After Tauranga’s elected council was sacked last year to make way for commissioners, a new group has formed with the intention of taking back the city when elections return. Alex Braae went to the launch of the Tauranga Ratepayers Alliance.
If Tauranga’s unelected commissioners leave office in time for the next local elections, many of the booted councillors will sweep straight back in. This is what democracy looks like.
Local government minister Nanaia Mahuta’s decision to sack the council was always going to cause a backlash. Many in the city believe the problems the council faced were either solvable, or left the building when former mayor Tenby Powell resigned. And while commissioner Anne Tolley and her colleagues have been seeking to reassure residents that the city is now on the right track, not everyone is convinced.
The Tauranga Ratepayers Alliance (TRA) has launched on the back of this anger, with a packed meeting on Wednesday night at Club Mount Maunganui. They lined the walls to hear an all-star lineup of the city’s political right fan the flames, and plot a return to power. Unlike a soporific council meeting, the room crackled with fury – a sentiment the speakers were happy to pick up and run with.
The meeting also had significant support from the Taxpayers Union and the Auckland Ratepayers Alliance. The TRA is billing itself as an independent local group, and it hasn’t yet been decided if they’ll stand candidates on a ticket in the 2022 election. Several ousted councillors have already pledged their support for the TRA, including a group that Powell accused of undermining him at every turn, as well as former mayor Greg Brownless.
It is a city where property values are booming, and rates rises have been signalled by the commissioners. But it’s the scale of the rises, coupled with the way they’re being implemented and sold to the public, that annoyed those attending the meeting. Broadcaster Peter Williams, who was the MC on the night, opened by saying he was “frankly bloody angry” at what he personally would be paying.
Williams opened his own books, saying his annual rates had gone from $3,300 to $6,800 and that was forecast to go up over the next decade by 140%. “If your major source of income is the people of this city, then people need to be able to afford it.”
Because of Tauranga’s particular demographics, he had a point. Local MP Simon Bridges, who spoke later on, noted that Tauranga had a high proportion of retirees, and that people on fixed incomes might be forced to sell up as a result of rates rises. There would have been plenty of people in this situation in the audience, which skewed much older than the general population.
Another Williams – Jordan Williams from the Taxpayers Union – accused the commissioners of deceiving the public about the scale of the rates rises. The figure given so far by Tolley is that each person will pay about a dollar a day more in rates – but Williams said in the first year alone it would be more like $600 a year, when targeted rates and water costs were taken into account. “Those Mahuta puppets, who you can’t sack, are trying to lock in a doubling of your rates,” he said. The solution put forward by Williams was to cut spending instead.
Keeping rates down as a political shibboleth is only part of the reason why Tauranga has developed as it has. Because the active voting base (especially at the local level) tends to be older homeowners, city planning has long reflected their interests. Very few people live in the CBD, preferring to drive in and out from the vast surrounding suburbia. Urbanist critics would say a succession of short-sighted decisions made on behalf of these voters is a major cause of Tauranga’s now legendary traffic and housing problems, and to continue down that path just means more of the same.
One such critic is former councillor Terry Molloy, who has been fired and rehired multiple times by the voters over the last two decades before losing his seat for what he says will be the last time in the 2019 elections. He wants the commissioners to stay on beyond next year, to continue the work they’ve started, and said he hoped the councillors who had attached themselves to the Ratepayers Alliance wouldn’t get back in.
“If that group got in, it would make it extremely difficult for our CEO and whoever the mayor is to keep things moving forward. And it’s not just the city, it’s the whole region. The whole city is going to stall in the next five or six years, because that long-term planning has been stifled.”
Molloy pointed to the bus system as an example of where the commissioners could make an impact, particularly by working with other Bay of Plenty organisations. He said the regional council did a fairly good job of providing bus services, in line with its responsibilities – but the city council had done a comparatively poor job of providing the bus lanes that would make the system really work. And why would they, when they’ve been elected by car drivers?
The ugly side of the anger
If it were all about the money, then the crowd at Club Mount Maunganui might not have been so loud and angry. But it was impossible to escape the sense that at least some of them were Pākehā people motivated by fear of Māori co-governance, and even dislike of Māori culture altogether.
In one particularly ugly incident, TRA steering committee member Kimiora Williams opened her speech with “Tēnā koutou katoa”, a standard greeting at all sorts of meetings all over the country. She was immediately shouted down by people who clearly objected simply to te reo being spoken. Before the meeting, a man sitting next to me picked up a flyer, leaned over towards me and pointed to Mahuta’s moko kauae, calling her a “wombat with a barcode”. The statement was made completely unprompted.
After a visibly shaken Kimiora Williams had finished speaking, MC Peter Williams angrily admonished the crowd, saying he thought the jeering had been “exceedingly rude”. To be fair to the crowd as a whole, many people agreed with this statement and clapped. Williams also spoke for at least one member of the steering committee, who said afterwards he was deeply disappointed.
None of the official speakers participated in the overt bigotry displayed by parts of the crowd. But they were quite happy to whip the crowd up with the politics of grievance. During the question and answer session at the end, Jordan Williams speculated that Mahuta’s decision to scrap referendums on Māori wards under urgency was a “gross move” to get more Labour supporters onto councils. And during his speech, Bridges bemoaned the low chance of the meeting getting local media coverage, saying that local journalists were “lapdogs begging for scraps”, and were afraid of angering their biggest advertisers at the city council.
But Bridges at least can claim something that nobody else in the country can right now – he occupies a democratically elected office representing the people of Tauranga. And there is undeniably something unsettling about the heavy promotion of the commissioners themselves around town, with posters and billboards showing smiling faces under the headline “we’re listening”.
It was also fair for the speakers to play up the dichotomy of local decision making versus that which reflects the wishes of Wellington. Perhaps the most telling moment was when Peter Williams got the crowd absolutely rocking with an anecdote about a new traffic island being put on a major road, with mature trees planted on it. It would have been incomprehensible to anyone who’d never driven that stretch of road, and yet it mattered a great deal to people in the room.
After the meeting and the surge in membership and donations that came with it, the TRA is now well placed to steer the next election campaign, if it does end up happening. They’ll have a highly motivated voter base, issues to run on, and strong campaign infrastructure. As things stand, it seems highly likely they’ll make good on the promise that headlined their flyers – to “take back control of our city”.