Tory Whanau and Simeon Brown (Image: Archi Banal)
Tory Whanau and Simeon Brown (Image: Archi Banal)

PoliticsJanuary 27, 2023

Mayor ‘deeply concerned’ at prospect of Simeon Brown as transport minister

Tory Whanau and Simeon Brown (Image: Archi Banal)
Tory Whanau and Simeon Brown (Image: Archi Banal)

Tory Whanau told The Spinoff’s When The Facts Change podcast that National’s transport spokesperson would push Wellington ‘backwards’ if he becomes transport minister.

Wellington’s left-leaning mayor is worried her plans for the city could be scuppered by a new National-led government – and specifically by the party’s most likely candidate for transport minister.

Last year’s local election saw many voters scuttle as far away from the centre left as they could, with most major centres turning various shades of blue. In Auckland, that resulted in the election of the centre-right Wayne Brown despite the public endorsements of Labour and the Greens for candidate Efeso Collins. 

In Wellington, however, there was something of an anomaly. Tory Whanau, a former Green Party staffer, swept to victory in the mayoral race over the incumbent – and right-leaning – Andy Foster and the higher profile Paul Eagle, a government MP. 

Now several months into her tenure, Whanau is preparing for the possibility of being forced to work alongside a new government later this year. While not a foregone conclusion, early polling predicts New Zealand is in line for its most right-leaning government in years, with National set to be propped up by the Act Party. And that would put at risk many of Whanau’s biggest priorities and commitments as mayor, specifically around climate change and public transport.

Listen to When the Facts Change on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your wherever you get your podcasts

Speaking on a recent episode of The Spinoff podcast When The Facts Change, Whanau told host Bernard Hickey she was worried about the possibility of a new government shifting her priorities in the capital. “It’s a massive risk and it’s something that does concern me,” she said. 

Whanau said she had been working to develop a positive relationship with both major parties and had already engaged with some of National’s most prominent MPs – but one name was left of the list. “I have had conversations with Christopher [Luxon], Nicola [Willis] and Chris Bishop about what Wellington is trying to achieve and in terms of what we’re trying to achieve, they seemed quite positive,” said Whanau. “How that looks with legislation… would be quite different, but they are in agreement that the infrastructure priorities for us are very much the same.”

The name missing? Simeon Brown. The party’s current transport spokesperson, Brown is primed to become a minister in that portfolio should his party take office in October. His rhetoric around transport contrasts significantly with Whanau’s. He’s taken specific aim at the government’s Let’s Get Wellington Moving plan. Earlier this month, he expressed outrage over $2.4 million being spent on a pedestrian crossing near Wellington Airport. “Rather than delivering on major transport projects that Wellingtonians actually need, all that Let’s Get Wellington Moving has accomplished under Labour are a few intersection improvements and speed limit reductions to the airport and across the city,” he wrote. 

On the possibility of additional bus lanes through the Mount Victoria tunnel, Brown said: “Labour has put its ideological preference for light rail ahead of what Wellingtonians actually need with an un-costed plan which doesn’t stack up.” He’s no fan of cycleways either.

Whanau thinks she could work with Luxon as prime minister, saying while there wasn’t “a lot of agreement” over things like car parks and cycleways, she would be able to “work through that”. But it’s Brown as transport minister that most worries the mayor. “I’m happy to publicly say I would be deeply concerned if he became transport minister,” she said. “I’m deeply concerned about his comments and if he became transport minister I’d be really upset about that. It would see our climate change efforts going backwards, it would see our city going backwards, and then we become a car dependent city. That’s why I’m essentially dealing with other MPs because I feel like they have similar priorities and vision for Wellington City.”

Whanau said work has already started on projects that could be most at risk, like a cycle lane in Aro Valley and Ngaio. “As I said during my campaign, I want to accelerate some of that work as soon as possible,” she said.

Asked whether she would express her concerns about Brown directly to National’s leader, Whanau said she plans to – but acknowledges she will have little sway on the matter. “We’ve only had one introductory meeting and I have to say he [Luxon] was really lovely and it was a really good conversation,” said Whanau. “I feel I could be in a position to say that.”

Last week, moments before announcing her resignation, former prime minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed this year’s election would be held on October 14. 

Keep going!