When Celia Wade-Brown handed over the Wellington mayoral chains in 2016, she ran as far away from politics as she could get. But now she’s ranked 15th on the Green Party list and, based on recent polls, likely to win a seat in parliament.
Celia Wade-Brown’s off-grid tiny house in the Tararua Ranges feels as far away from parliament as you could possibly imagine.
She seems free and calm out here in the bush, like she’s left all the worries and stress of politics behind her. It’s a rustic existence. There’s a wood-fired stove, an outdoor bath, and chickens roaming the lawn.
Brown was the mayor of Wellington from 2010-2016. She was just the second Green Party mayor of a major New Zealand city, although she officially ran as an independent.
While reflecting on her departure from politics, she revealed the truth of a rumour that floated around council circles for years: that she struck a deal several years in advance for Justin Lester to run as her successor.
After the 2013 election, she appointed Lester as her deputy mayor. “I said look: I want you to be my deputy. And I don’t want you going off to central government. If you’re going to be my deputy, do all three years and then if you want to run for mayor, I’ll stand aside.”
The pair kept the plan quiet for the entire term, even after Lester announced his campaign. Wade-Brown pulled out of the race two months before election day and threw her support behind Lester.
“If Justin hadn’t wanted to stand, I would have been delighted to have gone for a third term,” she says. “But I’d made my plans and was ready to move on.
“When a mayor doesn’t have a succession plan, all of the projects that you’re passionate about, all the things that you think are good for the city, are at risk.”
As mayor, Wade-Brown is best remembered for opposing the Basin Reserve flyover and for her support of cycling – she notably biked to the airport to meet US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, and had her bike included in her official mayoral portrait.
Wellington now has another Green Party mayor, Tory Whanau. Wade-Brown is an admirer, and is especially happy to see the Paneke Pōneke bike network start to come together.
“I think it is just fantastic having a young wahine Māori leading the capital city,” she says. But she thinks Whanau has a tougher job than her in one significant way: “I had a really fantastic partner. He kept in the background as much as he could, but it was great to come home to him. I think it’s pretty tough being a single mayor, male or female. But I think she’s very competent and enthusiastic and is a great ambassador for Wellington.”
When her term as mayor ended, Wade-Brown wanted a change. “One of the things with the job of being mayor is that you don’t get to do anything for a long time. Your days are like salami sliced into small pieces. So I wanted to do a really big thing.”
That big thing was Te Araroa, the 3,000km tramping route from Cape Reinga to Bluff. “I call that my political detox,” she laughs. “What was so wonderful about Te Araroa a was that if you put in step after step, you actually get somewhere by your own efforts. Whereas in politics sometimes you can try and try and try but if you don’t have the numbers around the table or someone changes their mind at the last minute, you don’t get there.”
She followed that up with Tour Aotearoa, the bike trail from Cape Reinga to Bluff, and the 1,500km Sounds to Sounds ride from Ship Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound to Milford Sound. She’s also taken up river kayaking. “I’m probably the oldest Green candidate, but I still feel fit in body and mind,” she says.
She qualified as an Esol teacher, spent two months teaching in China and has been working with refugees in Masterton, as well as holding various board positions – Predator Free Wellington, the Outdoor Access Commission, the Biophilic Cities Network, and the Wairarapa Walking Festival.
In 2020, she slowly dipped her toes back into politics, standing as the Green candidate in Wairarapa in an effort to boost party vote, though she did not stand on the party list. “Three years ago, I wasn’t ready to jump back into politics. I still thought the Greens ought to be there, but I didn’t think I should be one of them.”
“Now I’m ready, if I can, to add that experience. I stood on the list this time because I think I’ve got something to offer. I’ve worked with people from lots of different backgrounds and policy views, and I think I can contribute.”
The Greens are making several aggressive plays to win urban seats in Wellington and Auckland. Wairarapa isn’t an electorate that the party will ever see as winnable, but she hopes the Greens can grow their party vote in these rural seats.
“Nobody wants to be drinking water with too many nitrates in it, and people can see the changes to the river. But I think it’s also important that we showcase the farmers and the rural workers that are doing the right thing.”
“We’ve worked really hard to get more trains coming here, that’ll make a big difference. And our support for the Wairarapa Five Towns Trail for walking and cycling, that will be a new way of earning money for people. I think economic diversification is important.”
At 15th on the party list, Wade-Brown is right on the edge of securing a seat, with most polling showing the Greens between 10 and 12% of the party vote. She may have to wait until the special votes are reported on November 3 to know for sure. Does she think she has a better than 50% chance of winning a seat? “Yeah, I actually think at the moment we do.”