Nīkau Wi Neera, Tory Whanau, and this reporter with some piping hot tea (Image: Tina Tiller)
Nīkau Wi Neera, Tory Whanau, and this reporter with some piping hot tea (Image: Tina Tiller)

OPINIONPoliticsJune 17, 2024

Windbag: Inside the messy drama tearing apart Wellington City Council’s left wing

Nīkau Wi Neera, Tory Whanau, and this reporter with some piping hot tea (Image: Tina Tiller)
Nīkau Wi Neera, Tory Whanau, and this reporter with some piping hot tea (Image: Tina Tiller)

Gather round, because I have some piping hot tea. There’s gossip, insults, personal feuds, and an airport sale.

Windbag is The Spinoff’s Wellington issues column, written by Wellington editor Joel MacManus. It’s made possible thanks to the support of The Spinoff Members.

For most of this term, Wellington City Council’s Labour and Green councillors have been a unified majority. Lining up behind mayor Tory Whanau, they have the votes to push through whatever they want. But not any more. The controversial decision to sell the council’s shares in Wellington International Airport has split the council’s left bloc in two. It’s quickly becoming a deep rift that threatens to derail the rest of Whanau’s mayoral term.

What’s happened?

Two Labour councillors, Ben McNulty and Nureddin Abdurahman, and one Green councillor, Nīkau Wi Neera, are really pissed off at Tory Whanau. They have publicly withdrawn their support for the mayor. That means Whanau can’t rely on their votes for any future issues. They may still vote with the mayor on an issue-by-issue basis, but won’t work with her in advance.

In parliamentary terms, it’s as if a group of government MPs walked out of a coalition to sit on the cross benches, leaving the prime minister running a minority government. It means every vote becomes a risk and battlefield. The closest parliamentary equivalent is 1998, when Winston Peters and some NZ First MPs withdrew from the Jenny Shipley-led National government (she still held onto a slim majority with support from some independents). That rift was also caused by a decision to sell shares in Wellington International Airport.

How did this happen?

The simple answer is the councillors in question are bitter about losing the vote to sell the airport shares. But more specifically, they’re bitter about how they lost. McNulty, Abdurahman and Wi Neera (I’m going to call them the Airport Three) feel the mayor’s office and council executives used misleading and high-pressure tactics to try to secure their votes.

Council staff waited until just a week before the vote (after the public consultation period) to tell councillors that voting against the sale could cause the council’s credit rating to drop and put the whole long-term plan at risk.

Wellington Airport is at the centre of a dispute tearing apart Wellington City Council (Photo: Mark Tantrum/Wellington International Airport via Getty Images)

This is not the first time these concerns have been raised about Whanau’s leadership. Similar complaints arose during the vote to pump an extra $147 million into fixing the Town Hall, and the deal to reopen Reading Cinema. In both cases, some councillors thought staff and the mayor were withholding information, not giving them enough time to consider options, and trying to pressure their votes.

That leads to the Airport Three’s much broader complaint: they think Whanau is being led around by council officers, and as a result, hasn’t been progressive enough. On two of the loudest issues this term, Reading Cinema and the Airport sale, Whanau took positions that were supported by officers but were unpopular with the left.

What are they saying about each other?

This feud is getting personal and nasty. There are some deep feelings of betrayal. Things are getting spicy. Councillors mostly weren’t in the office last week, so the fight played out publicly in the news and on social media.

On Twitter, Ben McNulty came out swinging with the clearest shot across the bow at the mayor we’ve seen this term: “If you told me two years ago that the next mayor of Wellington would lead the charge on spending $320m for the Town Hall, bailing out a multinational and fully privatising our airport, I’d have asked you which right-wing candidate won.”

Wi Neera told The Post: “If I was a right-wing councillor I’d be stoked about the Long-Term Plan. I just got everything I wanted.” Abdurahaman said, “The mayor is not leading, the bureaucracy is governing us.”

Rebecca Matthews, a Labour councillor and close ally of Whanau, subtweeted at the Airport Three: “For me, progressivism in local government is using my vote and voice according to my values, working in teams to get good stuff done, not centring myself in every situation, taking a win or loss with good grace, supporting others to lead and not punching down. I think it’s working out OK.”

I’ve had a number of private conversations with councillors and staff involved. The strategy from Whanau’s allies seems to be to discredit the Airport Three by claiming they’re grandstanding and putting their political careers ahead of good governance. The word “misogyny” has been thrown around, trying to suggest this is just three men throwing a tantrum because they lost a vote.

What will all this mean? 

There is genuine, personal anger here. Neither side is going to move forward from this without a proper sit-down and some concrete concessions. Whanau pitched herself as a connector who can bring people together, and she is going to have to prove it.

Politically, an extended feud is going to hurt Whanau a lot more than it’s going to hurt the Airport Three. The optics are on their side – they look like they’re taking a principled stand, and it plays well with their base. But for Whanau, it could seriously hurt her ability to get things done. She desperately needs some progressive wins in the second half of her term. When she shows up to the Green Party chapter meeting in 2024 to recruit campaign volunteers, what issues will they rally behind?

Tory Whanau could be electorally vulnerable if she loses support from the left (Photo: Ollie Neas)

Already we’ve seen hints of how ugly this could get. In a recent meeting, councillors spent the better part of an hour debating whether a new park in Newtown should have toilets. It was like something out of Parks and Recreation, a comically minor issue that quickly became a shitfight (no pun intended). Abdurahman, who represents the Newtown area, pushed hard to get toilets into the plan and was visibly hurt to be overruled by the mayor. McNulty, who has IBS, was similarly offended, not just for his personal reasons, but because local community views were being ignored.

That relatively insignificant fight spilled over into a much more important issue. The next vote in that meeting was on Tony Randle’s motion to delay the Golden Mile. Usually, Whanau would have been able to rely on the eight Labour and Green votes to shut it down. But because of the hurt feelings, the Airport Three refused to confirm their votes ahead of time – meaning Whanau instead had to negotiate with conservative councillors and find a middle ground.

That’s the big risk for both sides of this intra-left dispute. If they don’t work together, they’ll have to work with the centre-right, or get nothing done at all.

Keep going!