Justin Lester, speaks at the Remembrance Service at Waitangi Park following the Christchurch mosque shootings. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Real leaders lift people up: Justin Lester on the Wellington mayoralty

The big shock of the results in the weekend’s local elections was the unseating of Justin Lester as Wellington mayor. We invited him to pen a sort-of-valedictory.

My three years as the mayor of Wellington ended on Sunday and I will forever remain grateful for the experience.

I’m also acutely aware of how unlikely it was that I’d ever be given the opportunity. As a kid I didn’t think I’d ever make it to Wellington, let alone become the mayor.

I first ran for local government because I owed an enormous debt of gratitude to the community, the many people who helped raised me, who gave me rides to sports games, and the people who gave me opportunities and some confidence I never would have had otherwise.

Our family grew up in a state house in South Invercargill. Dad left when I was young and Mum raised my brothers and me on the DPB.

Life was never easy for her, but in 1990 it got a lot harder. Dad died suddenly and a few months later, a few days before Christmas, the then minister of social welfare announced she would slash beneficiary payments as part of the Mother of All Budgets.

I was only a child, but the memory is still ingrained in my mind. It wasn’t so much about the money. What was worse was the way it gave society a licence to talk about families in situations like ours.

We were bludgers.

Scroungers.

Freeloaders looking for a handout.

I was young, but I knew in my gut the decision-makers of the day had got it wrong.

I looked at the sacrifices Mum made for us. She didn’t even own a car, let alone drink or smoke. She was trying to keep her head above water and her children clothed and fed.

The worst thing was, the societal sentiment those decision-makers created turned me against my own mum. I began to blame her too. For the situation we were in. And I think that broke her.

She should have been treated like a hero. Because that’s what she really was.

What I learned was that real leaders back people, they lift people up, they give them a chance and they give them hope. They don’t kick them while they’re down.

Real leaders fund community services because they recognise they make a difference in people’s lives.

To me, that is a core value that has stood the test of time.

Justin Lester tweets his future, with a glance at his Peter Jackson backed successor, Andy Foster

It shouldn’t matter where you come from, how much money you have, whether you had two parents or one – when I became mayor I wanted every Wellingtonian to get the same opportunities to succeed.

And I am proud of the work we did.

I wanted to build a city that wasn’t just the coolest little capital in the world, but the fairest too.

From the outset we had a clear vision. We wanted to build a city that was future-focused, where people felt included and we were prepared to make hard decisions.

We invested in swimming pools, playgrounds, sports fields and in December we’ll open a new library and community hub called Waitohi. Swimming became free for all children under five and first-time home owners got a $5000 rates rebate.

There was guffawing when we said we’d make Wellington predator free and reintroduce kiwi. Not so much now.

We canned Guy Fawkes, but celebrated Matariki. We even got a visit from a whale.

We sought to lift Māori and other ethnicities up because there had been too many years of keeping them down.

We took climate change seriously and focused on growth in a compact way, developing mass transit and delivering a people-focused, walkable, bike friendly CBD. We’ve got committed funding for this and I’ll continue to do everything I can to ensure Wellington holds its nerve, rather than reverting to retrograde, politically expedient and short-term thinking.

We had plenty of challenges along the way too.

The Kaikōura earthquake seriously damaged our city, closed our Central Library and caused nearly 20 buildings to be demolished. I’d like to think calm and stable leadership helped get us through.

I also learned the human mind is a complex thing.

Most people agree climate change is real and an immediate threat, but not everyone is willing to pay for weekend parking. We all want to crack on with projects, but we don’t always want to pay for them. We want future-focused and transformational transport infrastructure, but we want it yesterday. We all know we need to build more houses, but preferably in someone else’s backyard.

Wellington is in a good place to resist any headwinds coming our way. Construction workers are busy refurbishing and strengthening the Basin Reserve Museum Stand, the St James, the Wellington Town Hall and building a Convention Centre. We’re preserving our heritage, making Wellington safer, more resilient and delivering jobs for hard working Wellingtonians, which was always one of my top priorities. We’re the highest earners in the country and have some of the lowest levels of inequality and unemployment.

We’re New Zealand’s first accredited Living Wage Council and we’re the first council in decades building affordable and social housing for the vulnerable and the homeless. We helped change the narrative that this wasn’t local government’s role. It absolutely is and needs to be.

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I’m proud of the direction we set and the city we are now building. It will hold Wellington in good stead in decades to come.

Importantly for me, three years ago Mum got to watch her son get elected the mayor of our capital city, which was beyond all of our wildest dreams.

I wanted to make her proud. She told me she is.

That will forever be my victory.


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