While council politics are in the spotlight in much of the country, Christchurch has barely even registered there’s an election coming up. James Dann goes in search of some political passion in the Garden City.
On a dark and stormy night, I find shelter in an upmarket European car showroom. Assembled are three councillors and an aspiring one, all pitching for a handful of votes from a smattering of the Christchurch arts community. I had low expectations going in, but soon I realise even those were too high.
On the floor of the showroom, the evening begins with some thoughts from the younger generation on the role of the arts. First up are a couple of 12 year old boys, who deliver endearing platitudes about the value of art whilst stifling a clear desire to use the stage to trial material for their upcoming stand-up comedy special. Only later would I realise this was the high point of the night.
It certainly isn’t the fault of the organisers, who have provided a great spread for all those who have braved the cold. There is also a good mix of artists and arts managers in attendance, including the director of the Court Theatre and Christchurch Art Gallery’s Jenny Harper – who makes her presence known with an unnecessary interjection from the floor. Each candidate has three minutes to peddle their wares, before being mercifully told to stop by an abrupt honk on the horn of a 2017 Mini Cooper. The polish and professionalism of the final speaker, Councillor Raf Manji, only serves to underline how desperately poor the other candidates are.
While this was only a small meeting about a niche subject that has almost no impact on the outcome of the election, it represented the dispiriting lack of energy that characterises the 2016 Christchurch local body elections. Technically there are three candidates for Mayor, but Lianne Dalziel is so comfortable in her re-election campaign that they haven’t even put up billboards.
The changes to boundaries mean there are now 16 wards, four of which are uncontested and another four that might as well be. There are only a handful of battles which are genuinely interesting, which is in itself remarkable for a city that has gone through so many disasters – both natural and man-made – in the past six years.
Let’s take a look at some of those wards. Moving clockwise around the city from the north, we start in Harewood, where the most interesting thing you can say is that this contest has five candidates, two of whom are called Rod Cameron. In Papanui, Mike Davidson (the Mayor’s step-son) should, for the love of all things holy and good, beat serial loser John Stringer. If the name John Stringer rings a bell, it will because he is part of the horror show otherwise known as the Colin Craig vs Jordan Williams defamation case. The People’s Choice (the Labour-aligned group in Canterbury) should see a number of councillors re-elected, including Pauline Cotter and Glenn Livingstone in the Innes and Burwood wards.
The Coastal contest should be one of the more interesting, with sitting candidate David East in a three-way battle with deposed ECan councillor Jo Kane and insurance advocate Dean Lester. The council has recently proposed changes to start preparing the low-lying areas of New Brighton for the effects of shore erosion caused by climate change, which has been unpopular with some residents. Many of them, including Cr East, have disputed the veracity of the science on climate change, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they returned him, despite his myopic world view.
Dalziel’s 2013 mayoral rival Paul Lonsdale, who lives in Merivale and was the head of the central city retail association, finds himself all the way across town in the Heathcote ward, against community board chair Sara Templeton. Long-time councillor and rapper Yani Johanson should be safe in Linwood, though the new central ward could be interesting. There, Labour’s candidate Vicki Tahau-Paton is battling with Deon Swiggs, who is most notable for a fake Twitter follower row – his account was hacked, was his explanation – in his failed attempt to become the Labour candidate for Christchurch East.
Phil Clearwater should take out the Spreydon seat, after chairing the transport committee that signed off $156m of cycleways without any of the controversy that has attached itself to the Island Bay version. We might let you borrow him, Wellington, if you ask nicely.
The remaining wards – Cashmere, Banks Peninsula, Riccarton and Fendalton – are uncontested, meaning their sitting councillors are already guaranteed another term. The most infuriating of these is Fendalton, where no-one has challenged Cr Jamie Gough. Part of the property developing Gough family, his most recent term has been notable for a string of booze-related incidents, including getting kicked out of the Cancer Society Ball, failing to pay a taxi driver who instead drove him to the police station, and using foul and sexist language to female patrons in a bar. In spite of all this, nobody in Fendalton put their hand up and said “Yup, I can do a better job than this dickbag.”
So why are the local body elections so dire this year? A large part is down to exhaustion. Christchurch people have been fighting EQC, insurance companies, the council, the government, the Wizard, you name it, for more than six years now. They’re just totally knackered. Those who have been dealt the worst hands by the quakes, and are feeling beaten down and frustrated by the struggle – they just don’t have any energy left.
For the Mayor, her biggest opponent was herself. Earlier in the year, she said she had found the job hard and was considering not standing again. This led to an outpouring of support – a sure sign of the improved governance compared to the polarising Parker-Maryatt regime – and the race was in effect over as soon as she announced she would indeed stand this time round.
The biggest issue in Dalziel’s first term has been asset sales, and she’s managed to navigate that. The government has been putting pressure on the council for a sell-down to fund the rebuild, but Dalziel and Manji’s management of the issue has largely defused what could have been a particularly tricky issue in less capable (*cough* Bob Parker’s *cough*) hands. However, both Dalziel and Manji have indicated that this will be their final term, which raises questions about who will step up once they’re gone.
There is a sense that the plan for the CBD is locked in, for better or for worse, and that there is little that can be done about it. Despite widespread public opposition to some of the bigger anchor projects – including the Convention Centre and the central city stadium – the government is pressing on. This, coupled with multiple protests – against EQC, shoddy repairs, ECan – that have effectively come to nothing, has left much of the electorate feeling disenfranchised. As Manji says, “there’s no compelling narrative in this election. Certainly when you’re out and about, people have just got no interest at all.” Many residents are paralysed by cynicism after years of disappointment.
Back at the car showroom, I’m paralysed by cynicism myself, staring hopelessly at my feet as the candidates run through their platitudes about the arts. Tim Scandrett (Cashmere), who will be re-elected unopposed, takes to the stage like a man who knows he’s got a $100k salary for the next three years and doesn’t give a fuck.
Linwood candidate Alexandra Davies doesn’t do much to distinguish herself from the school kids who went before her, and Lonsdale’s pitch is about as underwhelming as his campaign slogan, “consistency will be essential”. Manji’s includes a proposal for 10 $25k residencies for artists to come and work in Christchurch, and this becomes the subject of all of the audience questions. After a brief mingle, I traipse off into the terrible night; possibly more informed, definitely more depressed.
Ten days later, I head to High St bar Smash Palace for a mayoral candidate’s debate. The proprietor, Johnny Moore, tells me that when his dad Garry was running for mayor, there was once a candidates meeting at the Town Hall with 14 candidates. This year there are only three, and the two that can be considered remotely serious are speaking at the bar.*
A diverse crowd has assembled, with people from the left, the far left, and the Labour party in attendance. The debate is hosted by The Tuesday Club, which was started by Moore Senior, and has met here weekly for around 18 months. Their focus has been on participatory democracy, and the sense that in Christchurch, the recovery is being done “to” us, rather than “with” us. These themes run through the questions.
John Minto is the answer to the question: What would happen if my well-meaning but ultimately hapless sixth form physics teacher ran for mayor? He speaks with all the conviction and idealism of a serial activist whose views have never been tempered by the realities of actually holding office – something he doesn’t have to worry about this year either. He answers a question about low voter turnout by saying “people aren’t apathetic; they’re disillusioned. Whoever you vote for, you get a corporate agenda.”
Barely a sentence goes by without a dig at “big business” or “the corporates”. He’s clearly not that well versed on some key local issues, such as the cost sharing agreement between council and central government – which he insists is currently being negotiated, despite having been signed off in 2013. Despite this, he is ultimately a well-meaning character who has provided some ideological discussion in a contest that would otherwise have had none.
Dalziel, however, is in a whole different league. Her years in parliament’s debating chamber weren’t wasted, and she knows how to read the mood of a room. She takes a rambling question from the audience about whether we should replace council with a technocracy or a meritocracy and turns it back to her own platform and participatory democracy – to a wave of nodding approval from the sea of largely grey-haired heads in the room.
Answering a question from yours truly about the sense of apathy around this election, she concedes that the council got the representation review wrong. She says the intention was to increase the diversity around the council table, but admits that it hasn’t worked as she had hoped, and that it will be reviewed in her next term. While I’m not a big fan of endless reviews, I am buoyed by the idea that the council might try and learn from its mistakes. This local body election should be a clear sign that the public aren’t as engaged in the democratic decision-making process as they should be. Right now we’re getting the local representatives we deserve – so if we think we deserve better, we all need to make more of an effort.
*The third candidate for mayor, Tubby Hansen, may have some health issues, so despite his public statements being full of comedy gold, I’m disinclined to make fun of him any further.
James Dann hosts the breakfast show on RDU and stood as the Labour candidate for Ilam in the 2014 general election.
This article was amended on September 21 to include Deon Swiggs’ explanation in relation to his Twitter account.