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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

OPINIONPoliticsMay 20, 2024

Half-term report card: Tory Whanau’s wins, losses and re-election chances

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Kia ora, welcome to Windbag, The Spinoff’s new Wellington issues column, written by me, Joel MacManus. In this first edition, I take a closer look at the first half of Tory Whanau’s term as mayor.

If you want to understand Wellington’s local political landscape, you need to start in 2013 with the Seddon earthquake. Along with the 2016 Kaikōura quake, it kicked off a long, slow backslide for Wellington.

It seems like every few months since then, another civic institution shuts its doors for repairs. The Central Library, the Town Hall, the City Gallery, St James Theatre, Reading Cinemas, Amora Hotel, and dozens of other offices and apartment buildings. The earthquakes also caused cracks in thousands of kilometres of pipes, which are leaking like crazy. 

If all that damage had happened at once, it would have been recognised as a national emergency. Instead, it was drip-by-drip. A sense of decay set in. All the shuttered buildings gave the impression the city was dying. In reality, it wasn’t; the population continued to increase, as did the regional GDP. But the vibes were bad.

Wellington is still in disaster recovery mode, even if it isn’t always top of mind. That’s a tough environment for any mayor. In fact, the city hasn’t re-elected a mayor since 2013. That anti-incumbency trend benefitted Tory Whanau in the 2022 election, which she won by a landslide margin over Andy Foster and Paul Eagle. But now it’s something she has to overcome.

People are anxious about their homes and businesses, and want reassurance that they’ve chosen the right city to build their lives in. Whanau needs to sell her vision of a brighter future, while showing a steady, responsible hand through the slow-moving crisis.

Wellington mayor Tory Whanau speaking after the Loafers Lodge fire (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Tory Whanau’s best moment as mayor so far was in the aftermath of the Loafers Lodge fire. She was highly visible in national and international media, looking responsive and compassionate. It was Ardern-esque disaster leadership. It shone particularly brightly in comparison to Wayne Brown’s hopeless showing in the Auckland floods a couple of months earlier. Those moments matter. Most voters aren’t following the day-to-day of council meetings, but they want to see their city leaders step up in time of crisis.

Whanau got a much-needed win around the council table with the new District Plan, the most significant change to the city’s housing rules in a lifetime. It won’t lead to too much real-world change in the immediate future (interest rates need to drop considerably before we see any kind of apartment boom) but it is enough to satisfy her base of nerdy progressives who actually pay attention to local politics.

Although not Whanau’s creation, the cycleway programme is closely associated with her due to her status as a Green mayor. The rollout is running relatively smoothly, on its way to 73km of bike lanes despite some budget cuts. The opposition is loud and increasingly intense, but as long as it’s handled with care it’s not a huge electoral threat. Whanau’s voters support bike lanes and bus lanes. Lately, those lanes have been some of the only visible signs of progress Wellington has. 

Whanau’s biggest weakness is her political instincts. She tends to place too much trust in council staff. Sometimes, it looks like she is being led around by the nose. Whanau is particularly close with her chief executive Barbara McKerrow and CFO Andrea Reeves. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – both are highly capable, and Whanau clearly values staff input based on her background as chief of staff for the Green Party. But staff advice is technical, not political. As mayor, Whanau needs to take advice, and combine it with her own political strategy. 

The decision to pump an extra $147 million into the Town Hall earthquake repair looked a lot like the tail wagging the dog. Council staff gave advice that was clearly angled to make it seem like there was no choice but to continue. It emphasised how much the council has already spent, suggested any delay would just increase the price more, and was dismissive about the idea of mothballing or demolishing. Councillors were painted into a corner. Politically, it was a missed opportunity for Whanau to show leadership and fiscal restraint by pausing the project.

The failed deal to reopen the earthquake-damaged Reading Cinema by buying the underlying land parcel was another case of political mismanagement. Council staff thought they had an elegant solution that worked on paper, but Whanau should have known the political risks. Any deal that appears to give council money to a multinational company was always going to be controversial.

The Reading Cinema deal was an L for Wellington mayor Tory Whanau.

Whanau was naive to think her conservative opponents on the council would agree to keep the deal secret during negotiations. It leaked almost instantly. Once that happened, Whanau needed to go out and sell it. Instead, she refused to say anything due to “commercial sensitivity”, while opponents had free rein over the debate and successfully torpedoed the deal. 

Big changes don’t happen just because it’s a good idea. The mayor has to use her bully pulpit to drive change. She needs to be a politician and a leader, not just a manager.

The second half of the three-year term could make or break Whanau’s re-election chances. The upcoming long-term plan, which the council will finalise on May 30, won’t have much to celebrate. It’s an austerity budget, and no matter which way you slice it, there will be cuts that will upset some people, and rates rises that will upset lots of people. The best hope for Whanau is to minimise the damage. 

The Golden Mile upgrade is an opportunity for a win, but it seems to be stuck in development hell. Wellington City Council took over the project after Let’s Get Wellington Moving was scrapped, but has gone back to the drawing board and has no official timeline. Unfortunately, even if the project does finally begin, it will be fully appreciated only after it is completed and the roadworks are cleared away, and there’s no guarantee of that happening before the 2024 local body elections.

Three years isn’t long enough to show much tangible change. Whanau will have to go into the election pitching her long- term vision, and hoping her political leanings still appeal to the largest chunk of voters. The smartest move she’s made recently was to officially rejoin the Green Party. Despite the party’s many (many) stumbles, the Greens are still the strongest political brand in Wellington, and the candidate with their endorsement will be the betting favourite.

Keep going!