With the council in disarray, former Wellington mayor Justin Lester sat down with The Spinoff to share his thoughts on what’s gone wrong, and what needs to happen from here.
Justin Lester is running again.
When we meet at the Civic Square cafe Nikau, the former Wellington mayor is breaking in a flash new pair of sneakers with moulded fins at the back of them. They’re apparently proven to massively increase performance, and Lester has a half marathon coming up that he wants to do well in.
The rest of his outfit is tech-company casual, and his shoulders seem fairly light without the mayoral chains weighing them down. Right now Lester is spending most of his time working for IT firm Dot Loves Data, and holds a range of governance roles on the side. He’s also enjoying being a private citizen.
“I’ve kept myself out of the news as best as possible,” he says. “I don’t want to be a commentator on the current council and what they’re up to, for the very reason that I wish them the very best.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but right now the Wellington council is not having the very best of times. In fact, most observers would say it’s currently undergoing its most internally bitter and spiteful period in living memory, with divisions frequently spilling out into the public domain.
Sewage is also frequently spilling out into the public domain, with the city’s dodgy network of water infrastructure creating a constant stream of bad news stories. The cost of solving those problems is eye-watering. On days like that, does he feel any sort of grim satisfaction at it no longer being his problem?
“No, there’s no sense of satisfaction, because you want the city to do well,” he says, not taking the bait. “But am I surprised by what’s taking place? No, I’m not.”
Lester was unseated in the big upset of the 2019 local election cycle, by long-term councillor – and frequent mayoral aspirant – Andy Foster. In 2016, Foster had placed fifth, losing to Labour candidate Lester by tens of thousands of votes. This time, Foster campaigned on lower rates rises, traffic congestion, and stopping the controversial Shelly Bay development. He won by a whisker, making Lester a one-term mayor.
“Did I think Andy would be a good mayor? No, I didn’t,” says Lester. “There’s a good reason why Andy had never been a deputy mayor.”
The way Lester sees it, the problems being experienced by the current council stem from Foster’s inability to build consensus around the table. That’s the sort of skill that is valued by councillors and insiders, but often isn’t particularly visible to the wider public. Decisions like a recent call to have an independent review of council infighting reflect that, says Lester, adding that he wouldn’t have let problems get to that stage.
“I served on a council with most of the same councillors, but we didn’t always have the same beliefs. We had professional working relationships. In private, would I hang out with them, would we be friends? No. But we made it work.”
Between the interview and this piece being published, the independent review was obtained by the Dominion Post. Among a wide range of criticisms of both Foster and council structures, the review said the mayor was failing to be “Wellington’s chief advocate” because he was getting bogged down in day-to-day administration.
Lester says a rule of effective local politics is that “you only take a decision to the council table when you know you have good levels of support for it”. Foster, he argues, has been unable to manage this.
“He’s too focused on detail, and he’s a lone wolf. He can’t work with individuals. You never know how he’s going to vote, and he’s always had a tradition of bringing amendments at the last minute,” says Lester. The interview took place a few weeks after Foster had brought 11 on-the-day amendments to a major meeting about the city’s long-term plan, once again pissing off some of his colleagues in the process. Foster did not respond to The Spinoff’s requests for comment.
Lester admits that timing has been cruel to the current council, and suggests the Kaikōura earthquake in 2016 was much more damaging than many residents realise. That means issues like the dodgy pipes have become rapidly much worse than they otherwise would have been. But even here, the former mayor is unwilling to let his replacement off the hook.
“John Key talked about his nine years in government, and the things he said he was most proud of was his response to the GFC [global financial crisis], which nobody could have predicted, and his response to Pike River, which, again, nobody anticipated a mine exploding,” says Lester.
“When I was mayor, four weeks in we had an earthquake,” he adds. “You’ve got to mix that ability to respond and your timing, but also you have to be able to get on with your daily job.”
If leadership is the problem – and Lester believes he’d be doing a much better job – he probably also should have done a better job of campaigning for re-election. Many observers described his run as lacklustre, opening the way for an upset loss.
For example, he probably should have made the case more forcefully that Wellington’s “bus-tastrophe” wasn’t actually the council’s fault – that sat with the Greater Wellington Regional Council, despite many voters blaming the mayor.
“While I could have sat there and scapegoated the Greater Wellington Regional Council and blamed them for the mistakes they made, it didn’t help anything. All it did was shift the blame.”
But what about the allegations of complacency? “We were the only campaign that had a ground game,” he says, rejecting the criticism. “I made thousands of phone calls personally, door-knocked, went to events – none of the other candidates did that.”
“So the question was, do I spend $60,000 putting billboards up around the city? What we were consistently told is that it shouldn’t make a difference,” says Lester, also noting his opponents putting more ads out. “And the consistent feedback from every single person – nobody said, ‘yes, you should do that’.” He speculates that if he had’ve campaigned like that, “I probably would have won.”
So with all of that said, will Lester go back to the voters next year and ask them to give him another go? “You can never say never, but I can 99.98% guarantee that I won’t be running,” he says.
A dance develops over the next stage of the interview, in an attempt to pin down whether Lester sees politics as part of his future. He knows all the steps, carefully giving his denials enough room to move on. A tilt at central government – a path for which he once seemed predestined – seems out of the question, but he admits to a childhood dream of working in international politics.
What about the rumours his former deputy mayor Paul Eagle – currently the near-anonymous MP for Rongotai – is going to have a crack at the mayoralty? “I think he’d be great. It comes down to what he wants to achieve with his own life – it was always a lifelong ambition for Paul to go to parliament.” No, Lester doesn’t want to move from Johnsonville to Kilbirnie on the off-chance a safe Labour seat comes up.
Another tilt seems more possible when considering how Lester talks about the remaining councillors. He’s positive but vague about them, never naming names for who he finds particularly impressive or disappointing. He’s certainly not burning bridges in case he has to build consensus with them again. Over the course of our conversation, several people wander up to say hi – one of them even referring to him as Mr Mayor.
But it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the loss to Foster ended Lester’s career, because of the scale and surprise of it. Those sorts of defeats do enormous damage to a politician’s credibility. And maybe for Lester, that’s not such a bad thing.
He’s 42, with two kids. He gets to spend more time with them, play more sport, and go home in the evenings. He’s got decades ahead of both his life and career, and it seems like his priorities really might have shifted since leaving office – finding joy in things completely outside work. He got to chaperone his daughter’s school camp this year, and had the time of his life. Lester will pound the pavements of Wellington again, but it seems unlikely it will be in the service of winning votes.