Once Bill Ralston was the baddest man in New Zealand journalism. Now he’s running for council. Over a long lunch at Prego Tim Murphy asks him why.
I tried to warn Bill Ralston not to stand for the Auckland Council. ‘Don’t do it Bill’ I tweeted when talk grew late last year of his interest in a council seat.
He ‘liked’ the tweet, ignored the advice and is now in the thick of a campaign to unseat longserving ‘left’ local body councillor Mike Lee from the Waitematā ward, which takes in all the central city from Parnell to Westmere and across to Waiheke and Great Barrier islands. Few journalists and even fewer editors have ended up making the crossover. Local politics would be seen by most as appealing as arthritis or dementia. Or both.
Ralston, 62, tall and avuncular, slightly wild haired and playfully serious about a political career, is sitting outdoors in Prego restaurant in Ponsonby Rd. His second home, just up from his villa on Franklin Rd.
It would be tempting to call Prego his campaign headquarters, but you get the feeling there isn’t really an HQ. “This is not a professional campaign,” Ralston offers, deadpan. “You just feel your way through it.” He’s foxing. Ralston – the Hunter S Thompson of New Zealand late night television when TV3 was in its early days – knows how to act.
“Don’t forget the TV persona is not always the proper persona. And we are kind-of doing an act now.”
He is a talker. He keeps edging towards saying too much in front of me and Mark Jennings, his ex boss at TV3 (read Jennings’ thoughts on Ralston here). Then he straightens up, rolls one of the six cigarettes he knocked off during this grilling and averts disaster.
Port Royal tobacco, if you’re wondering, with super slim filters. Highly addictive, read the warning, a bit like politics and media to a fierce wit like Ralston’s. Over a Spanish red and then a Marlborough Pinot Noir or two, Ralston’s political journey is laid out. He studied in the University of Auckland politics department with this year’s ‘independent’ mayoral candidate Phil Goff (and Helen Clark) and was a Northcote Borough Councillor at 18, before it amalgamated with North Shore City, which of course merged into the Super City six years ago.
He went into journalism, covered politics as TV3’s gallery editor, Nightline host, was ringmaster of The Ralston Group, then went on to edit Metro magazine. Eventually he landed the plum role of head of news and current affairs at TVNZ. He now comments frequently on media issues and writes a column for the Listener.
But his recent career has been a hybrid of politics, business and journalism. With his wife Janet Wilson, he provides public relations and media advice to a list of clients who the roll-your-owns help prevent Bill from identifying publicly. But he is constantly referring to ‘a senior cabinet minister’ or a ‘highly placed political operative’ as having told him things. They’d be Nats, for sure.
He quotes one of his sources as having described one of the mayoral candidates as ‘mad as a coot, but they can’t get [the person] out of the race.’
So what would Bill bring to this highly challenged multi-billion dollar enterprise? “Hopefully some common sense. Some more cohesive decision making – just look at the mess of the Unitary Plan process.”
On a roll, he mentions something called the Central Interceptor. “‘Central Interceptor,’ I ask, ‘what’s that?’. It’s clear Candidate Bill knows it is a big underground thing separating wastewater and sewage somewhere under Auckland. But he doesn’t want to get down in that particular sewer and moves things right along.
He’ll have high name recognition in the ward – particularly among boomers. “I think it is an advantage, no doubt about that.” Perhaps he’s under-selling himself, confining himself to a council seat in the ward he is ‘training myself to say as Wai-Te-Ma-TA’ rather than giving the right of politics a big name contender for Mayor. With the flowing hair, the intellect and the editing background he could surely be our answer to Boris Johnson.
“I thought about it,” he says. “I had a fairly quiet discussion with myself and a chat to Janet. But I thought I’ll try for the Council, do three years, have a good look and if the Council does not have the right leadership then I’ll have a crack.”
Remember, you heard it here first: Ralston for Mayor.
I ask if he could imagine a scenario where none of the centre-right’s candidates for mayor – John Palino, Mark Thomas and Victoria Crone – scrub up as viable challenges to Goff, and a call goes out for Ralston to put his hat in the ring. But no, that’d take a full year, he says, and besides he seems to hope Crone can build support.
His Wai-Te-Ma-TA ward takes in the central business district – and the Port of Auckland. “No future port expansion into the harbour,” he says. “And then sometime in the next 15-20 years they’ve got to look to move it.”
It is a position that will contrast starkly with the former watersider Mike Lee, who as chairman of the Auckland Regional Council bought back a once privatised part of the port company. “Why should the waterfront look like a secondhand car yard?” asks Ralston.
Levering Lee out of his council seat won’t be easy. But an ‘old political hand in Auckland’ has predicted to Ralston that this is going to be a ‘bad year to be an incumbent.’
Why? It started with Len’s bonking”, he offers, seeming to suggest the sins of the Mayor might yet be visited upon the councillors, “and the Unitary Plan mess.” Bill is looking forward to holding the Mayor, council and council officers to account. “For my sins I have been watching the council live on screen. When they have a Council officer in, the interviewing techniques are appalling. No one’s done their research and no one has an interview plan. I’ve spent a lifetime looking at politics and holding politicians to account.”
So how is the campaign going, beyond this interview at Prego? It’s rumoured that door-knocking is not really Ralston’s thing. “Nah, I’ve been door-knocking” he says, handing over his campaign business card – “Just Vote Bill Ralston” it exhorts, with the opaque descriptor ‘Centre Right Independent’ and a big blue and big red strip to emphasise either his non-denominational status or Frenchness. “I do not agree with left or right groups. I did not want to stand for C&R or even Auckland Future.”
He does want the centre-right to ‘show some more honesty. They have got elected on one thing and vote another way.” You get the feeling Ralston thinks his defeating of Lee might make the difference on the Council voting record. As if Wai-Te-Ma-TA is a crucial swing seat. “Mostly, I’m doing cottage meetings, at people’s homes, with about 20 people. Of all the people I’ve seen in the six months I’ve been doing this, I’ve had no bad feedback – except one crack on Facebook.
“I will, I know, once you publish this.”
That one crack on Facebook didn’t pass unnoticed. Like all of us, Ralston wants to be liked. Not quite in the league of Boris, but it is there. “The best mayors are those that are a little different and I think the best councillors are the same.”
There are lots of giggles, lots of media tittle tattle. He’s energised. Janet calls late in the afternoon and comes by for a drink. She’s holding the fort in the business now as Bill pursues power. There’s lots of hands over her face as she hears what Bill’s been saying. They surely would have given each other their best professional advice on how to handle Murphy, Jennings and The Spinoff. But Bill is a hard dog to keep on the porch, message wise.
He is certainly big enough to praise ideas of Goff’s: “We get on really well together,” he says, and mentions Phil’s light rail plan for Dominion Rd. “And I also worked with Victoria Crone when she was at Chorus. I was reasonably impressed then.”
Labour Party Auckland issues MP, Phil Twyford gets a pat for his proposal for infrastructure bonds to enable Auckland to develop without breaching its debt. But a KPMG alternative to take all revenue-earning assets into an infrastructure fund with a mixed ownership model and partial sell-off also gets Ralston’s approval: “why can’t we do both?’
He reckons there’s public disquiet at the influence of the Māori Advisory Board, whose unelected representatives can vote on committees but not at the whole council, worrying ex-ACT leader Rodney Hide’s fear of Māori elected seats ended up with the worst of all worlds. Ralston would prefer elected seats for Māori.
As the late afternoon sun disappears, the candidate readies himself for a ‘tough fight’ ahead against Lee, and says door-knocking really will occur. He’s been down Prime Minister John Key’s street in Parnell and shoved his brochure in the letter box. “The next day on Paul Henry he uses one my lines about Auckland’s growth being an asset not a problem. I thought, ‘Good, the bastard can listen to me for a change.”
So, a ‘slightly anarchic’ campaign rolls on. His mate and supporter, real estate agent Graham Wall, did a graphic to advertise one of Ralston’s cottage meetings. It was headed “Grill Bill” and had a picture of Ralston ‘s face on Uma Thurman’s body.
The candidate loved it.
Tim Murphy and Mark Jennings have just set up the media consultancy Jennings Murphy
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.