The Hamilton City Council offices (supplied)

In defence of Hamilton City Council

Whether it’s anti-science sentiment or outright bigotry, Hamilton councillors keep making the news for all the wrong reasons. But that’s only part of the story, writes veteran Hamilton councillor Dave Macpherson.

Is Hamilton City run by a bunch of rednecks and nutters?

If you only judged The Tron and its city council by the off the wall comments made by a couple of councillors, your answer would probably be ‘yes’.

But the truth is much more complicated. Yes, like any other city or town in Aotearoa New Zealand, Hamilton has its fair share of nutters, racists and obsessive types who fixate on marginal issues.

And yes, Hamilton can seem like a somewhat conservative rural town, but it is one that has outgrown all original plans and intentions, and now has an overlay of ethnic diversity and tangata whenua/mana whenua involvement in city life.

As well as a Māori population significantly higher than the national average, these days the city is home to well over 100 ethnicities, including many migrants and refugees. For the past 15 years a very active Settlement Centre, run by and involving refugee and migrant groups, has been housed in a large building supplied by the City Council.

The council is right now in discussion with representatives of the local Pasifika communities about the provision of a major new Pasifika service centre near the central city, including a large fale as a focal point.

While its population is a lot smaller than Auckland’s, Hamilton is growing at a similar rate to its northern neighbour, with a higher proportion of residential building permits issued in 2018 than in Auckland or Tauranga. One of the key economic players in this growth is Tainui Group Holdings, Ltd, the iwi-run company turning the 1995 Raupatu settlement lands and resources into a sustainable long-term economic base for Tainui beneficiaries.

For the last six years or so, the city council has been supported by an iwi-appointed kaumatua, Tame Pokaia, who acts as an advisor and mentor to mayors and councillors. Furthermore, at the suggestion of current mayor Andrew King, Council agreed in 2018 to appoint Maangai Maori members, with full voting and speaking rights, to all of its standing committees (where most of the detailed council work is done).

The latter move was an interesting one, controversial in ‘redneck’ quarters, but well-received by Māori and the more forward-thinking elements in the city. The five Maangai Māori have been accepted well, even by those councillors who initially opposed the move, and contribute strongly – including significantly swaying some key votes. Despite fears, the fact that the sun has continued to come up in the morning has relaxed the doom merchants to the point that I doubt the move could now be unpicked.

Previous councils had toyed with the idea of ‘Māori seats’ on Council, but never been game to go there, with some pretty awful backlashes against Māori whenever its been suggested. Both iwi and mana whenua suggest that better Māori representation might initially be achieved through committee appointments, as a means of educating the whole community about the value of Māori involvement.

A few months ago, a bronze statue in the city centre of ‘Captain Hamilton’, the bloke whom Pākehā named the city after, was attacked by Timi Maipi with a hammer and a bucket of red paint. Timi had earlier visited a prominent local Hobson’s Choice adherent wearing a Ku Klux Klan outfit. Timi’s actions certainly sparked debate, a lot of it – but by no means all – negative.

As a result of this notoriety, Mayor King invited Timi and his whānau to address a councillor workshop a few weeks back, to explain his stance and his views on various English street names around the city. Timi was listened to respectfully, and although several councillors didn’t agree with him, Council has agreed to get information on all the suspect street names, with a view to considering future name changes.

Several Hamilton streets have been named after people with dubious backgrounds: Grey and Bryce, who were instrumental in a lot of land theft in the Waikato from local iwi, and Von Tempsky, who commanded the ‘Rangers’ in the Land Wars, a group with a pretty murderous reputation.

Captain Hamilton himself never visited either the site of the future city, nor even the Waikato – he was killed at Gate Pā, near the current Tauranga, when he injudiciously poked his head above the parapet while leading English troops against the defenders of the pā. Having a city named after such a nonentity has always been controversial in some quarters; Mayor Andrew King personally suggested a few months ago that Council consider adding the original name of the area, ‘Kirikiriroa’, to the current name.

While the council hasn’t progressed this discussion so far, it is not forgotten. Meanwhile some more practical activities are taking place, like a recent diversity training workshop for elected members, and a new requirement for all staff reports coming before council committees to consider Māori issues/effects on Māori of their recommendations.

I recognise that many of these moves may be seen by some as cosmetic window-dressing, given the 150-year history in the Waikato of land theft and the marginalisation of Māori, coupled with significantly racist attitudes by large parts of the community towards migrants over the years. But in my 21 years on this council, I’ve seen more optimistic signs in the last five years of a change in prevailing attitudes and council policies, than in any time before.

Hamilton is not yet a truly diverse city, but it is clearly heading in the right direction. With a bit of encouragement it could become a beacon of tolerance and inclusion, rather than the laughing stock recent actions have made it in the eyes some outsiders.


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