There’s a ballot paper on your kitchen bench. Your mission, should you accept it, is to vote on who should oversee Auckland’s electricity infrastructure. But given that a single group has dominated this election for almost two decades, is it mission impossible for opponents?
In my first year of flatting in Auckland, I almost didn’t get it, due to an unscrupulous roomie trying to pocket it without telling the rest of the house.
Fast forward 15 years and now I excitedly anticipate the rather hefty Entrust power dividend landing in my bank account each September or October.
But if you pay a power bill in Auckland and live between New Lynn in the west, Auckland’s CBD to the north and Clevedon and Papakura in the south-east, you may have noticed it’s been a slightly lower amount of late. Three years ago the dividend was around $380, but last year it had dropped to $280, and this year it bumped up only slightly to $283, along with a one-off industry credit of $20 from Vector.
You may have also recently noticed a nondescript envelope holding ballot papers in your letterbox: the voting papers to decide who should be the five trustees to oversee Entrust’s 75% holding in Vector. Beyond just ensuring 344,500 Auckland households get their dividend each year, the trust also helps appoint Vector’s board of directors, approves all of Vector’s major transactions and monitors any regulatory issues affecting the electricity and gas distributor.
So given last election’s paltry turnout, which saw just 12.4% cast their vote, and all the extra time you have thanks to Covid, think of that envelope as a chance to use your lockdown suffering to exercise your suffrage before voting closes on October 29.
The contenders vs the incumbents
For the last two decade the centre-right Communities and Ratepayers (C&R) ticket has dominated Entrust, and despite some rather acrimonious infighting in recent times, it has put together another imposing team including experienced incumbents Alastair Bell, Michael Buczkowski, William Cairns and Paul Hutchinson, a former National MP for Hunua. This year, recently ousted National MP Denise Lee is also joining the ticket.
Usually their main rivals would come from the centre-left City Vision ticket, made up of Labour and Green Party members. But this time around C&R may be most worried by the return of one of their own. James Carmichael, a former longtime Entrust trustee, is running as an independent after being deselected by C&R at the last election in 2018. There’s little love lost between him and his old running mates. In 2018, after he lost his spot, he took Hutchinson to the high court, accusing him of not living within the district boundaries (the case was subsequently settled out of court). He describes C&R’s current crop as a “cabal” with no “broad industry experience, technological knowledge or financial wherewithal”.
“You can see from what has been pulled together by C&R that they don’t have the skill sets that are required at a governance, industry and a financial level to be trustees of what is a $3 billion asset,” he says.
“The Vector dividend has either remained static or only slightly risen, so have all these capital investments increased the dividend returns, that’s the question?”
Carmichael certainly doesn’t think so, and another group of first-time politicians agree. The More for You, Better for Climate ticket is made up of a pair of venture capitalists, an iwi business consultant and two climate change activists with experience in urban planning and litigation respectively.
Rohan MacMahon is one of the venture capitalists and helped form the ticket after learning City Vision wouldn’t stand any candidates this year. He says their team of progressives plan to increase dividends while aggressively lowering Vector’s carbon emissions.
“[Vector] should be making more money, not less. The dividend is the lowest it’s been in 12 years. Plus they’ve only committed to a 2% reduction in emissions by the end of the decade.”
His running mate, Leon Wijohn, a financial consultant and former partner at Deloitte, wants to bring a diversity of opinion to Entrust. He says if elected he would most likely be the first Māori on the trust who “lives, breathes and puts [being Māori] at the forefront of their thinking”.
“In the past, the representation on the trust has never included someone speaking up for tangata moana or tangata whenua or for places like South Auckland. Instead it’s been done with one lens and there’s a chunk of people in our communities who are not thought of.”
One area of Entrust’s remit that he thinks would benefit from greater diversity are the decisions on where power lines are undergrounded. According to analysis carried out by the More for You, Better for Climate team, there have been 10 undergrounding projects in Remuera, two in Māngere and none in Mt Roskill over the past decade. Wijohn grew up and went to school in Māngere and says the undergrounding stats show none of the current trustees are speaking up for lower income communities.
“As you can see in so many of the decisions, and I’m not saying they’re racist, but there’s no thought about other people.”
The power lines issue is also a passion of Wijohn’s team-mate Emma McInnes, whose background is urban planning.
“There’s $10.6 million a year for undergrounding so I’d like to get on the board to make sure it gets spent more equitably. Taking away power poles, putting in more trees and making streets safer – that’s what I want to see,” she says.
While C&R’s candidates weren’t made available for interviews, candidate (and current Entrust chair) William Cairns provided a statement rebutting the assertion that undergrounding is dolled out as a political favour to C&R’s voter base in wealthier suburbs.
“It’s very worrying and unfair on voters to see political opponents deceive Auckland residents with misleading graphics and charts, claiming Vector and current Entrust trustees prioritise specific suburbs. This is completely untrue and their tactics are increasingly desperate.”
Cairns said strict criteria are laid out by Vector regarding undergrounding projects, noting that around 69% of Auckland’s lines are now undergrounded and so “in some areas on [the More for You, Better for Climate] map, there is already undergrounded lines, so there won’t have been projects in that area”.
Another claim made by McInnes is that many of C&R’s candidates don’t take climate change seriously. Carmichael, the independent, has shared a boardroom table with many of the incumbent trustees and agrees with her. “I was on the trust for 12 years and both Karen [Sherry, a former trustee] and I drove that aspect very hard – but we got no support on that from fellow trustees. I won’t get into any personal attacks – but what I would say is that there definitely has not been enough focus on environment and sustainability issues.”
In response, Cairns said in a statement: “We find it really disappointing to see and hear political opponents resulting to personal attacks and trolling social media posts to discredit others.
“A C&R-led Entrust will protect the dividend from vague investment ideas and haphazard, big spending, none of which will generate a reasonable dividend and would in themselves reduce it. We will support investment in new technology which will be well planned and part of a strategy to increase the dividend. We will also ensure [a] sensible transition to a low carbon energy network.”
Independents Jon Moses, John Peebles and Richard Leckinger are also running. Whoever wins, the new trustees will have a number of tough decisions before them. But right now the candidates – from all tickets – are focused on the most immediate challenge: lifting voter turnout above the shockingly low 12% in 2018.
* Voting in the Entrust election closes on Friday October 29 at 5pm. To ensure papers reach the returning officer before the deadline, you should post your vote no later than Wednesday October 27.