Former Wellington mayor Andy Foster is attempting a political comeback as a candidate for NZ First. He talks to Joel MacManus.
Fear not, Wellingtonians, your leader has returned from exile: Andy Foster is back.
After nine terms on council and one term as mayor, Foster lost his re-election bid to Tory Whanau last year, and faded away quietly into the background (Karori). Now, he has emerged from the wilderness (also Karori) to announce he is running for parliament as an NZ First candidate in the Mana electorate.
At seventh on the party list, he will make it into parliament as long as NZ First gets over the 5% threshold by at least a few decimal places. He’s one of two former Wellington mayors who could enter parliament this year, along with the Greens’ Celia Wade-Brown.
I caught up with Foster at Zealandia, the wildlife sanctuary in his council ward that he played a major role in creating. He’s eager to check on the progress of the paradise ducklings hanging around the lower reservoir.
Foster has barely spoken to the media since last year’s mayoral election. It was a tough loss – at 25% to Whanau’s 52%, it was the worst result for an incumbent Wellington mayor ever. His silence hasn’t been out of bitterness, he says. “I’ve tried to keep keep quiet, and let them get on with their stuff. When former mayors try to comment on the current administration you just look like you’re being grumpy.”
What has he been up to since he left the mayoralty? He’s strangely evasive. “Bits of consulting” for some “community issues”, but he won’t say any more than that. “The time is coming soon to unveil at least one of those.”
He’s chipper, with a boyish energy, and seems genuinely excited about re-entering politics. He’s eager to rattle off the highlights of his mayoralty: a new district plan, a city arts and culture strategy, committing to a rebuild for the central library, reopening theatre venue Hannah’s Playhouse, and a new performing arts venue at dance and drama centre Te Whaea.
But he acknowledges his term as mayor wasn’t quite what he hoped. “Of all the terms I’ve had [on council], if I could choose three years to be mayor, that would be 10th out of 10,” he says.
The council was deeply divided throughout his three-year term, with a centre-right mayor but a left-leaning majority. It became so dysfunctional it prompted an independent review, which highlighted entrenched party politics as a problem, but also singled out Foster for a lack of leadership.
Foster was known for being detail-oriented, but never really played the inside game of politics. Building coalitions and whipping votes before meetings wasn’t his style, which made the gap between himself and the left-wing councillors even wider.
“The council was hostile from the beginning. The majority were not helpful, in fact, they were much less than helpful,” he says. “I think if I had a council that had been more collaborative it might have been different. At times I’m sure they wanted to get rid of me – in fact I know they wanted to get rid of me, I have very little doubt about that.”
There is no doubt at all, though, that he had a rough run of timing. He rode into office on a wave of discontent; many of the city’s greatest buildings and institutions were damaged by the 2016 earthquake, and there was a feeling the city was broken. Peter Jackson donated $50,000 to his campaign in the hope of stopping the Shelly Bay development. Foster didn’t manage to stop it as mayor, but developer Ian Cassels gave up and sold the land to Jackson earlier this month.
After Foster’s election, however, things continued to break even more. Pipes across the city started failing in quick succession, having been weakened by the earthquake and underfunded for decades. A bus driver shortage, though not directly the city council’s responsibility, led to widespread disruptions in public transport. The council’s social housing portfolio was falling apart and about to go bankrupt.
“We got dealt a poisoned chalice with the city’s social housing,” Foster says. “It had become an intolerable burden.” The council reluctantly handed its social housing over to a new charity, Te Toi Mahana, in order to keep it running.
“Then along comes a global pandemic, just to make life fun… And then the parliamentary protests, to add to the excitement. It was a very, very, very challenging time.”
With so much crisis in the city, it would have been difficult for anyone to win re-election. Did he ever consider not standing again? “There would have been a thought not to,” he admits. “But there was a lot of stuff I still wanted to do.”
Opening the Tākina conference centre was on his wish list, along with finishing the town hall repairs. He hoped a National government would open up changes to the Let’s Get Wellington Moving programme, particularly prioritising a second Mount Victoria tunnel. He won’t get the chance to oversee that as mayor, but he could have an input as an MP.
Running for parliament was a last-minute decision. He entered the race so late NZ First had already nominated a candidate for Wellington Central, hence him ending up in Mana. “The other vacant seat was Ōhāriu. I like and respect both Greg [O’Connor] and Nicola [Willis], and frankly I didn’t want to try to take their seat.”
Andy Foster’s alignment with NZ First isn’t new. He ran for the party in 2017 in Wellington Central, but in a few ways it feels like a strange political fit. Foster isn’t a social conservative – he was praised for standing for the trans community by attending a counterprotest and projecting the trans flag onto the Michael Fowler Centre during a Stand Up For Women event. As mayor, he was a leader on co-governance arrangements, including adding two iwi representatives to the council, and a Māori ward. He doesn’t go for the race-baiting style of some of his party’s other candidates, but it obviously doesn’t put him off the party either.
“There are good bits in every party,” he says. “I regard myself as being a centrist. There’s a bit of me to the right and the left, so NZ First always seemed natural.”
He’s “generally” closer to National than Labour, and wants to see a change of government. “I look at what’s going on in the country, and it’s very hard to point to almost anything that’s working well. I’m pretty confident there is going to be a change of government. It’s very very clear it’s not going to be Labour, so it has to be National and potentially Act as well. We can be there as a voice of moderation.”
Foster should be genuinely valuable on select committees as a voice for local government, and he’s keen to work on urban economic development issues.
“Being a select committee member is a little bit of council, it’s like going through an engagement process at the local government level. You are then able to get feedback, and understand different people’s experiences to help you make those decisions. I think probably the biggest failure of both central and local government is that the listening isn’t authentic.”
A backbencher MP role would probably be quite well-suited to Foster’s strengths: he likes diving deep into technicalities and policy issues, and he likes the process of public engagement. After spending most of his adult life on the city council, this is possibly the only other job that Foster will truly feel at home in.