The final debate in the Wellington city council by-election was heated and, at times, unhinged.
Council by-elections are the Cherry Ripe of electoral politics. Over-looked, underappreciated, left deep at the bottom of the box while greedy fingers claw at bigger and more attention-grabbing races.
The Wellington city council by-election to fill Tamatha Paul’s seat in Pukehīnau/Lambton Ward hasn’t exactly captured the capital’s imagination, but it could prove to be one of the most important races in the city’s history. With the crucial District Plan vote looming on March 14, the council finds itself divided along narrow lines. The winner of this by-election could be the swing vote that decides whether Wellington accepts the independent hearings panel’s recommendations to keep character areas and height restrictions, or rejects them in favour of more housing.
There are officially seven candidates running, but in reality, this is a two-horse race. Karl Tiefenbacher, founder of the Kaffee Eis gelato chain, is running a small-c conservative campaign based on spending cuts and lower rates. Geordie Rogers, the former president of Renters United, is running for the Greens on a “people and planet” line.
The Greens are riding high after winning Wellington Central and Rongotai, and establishing themselves as the largest party in the city. In normal circumstances, that would make Rogers the heavy favourite – but these aren’t ordinary times. By-elections are notoriously low-turnout affairs, and most students aren’t back from the summer break yet, limiting the Greens’ strongest base of voters and volunteers. The ongoing water restrictions have put a spotlight on the city’s failing pipe infrastructure, which might favour Tiefenbacher’s back-to-basics argument.
The final debate of the campaign last Thursday was a tense affair. Tens of people (specifically, more than 20 but never more than 30) packed into the Victoria University Hub. Everyone who was anyone was there: the candidates’ families, moderator Ethan Manera, students who walked in by accident, a handful of political tragics, and me. It was electric.
Alongside the two frontrunners were: Ellen Blake, best known as a pedestrian advocate for Living Streets Aotearoa, Edward Griffiths, a TOP-voting fan of “evidence-based policies” who wants to reform the council’s contract management, and Joan Shi, a data science student who mostly advocated for cost cutting.
The Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association, who hosted the debate, did not invite candidate Peter Wakeman, after reports of poor behaviour in previous events. He resorted to walking big circles around the perimeter of the stage while staring in a vaguely menacingly manner. The seventh candidate, Zan Rai Gyaw, was absent.
It only took a few minutes for the debate to get heated. The aspiring politicians argued about whether councillors should have political opinions. “I believe council should not be political in the slightest,” Tiefenbacher said. “Every decision should be based on what’s best for Wellington. There is no room for politics on local councils,” he said, to rapturous applause from six people.
Rogers hit back with the bold counter-argument that councils were political. “Anyone telling you councils can’t be political has never made a decision of magnitude in their life”. “I couldn’t agree less,” Tiefenbacher responded, “Business is full of decisions. Every decision is a moral decision.” “It’s moral to pay a living wage,” sniped Rogers.
Tiefenbacher’s stance on the living wage – he blamed minimum wage hikes when he closed his Oriental Bay store – was a contentious issue throughout the night. When asked if the council should pay a living wage (it already does), Tiefbacher said “I don’t know if we can necessarily afford it”. He said the council paid well but had high levels of turnover, which suggested wages weren’t the deciding factor for workers. Rogers responded sarcastically, “I don’t know if we can afford to pay someone else to live in the city,” before clarifying his stance: “I’ll forever support it”.
Tiefenbacher wanted to cancel new bikes lanes; Rogers said bike lanes saved lives. Rogers wanted the council to take a public stance on Gaza and refuse to work with companies affiliated with the Israeli government; Tiefenbacher wanted the council to stay out of the issue.
Blake wanted the council to build more parks for girls. “Stereotypically, boys like things with balls, competitive stuff, mountain bikes. We’ve seen things like swings taken out, but research shows girls like swings. We don’t have a park designed by girls for girls.”
Shi didn’t want the council to declare a climate emergency because “New Zealand already did such a good job,” but later clarified “I’m a green person – I bought my shoes secondhand.”
Eventually, the debate turned to the most critical issue in Wellington, the District Plan. Rogers said he wanted to upzone so more people could live closer to their workplaces. Tiefenbacher said reducing development costs was more important than zoning.
Rogers wanted to reduce character areas, but supported keeping heritage listings for individual buildings. Tiefenbacher was “not comfortable reducing character areas”. Griffiths wanted character areas reduced and said heritage listings made repairs difficult for his own apartment. Shi didn’t want apartments to block sunlight, while Blake launched a spirited defence of character areas – “I love our old buildings. New housing is not accessible.”
The debate closed with a rare moment of unity. Every candidate wanted the heritage-listed Gordon Wilson flats to be demolished (except Shi, who wasn’t familiar with the issue). Blake and Griffiths both called it an “eyesore”. Tiefenbacher would “rip it down tomorrow if I could” and Rogers wanted to “rip it down before it falls down”. The independent hearing panel report on heritage buildings is due out this week and may decide the building’s fate.
The last day to return ballot papers in the mail is Tuesday February 13 but ballot papers can still be dropped off at voting stations around the city, and special votes can be cast at Arapaki Manners Library and Service Centre until Saturday, February 17.