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Nobby Clark, mayor of Invercargill. (Photo: Let’s Go Invercargill, Image Design: Archi Banal)
Nobby Clark, mayor of Invercargill. (Photo: Let’s Go Invercargill, Image Design: Archi Banal)

OPINIONPoliticsMarch 8, 2023

Bleak: Invercargill’s mayor just used the n-word

Nobby Clark, mayor of Invercargill. (Photo: Let’s Go Invercargill, Image Design: Archi Banal)
Nobby Clark, mayor of Invercargill. (Photo: Let’s Go Invercargill, Image Design: Archi Banal)

Nobby Clark’s comments at a recent event on poetic expression suggest a profound lack of understanding of poetic expression.

Words and their meanings have become a contentious issue recently, with some commentators and politicians insisting that aggressive wording in a poem about James Cook is actually racism. Others have noted that language isn’t always literal, especially in poems. 

What words are appropriate for someone in public office to say have also been contentious recently, with the mayor of Auckland telling a journalist “don’t come and fucking talk to me” and Rob Campbell being sacked as the chair of Te Whatu Ora and the EPA over a lack of political impartiality after LinkedIn posts.

Somehow, both of these issues have now come together thanks to Invercargill mayor Nobby Clark.

At an Arts Foundation and CNZ event yesterday, the first in a series called All In For The Arts aiming to celebrate creativity around the country, Invercargill’s mayor showed an interesting understanding of words and what they mean. This morning, Instagram meme account invercarg_ill posted a video of Clark from the event, answering the question, posed by himself: “Does poetic expression override some of our societal norms?” 

He then warns people with sensitive minds to close their ears.

His answer? “If we have art and poetry that uses the word ‘queer’, ’n*****’, ‘fuck the bitch’, which you’ve heard recently – is that beyond our tolerance?”

It’s a provocative question, one in a long series of questions that Clark posed at the event. It’s also a terrible one.

Nobby Clark with his mayoral predecessor Tim Shadbolt (Photo: ICC Facebook)

It is jarring to hear a 70-year-old Pākehā man in Invercargill say “fuck the bitch”. It is far more jarring to hear a 70-year-old Pākehā elected official say the n-word in a public setting, regardless of the prompt. (It’s less jarring to hear a heterosexual man say “queer”, but it’s unclear if the mayor knows that it’s not a slur anymore.)

Outside of that, Clark conflates the word queer (as above, a slur that has since been reclaimed), the n-word (absolutely a slur, though one might not be surprising to see it in a poem written by, say, an African American person) and the phrase “fuck the bitch” (a misquote of a line from Avia’s poem “250th Anniversary of James Cook’s arrival in New Zealand”). 

None of these words are at all appropriate for Clark to say, even at an event that promises a “unique mix of speakers” and aims to “shine a spotlight on creativity throughout the motu”. From the short video, the response in the room was muted.

If this is your first introduction to the mayor of Invercargill, Nobby (real name William) Clark has made headlines for a few reasons since being elected. 

He aims to cut $50m of the $115m budget from the Invercargill City Council, and attempted to remove the speaking rights of mana whenua at council meetings in a proposal that was later defeated in a council vote. Just yesterday, Stuff reported that he threatened Audit NZ that he would refuse to sign a compliance statement required for the council to sign its annual report from last June. The threat was later taken back. 

Before becoming mayor, he was the deputy to Tim Shadbolt, was the fourth person to donate a kidney anonymously in New Zealand, and holds the distinction of being the first person to run the Kepler Track 30 times.

Despite all of these achievements, Clark appears to also be someone who doesn’t understand the power of words and meanings, even used in an artistic context, which is concerning for anybody, let alone someone in a position of power.

The Spinoff has reached out to the mayor’s office for clarity on his provocative question.

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