James Casson’s comments on refugees and the Christchurch attack have earned him widespread condemnation, but he’s far from the first Hamilton councillor to spout embarrassing rubbish, writes longtime Hamilton Council watcher Angela Cuming.
When the tinfoil-hat wearing Hamilton City councillor Siggi Henry was revealed to be an anti-vaxxer loon who believes measles is not deadly and fluoride lowers your IQ, the good folk of the Tron let out a sigh of relief because it seemed its council had finally hit rock bottom.
How wrong they were.
Hamilton City Council is an absolute clusterfuck of terrible councillors who make the city they represent a national laughing stock over and over again. It is the Brexit of councils, it is an omnishambles. As a journalist, it’s the worst I’ve ever had the displeasure of covering, and I once covered a council in Sydney that was so bad it was sacked in its entirety by the NSW Governor.
Since Siggi Henry’s views saw the light of day the council has lurched from one PR disaster to the next, capped off in spectacular fashion over the weekend with a series of events that had many up and down New Zealand asking the same thing: what the hell is up with Hamilton City Council?
Here’s a brief recap on the buffoons in the Tron who have been busy setting the clock in the City of the Future back to 1957:
Cr Siggi Henry would probably love the 1950s because vaccines had not been invented yet so lots of babies and young children got potentially deadly diseases like measles and whooping cough that Henry could have treated with vitamin C from oranges. She’s a fluoride-denier, an anti-vaxxer and anti-1080. Despite being reprimanded by Council at the time her views became public, she appears to have not learned her lesson: just this weekend she wore a t-shirt advertising the controversial anti-vaccination ‘documentary’ Vaxxed to an autism fundraising event in Hamilton, a move Mayor Andrew King criticised as “a slap in the face” given the current measles outbreak.
Then there is Cr James Casson. He’s an ex-cop who likes to post (then delete) all sorts of eyebrow raising stuff on Facebook. In a post last Friday (since deleted), he called for Kiwis to stop mourning the tragic deaths of the 50 Muslim men, women and children killed in the Christchurch mosque shootings, and calling for police to stop guarding mosques. Doing anything would just mean the alleged shooter “wins”, Casson reasoned.
Casson, however, had saved his most horrid thoughts for a post back in 2016 in which he called Muslim refugees “scum” who were “invading” Europe. His current employer, Immigration NZ, has said that it doesn’t support the 2016 comments made by Casson but that it couldn’t further comment, calling it an “employment matter”. Casson is running for re-election in October and has also thrown his hat into the ring for mayor.
Now step up Casson’s colleague, Cr Garry Mallett, who was the subject of a formal complaint over allegations he used the words “fags” and “homos” while on council business.
Mallett told The Spinoff at the time he could not recall making the comments in questions but if he did, he was “comfortable about it”. He’s also a proud supporter of Hobson’s Pledge and a former president of ACT New Zealand who during the 2005 general election made a vomiting gesture during a discussion about homosexuality. “The act of sodomy turns my gut”, he told NZPA at the time.
Mallett’s an MVP candidate when it comes to embarrassing Hamilton. His “Garry Mallett – Hamilton City Councillor” Facebook page currently displays musings from Mallett such as “Maori seats are racist, wrong and very dangerous”.
Another councillor, former radio DJ Mark Bunting, brought the current horror show of councillors close to home when two years ago he sent me a sexually explicit and offensive image that in part made fun of my surname. Cr Bunting, publicly defended his behaviour by claiming it was all a joke between friends, which suffice to say caused and continues to cause much distress to me and my family.
More recently Cr Bunting helpfully pointed out that while he didn’t agree with what Cr Casson had to say, he felt that “people in this day and age are very keen to want to be offended”. Enough said.
So, what is it about Hamilton that sees the city continually spew out the absolute worst elected representatives in New Zealand? Is Siggi Henry right? Is it something in the water?
The answer could lay in its voting system. It still uses first past the post for council elections, meaning it’s not possible for someone to run on, say, a social reform agenda that encourages voters to preference-rank the anti-vaxxers and racists last.
And it’s still a city that has a lot of older, white conservative residents who are more likely to vote for a Mallett promising fiscal thriftiness or a Casson promising a crackdown on law and order. Then there’s the role of the local media. During the last election, Henry was described as an “environmental activist” in her Waikato Times election blurb; no mention was made of her strident anti-fluoride or anti-vaccine stances – information that, had it been made public, may have affected her vote tally.
But there are signs things may be changing and Hamilton could one day get a crop of councillors who don’t routinely embarrass them on a national stage. The city’s demographics are in flux, with more young people and migrants calling the Tron home. And that should start to make a difference at the ballot box.
And there are good apples among the rotten. Cr Dave Macpherson (someone who I have butted heads with in the past) rightly came out swinging against Cr Casson as soon as news broke of his Christchurch comments and hasn’t let up since. In a thoughtful Facebook post, Macpherson wrote of the “many steps “ the council has been taking in the “opposite, inclusive direction” including Māngai Māori full voting members on council committees, council meetings being opened with a karakia from its kaumātua Tame Pokaia, and an expectation that staff reports to Council reference tangata whenua issues.
“The current council is making a good fist of trying to turn around decades of indifference by being inclusive of the whole community, and by acknowledging its own membership doesn’t fully reflect community make-up,” Cr Macpherson wrote.
In October two women, current councillors Angela O’Leary and Paula Southgate, will be running for mayor. Both are popular and capable, but extra attention will be paid to O’Leary, seen as a serious contender and main rival to current mayor Andrew King. O’Leary last year said “sexist, misogynistic comments and foul language” had been increasing since the new council was elected and she vowed to break up what she saw as the “old boys’ club” in the chamber.
And so we watch and wait until October, when hopefully a few incumbents are sent packing and a new council – and probable new mayor – are sworn in. Then we can all breathe a sigh of relief at the prospect that the Tron might be not so much the city of the future, but simply a city with a council that doesn’t suck.
How’s that for a new city slogan?
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.