queenstown opposition as emotional rather than logic or business based.

So I put it to ORC chair Stephen Woodhead that his organisation was sitting on too much cash, was too pro-farming and not doing an effective job for all of Otago.

“It’s true that we have around $56 million in reserves and we are planning to spend $25 million (media reports refer to $30 million) on a new Dunedin office. But most of the reserves are tagged for specific purposes and maintaining infrastructure, especially underground infrastructure is very expensive ” Woodhead explains.

But what about the Port of Otago that is 100% owned by the ORC and worth $402 million? “We asked the port company a few years ago to offset risk by buying land outside Otago. Now they own land in Hamilton and Auckland”.

Would it make sense to use some of that cash and equity to do more work in Otago? “The answer to your question is something that we’ll work through in the next six to nine months as part of our long term plan.” The ORC has no debt.

Is he happy with the state of the river and lakes around Wanaka, Cromwell and Queenstown? Is he satisfied that the regional environment is in good hands? Woodhead says he is, but suggests they could do more in terms of monitoring lake quality which in some parts of the Southern Lakes has only been done three years out of ten.

“It’s an important part of the region, but we just need to keep things in context. Queenstown is only 15 percent of the Otago population. Central Otago is around 7 percent. Dunedin is over 50 percent.”

I suggest that the two million domestic and international tourists who visit Queenstown are largely motivated by the relatively clean state of the environment. He agrees but says that has to be balanced against the needs of the Otago farmers and also businesses like the university in Dunedin.

What about the “culture of fear” and the leaked staff survey showing low confidence in management? Does the buck stop with Woodhead as chairman? Are the media reports correct? “I think there were a couple of staff that felt that way. We did lose two or three or four managers in a short space of time.” Woodhead makes it clear that he backs his chief executive Peter Bodeker, but says improvements in efficiency really require the new, open plan office. That’s the one that could cost up to $30 million.

The Guardians of Lake Dunstan near Cromwell disagree. They say a new Otago Regional Council office in Dunedin would be a “tragic mistake”. In a recent speech Guardians chair Andrew Burton described their lake as a “choking mess” linked to the spread of lagarosiphon or lake snow, the same invasive lake weed that’s a big problem for Lake Wanaka and creeping up the Kawarau River towards Queenstown’s Lake Wakatipu. The Guardians represent the widely held view that more money needs to be spent away from Dunedin and inland Otago needs much stronger representation.

And that sets the scene for this epic by-election.

The late Maggie Lawton with her daughter Ella. Photo: supplied

Maggie Lawton, mother of Ella, was one of the first scientists in the world to pioneer the use of DNA in criminal forensic work. She was a giant in her field, but as the role of the old DSIR changed she turned her attention to the environment, becoming a formidable environmental scientist who used her chemistry PHD to challenge the ORC on its low-key – in her view ineffective – approach to the Southern Lakes. Lawton was angry – and she found a natural, if unusual, ally in Michael Laws.

Laws had arrived in Central Otago with his kids to settle down in a part of the country he fell in love with as a student. Like Maggie Lawton, he was outraged by what he saw as cavalier and secretive behaviour by the ORC. This odd couple went on the war path together, united by a shared contempt for the ORC. One was just a bit more polite than the other.

They both stood for election last October, and won. Lawton was the cool, calm and authoritative environmental scientist. Laws was the outraged former politician and mayor who brought the full force of his vitriol to bear on the Otago Regional Council.

Then, just before Christmas, Lawton was diagnosed with cancer. She died in March this year. Her funeral service in Wanaka attracted hundreds of people, including Queenstown Lakes mayor Jim Boult and ORC chairman Stephen Woodhead. The mourners spilled out of every doorway and extra TV screens and speakers had to be called into action. I’d met Lawton on a couple of occasions but until her funeral I did not know she had been such a famous, pioneering scientist before moving to Wanaka from Auckland.

Team member after team member from Auckland spoke about how superb a boss she had been back in her forensic science days. Even Michael Laws’ speech was sensitive, insightful and uplifting. Lawton’s daughter Ella, a QLDC council member serving her second term, also spoke tearfully at the funeral.

Maggie Lawton had died so quickly that she and her daughter barely had time to talk in a meaningful way. But they did discuss who would take Maggie’s place on the ORC.

Following her mother’s death, Ella Lawton resigned as a Queenstown Lakes District councillor so she could stand in the ORC by-election on June 20. Her opponent is Alexandra farmer Gary Kelliher, the man who lost his ORC seat to Michael Laws last October by only five votes. Gary had represented the ORC between 2013 and 2016.

So the stage is now set for Kelliher to fight Ella Lawton. Michael Laws is in the ring with Lawton while Kelliher enjoys the implied support of the farming community.

Before speaking with Lawton, I asked Kelliher if he had thought twice about entering such an emotionally charged battle.

“It certainly weighed heavily in making the decision to stand and there was a lot of discussion in my family around do I or don’t I. But in the end it was pressure from supporters that persuaded me to stand.”

Would it be a mistake to assume he is standing on a farming ticket? “That would be a complete mistake. We do have a farming business, but we also have a road quarrying business and an office accounting business. Agriculture is one of the things that we do, but I’m definitely not standing on a farming platform.”

Kelliher says he’s standing on the basis that he would deliver better representation for the people of Central Otago and Queenstown. “The criticism the ORC has come in for, in terms of closing their one-person Queenstown office is well deserved in my view. Sure, Queenstown is an expensive place to have an office, but it’s a very important place for the region.”

I asked Kelliher what he thinks of Michael Laws. The answer comes as a surprise. “I’ve been battling away with residents around Lake Hayes, near Queenstown, on the issue of lake weed. All they wanted was some more monitoring. But when I came to deal with the ORC executive in Dunedin it was like hitting a brick wall. They flatly refused to get involved. That sort of stuff is very frustrating and it’s sad that it’s taken Michael Laws’ extreme level of criticism to get things to change.”

It’s clear the election is largely focussed on who can come up with the longest list of things that are wrong with the ORC, which is perhaps a cynical way of saying it’s about strong representation.

Otago Regional Council by-election candidate Gary Kelliher and his family. Photo: supplied

Just as Kelliher is keen to tell me he’s not really a farmer, Ella Lawton is anxious to distance herself from any hardcore environmental position. “I’ve never seen myself as an environmental activist. I’ve been trained in sustainability and what that really means is learning to balance social, environmental and economic factors.” Her election signs now scattered across the region declare “Science. Strategy. Community.”

The water quality of the Southern Lakes is an environmental crisis, she says; she’s also deeply concerned about a decline in biodiversity.

Lawton talks about the lessons in networking she learned from her hugely popular mother, something she hopes will win her the election. Gary Kelliher also clearly has strong business, farming and networking skills, so it might be a very close race.

Before last year’s election Michael Laws told me he thought the ORC was useless. I asked him if since being elected he had changed his view. “I’ve only had it confirmed. It’s not fit for purpose. It simply refuses to acknowledge that it needs to play a proactive role in the wider region. It is currently, and has been for some time, endangering the wider Otago environment.”

“Every environmental problem that is rearing its nasty head in the Otago region is a direct consequence of the regional council’s neglect and negligence,” he says.

“This disregard, almost disrespect, for Central Otago and the Lakes I initially put down to ignorance. I thought they were not aware of the problems we have here. But now I’ve discovered that they are acutely aware of the issues and they have decided to ignore them. Before I thought they were incompetent, now I believe they are negligent. That’s much more dangerous.”

Otago Regional Council chair Stephen Woodhead

With Laws, Lawton and Kelliher almost competing to out-criticise the Otago Regional Council it seems fair to give the final say to ORC chair Stephen Woodhead. It’s clear he feels the pressure – what’s not clear is if he really understands where it is coming from and why.

I ask him about Michael Laws. “Michael’s comments are not based on fact. He interprets facts to suit himself and is more focussed on his own profile than the people of Otago, in my view.”

He goes on. “Councillor Laws does not turn up to the various meetings that we organise in Central Otago. We don’t see him at all. He hasn’t really engaged with the council to effect change. He needs to put more effort in to engage with the role of the council.”

It feels like we’ve reached an impasse. But then Woodhead decides he’s had enough of sitting on the fence. I ask him if he thinks the current criticism aimed at famers is making life hard for the ORC, quite apart from the ongoing scrap with the residents of Central Otago and the Southern Lakes.

“There are misconceptions about farming. And when we talk to the farmers about having to manage their water flow for environmental reasons they accuse us of listening to fishermen, stakeholders and iwi and everybody else but them … you get accused from both ends of the spectrum.”

“We need to get over this silly debate in New Zealand. There’s only four and a half million of us. All land use has an impact, rural or urban. The more intensive, the greater the risk. As New Zealanders, we need to go home and take responsibility for the impact we all have. Let’s all do our bit and stop squabbling and pointing the finger at someone else. We need to be responsible individually.”

OK. So that’s clear. But I have one more question. What about all the small towns in Otago where residents are being asked by local councils to pay up to $30,000 per household for new sewerage schemes, often after they’ve spent over $20,000 on private septic tanks? Places like Glenorchy, Kingston and Cardrona.

Woodhead believes it’s unfair for locals councils like the QLDC to ask residents in those small towns, and only them, to fund their own sewerage schemes. So is he offering to chip in and help?

“We all in Otago want clean water, we all want to live in an environment that’s managed sustainably and the wider community in Queenstown Lakes might need to contribute and assist these small towns. Yes, it’s a challenge for these small communities but the practices of the past are not sustainable into the future.”

So it sounds like they are on their own, but their bigger neighbours might want to help out more.

And I guess that’s where the problem lies and where the by-election will be fought. It seems the ORC thinks it is not their responsibility to support all aspects of regional Otago, and technically they may be right. The regional council remit is tightly defined.

But as Ella Lawton argues, and I’m sure Gary Kelliher would agree, everything is connected – the environment, social and economic systems.

The current governance system allows the Otago Regional Council to sit on hundreds of millions of dollars worth of assets but still argue that it’s fine not to have consistently monitored our big lakes and rivers, to be caught short by infestations of invasive lake weed, to avoid confronting big issues like the wilding pines, to allow small town residents to pay their way for multi-million sewerage infrastructure, all the while saying that we all have to take individual responsibility for the environment.

It feels like the dots could be better connected potentially through a locally based unitary authority which would take over the responsibilities of the ORC for Central Otago and the Southern Lakes.

The power brokers of Central Otago and the Southern Lakes are ready for a fight, regardless of who wins the by-election on June 20th. Auckland, Gisborne and Nelson already operate with a combined local and regional council model – as unitary authorities. The increasing divide between Dunedin and Queenstown could prompt the next cab off the rank.


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