Celia Wade-Brown and John Morrison are chatting away, affably enough, about campaign cars, when an exchange occurs that is unexpectedly revealing. Morrison’s vehicle – a diesel ute emblazoned with his image – looks like a gas-guzzler, but is “far more economic”, he is explaining, than his petrol car. At this point Wade-Brown – who, famously, cycled to work on her first day as mayor – jumps in, asking: “So how many litres per hundred kilometres?” Morrison’s reply? “Oh, I don’t figure it out. I just fill it up when it’s empty.”
And there you have it: Morrison, the plain-speaking blokeish type, the sports portfolio holder on the Wellington City Council, the practical man of business who pronounces Ngauranga ‘Nah-rang-a’ where others might say ‘No-rung-ah’; and Wade-Brown, the incumbent mayor, the environmentalist, the English-accented ‘Labour–Green’ planner of sectors and strategies. Their mayoral campaigns are a contrast of styles, but also policies. While both promise much on jobs, growth and community, and little by way of ideological bite, Morrison’s pitch stresses more roads, deals based on luring businesses from Australia, and sporting events; Wade-Brown wants better public transport, a green and wired city, and more affordable housing.
It makes for an intriguing race between a man thus far defined by his sports portfolio and a woman who won by the narrowest of margins in 2010 and who is, fairly or not, seen by many as having underachieved in her first term. While reports of Wellington’s death have been exaggerated, the feeling around town, in coffee bars and at cocktail parties, is of a sense of drift, of a city not quite achieving its full potential. So much rests on these two hopefuls, who, having spent years around the council table, know each other well; they also know that, while the mayoral race has other runners, their closest challenger is in the room with them.
They want, at least initially, to show their respect. So Wade-Brown pays tribute to Morrison’s work mitigating the visual impact of the Basin Reserve flyover, and he carefully excludes her from some of his criticism of the council’s current set-up. But he does think that the councillors are now divided into blocs, and says, in the first of many sporting analogies, that the job of the mayor is like being “the captain of the team – you can’t beat the opposition on their own. You’ve got to beat the opposition by getting the best out of your whole team.”
Does that imply that councillors who disagree with Morrison are “the opposition”, simply there to be beaten? He dodges the question: “Well, I’ve never been a member of a political party in my life… I’m not a fan of the sort of ideology to the degree that we’ve got… around the table. I think running a city is common sense. There’s a degree of a practical nature about it.” That’s Morrison’s style – not to attack Wade-Brown directly, but to insinuate that she – unlike he, the practical man of action – is guilty of encouraging “ideology”.
Wade-Brown doesn’t rise to that bit of bait, for the moment. Noting the council’s tendency towards sharply split votes, she says, instead: “To use a sporting analogy, if I’m allowed on your turf, John, the All Blacks’ win over France made 8–7 respectable for ever!”
When the laughter subsides, Wade-Brown goes on to claim that the council atmosphere was worse under her predecessor, Kerry Prendergast, when the “baiting” of some councillors by their colleagues “actually stopped [them] contributing”. It’s also said of Wade-Brown that she doesn’t get the best out of people, or manage the council’s various factions. She, in response, says she not only gave the key economic portfolio to Jo Coughlan – not one of her natural allies – but that the pair have a good enough relationship that “she [Coughlan] is quite happy to take the dog for the odd weekend”.
Wade-Brown does admit, graciously, that, “Kerry had six years as deputy mayor, which was a very good apprenticeship, and there are probably things I will do differently when re-elected.” But, less graciously, when she mentions the allocation of the water and waste portfolio, she tells Morrison: “You weren’t considered for that, because I knew you wouldn’t do any work in it!” These barbs, with their note of condescension, recur throughout the interview. While it’s normal, in politics, for the incumbent to stay aloof, to ignore their challenger, here the reverse is true: Wade-Brown is much more engaged in what Morrison has to say than vice versa.
Morrison is a former test cricketer and a great sporting promoter, but gets “a bit annoyed because I get labelled as sports and events all the time, but that’s actually my portfolio, so it’s fairly logical that I get involved in those things”. But he can’t blame other people for his own website, where four of the top five “achievements” he lists are sports-related, including bringing an AFL game to Wellington last year. He is, he says, “very project-oriented”, and feels that the council under Wade-Brown hasn’t been focused enough on its goals. Her defence is that councils have to concentrate on the high-level strategy – “the idea that we focus on the high-tech businesses, that we actually green the infrastructure, and that you manage to run both the economy and the environment in parallel rather than trading them off.”
One of Wade-Brown’s key pledges at the last election was to promote light rail. After a major report in June raised doubts about its cost-effectiveness, she switched her support (although still inviting people to critique the report) to bus rapid transit, a kind of enhanced bus lane system. The report, she says, “indicates that you can get gains from bus rapid transit that some of us thought you could get from light rail”. So is it a problem that she has had to go back on a major election pledge? “I would have loved it if light rail had been the answer,” she says. “[But] as long as we get better public transport, I’m not too worried what mode.”
Wade-Brown insists that light rail did well to be one of just three options studied in detail in the report, from a shortlist of 88 transport modes. This prompts Morrison to suggest that a list that long must have included “the horse and cart”; against Wade-Brown’s protests, he then insists, jokingly, that “the horse is a form of public transport”. Wade-Brown, not taking the joke, replies, a little tartly, “Unfortunately, not everyone read the study brief.” On her side of the ledger, she claims success in getting bus lanes through Courtenay Place and beyond. A proposal along these lines “was voted out as utu in the previous regime,” she says, adding to Morrison, “I think you might remember that?” Morrison remains silent. Not willing to let the point go, she then reminds him that he voted for bus priority lanes, second time round, to which he responds, rather curtly, “Thank you, madam chairman.”
Morrison’s transport plan would be to speed up the planned roading works – the Basin Reserve flyover, the extra tunnels at the Terrace and Mt Vic, and the widening of Ruahine Street – doing them as “a whole package” rather than one after the other. Going along with the New Zealand Transport Agency’s plans would help mend what he calls “a poor relationship with central government”. Wade-Brown disagrees with that claim: “I don’t think it’s poor; I [just] don’t think it’s as good as it could be. I think there’s an inevitable tension between a National Party central government and a Labour–Green mayor.” She’d like the council to be a bigger provider of social housing, charging income-related rents like Housing New Zealand does and co-managing some of the state housing stock “because I think we’re better landlords than they are, on the whole, being more local”; but the government’s current housing policy is specifically designed to override council autonomy.
Morrison claims to have the contacts to create a better relationship with ministers, but declines to talk specifics, saying only: “I’ve got a number of invitations. I’m very encouraged by it… my door will be open from day one.” He also, in passing, makes the striking admission that the inner-city bypass, so hotly debated in the 1990s and early 2000s, was in its current form a mistake. “[At the time] trenching and covering wasn’t seen as the thing to do. Now it is the thing to do, and we should have done it.” At this point, Wade-Brown cuts in: “Well, we don’t want to be saying that about the Basin, do we? Sorry, you can’t have it both ways!”
They clash again when it comes to central government’s presence in Wellington. Morrison says, “We’ve got the good fortune that they’re actually in the same town,” but can’t resist adding, “Many people might say that’s not good fortune.” This prompts Wade-Brown to exclaim that the public service is “very important” to the capital. Morrison insists it was just “a throwaway line” – but then adds that central government is “a huge source of revenue” for Wellington, provoking more spluttering from his opponent.
When it comes to questions on the economy, Wade-Brown offers Morrison first go, saying, “Would you like to start… with your call centre”, lacing the last two words with sarcasm. Morrison, as he himself might put it, straight bats this one. “I’m very disappointed with some of our operations,” he says, “and one or two of our CCOs [council-controlled organisations], who’ve had a lot of money to source opportunities.” In contrast, he drew on business contacts to persuade the Australian firm CallActive to bring 300 to 500 call-centre jobs to Wellington. But that’s not highly paid, high-skilled work, is it? “Actually, it is quite skilled,” Morrison insists. “They’re actually a shop-front window for a lot of business. They don’t only run the phones and sell second-hand whatevers.” Ultimately, he says, “we have got to target opportunities. I don’t think we are targeting them well enough.” What does he have in mind? Well, he says, Wellington is about 30 percent cheaper than Australia, so there’s a “huge market” in encouraging yet more Australian firms to shift across the Tasman because of our lower wages and other advantages.
Wade-Brown is “more interested in growing the high-tech and education jobs… We also have a huge opportunity with the start-ups in the social entrepreneur area.” Citing the Enspiral collective, which is developing public good-oriented, predominantly online businesses, she says there are “a whole lot of small organisations that have got the potential to grow”, some of which are now attracting investment that is “growing them to the next stage”. But aren’t these companies far too small to provide much immediate economic boost? Her retort: “So was Xero!” In short, Wade-Brown says, “I take probably a more sector-wide and ‘promotion of Wellington’ view, rather than picking an individual company.” But she admits the two approaches can be “married up” – or, as Morrison puts it, “You’ve got to mix it in the forwards and the backs, you’ve got to do some hard yards up the middle.”
Wellington’s current long-term plan, ‘Towards 2040: Smart Capital’, suggests it should create a city that is environmentally friendly, wired with all the latest technology, and draws on its high-tech skills and education. These are not, in the public mind, Morrison’s greatest strengths. Can he deliver on that plan? “I believe so, because, sure, I’m interested in tangible results, but even the 2040 thing was high-principled – it’s all good, I’m not grizzling about it – but it is 2040 and there’s the small matter of being – what are we? – 27 years away. We’ve got a bit of time to fill.”
But does he understand, say, the environment? “Yes… it seems to be accepted that only one party [the Greens] cares about the environment. To my mind, it’s a given that you look after the environment. Despite what people may think, I think clean water, you know, all the things that go with a great city, the hills, the harbour, they are so important.” He’s quite outdoorsy, in a sporting sense, he adds, prompting Wade-Brown to interject, “He’s shot a few pests in his time!” (To which Morrison, judiciously ignoring the easy joke, responds, “Yes, I have.”)
On the more serious subject of earthquakes, Wade-Brown says the council has held dozens of meetings about disaster readiness, “engaging with the community… an awful lot more” and creating a city far better prepared for the next big one. Under her leadership, the council has been advocating that owners of heritage buildings should get tax exemptions for bringing them up to the earthquake code. The council is also in talks with government over a “revolving” fund that would help businesses – whether in heritage buildings or not – pay for upgrading. Morrison is cagier about his plans – but only because, as it later turns out, he wanted to coordinate a media splash for his innovative ‘Heritage Bonds’ scheme, which would allow building owners to raise finance backed by city council assets, and thus upgrade their properties.
Both candidates express sympathy for apartment owners unable to meet the costs of upgrading, and both insist that people who knowingly made poor investment decisions should not “free ride” on others, though neither makes it clear how the two can be distinguished. Where they differ is on the question of local discretion. Wade-Brown supported a proposal that the city council should be able to vary the rules set by the government – the length of time allowed for upgrades, or the standard they have to meet – while Morrison opposed it; although when she raises the issue, he bats it off, saying, “What? I’m not quite sure what she’s saying at the moment.”
When it comes to the looming supercity stoush, Wade-Brown wants to get rid of “overlaps” in functions between the regional council and the local councils, and opposes the two-tier model being put forward by supercity advocates – including local boards with minimal powers – because it would “insulate decision-makers from the public”. Morrison has “not actually got terribly involved” in this issue, despite its potential to reshape the region’s power structures, “because I don’t think turkeys should be running around voting for Christmas”. That said, he thinks a supercity is “inevitable, because central government will make that decision”.
By now, the cordiality between the two candidates is in short supply. So it seems an opportune moment to ask Morrison about his opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. “That’s a tough one!” he responds. “I’ve always liked Celia, I’ve always got on well with her. We’ve differed on a number of things. I just think she’s in the wrong job.” He adds, after a pause, “Nice lady…” (The ‘but’ is left hanging.)
Wade-Brown says: “I think John’s sense of humour is probably his greatest strength. You’re just about to get cross with him, then he makes a good joke! That would be one of his strengths. Weaknesses? I guess sometimes trying to do deals rather than be strategic.” On this point, she raises the letter, leaked to the Dominion Post earlier this year, in which Morrison suggested that his fellow councillors cut a deal with the council’s then chief executive, Gary Poole, to “decimate” organisations like Positively Wellington Tourism, in exchange for letting Poole keep his job. “I’d have to say that the chief executive letter… that would be in my view your weakness, threatening a chief executive.”
All warmth now long gone, Morrison tells her, “Celia, you’re getting a bit excited now.” Pointing out that the email was “a year old” when it was leaked, he insists that people misunderstood its essentially jokey “tone”, and adds: “I think one of the sad things with Celia to some degree has been the lack of humour in the council. It’s been a fairly morbid place.” Wade-Brown says, “Morbid?”, in amazed tones, and he repeats the claim: “It’s a morbid place… dour and morbid.”
Who will win Wellington?
While the rivalry between Celia Wade-Brown and John Morrison may be the star turn in this year’s local elections race, it is far from being its only attraction.
The Wellington mayoralty race alone has some other significant contenders, including businessman Jack Yan, who polled 7,400 votes when he ran in 2010. Yan is a man of many talents, whose business interests include consulting, typography and the fashion title Lucire. In 2010, people who voted for Yan tended to support Wade-Brown as their second preference.
In contrast, Nicola Young draws her support from the centre-right of the spectrum. A senior PR operative with close National Party ties, she is also standing in for council in Wellington City’s Lambton Ward. Her connections were instrumental in getting Prime Minister John Key to attend a Wired Wellington event she organised in August. Her father, the National MP Bill Young, represented the Miramar electorate from 1966 to 1981.
The other, less fancied contenders for the mayoralty include former councillor Rob Goulden and Karunanidhi Muthu.
Mayors don’t govern alone, and the makeup of Wellington City Council will be crucial. Three councillors are standing down – including leftist councillor Stephanie Cook and centre/centre-right councillors Ngaire Best and Ian McKinnon – while one of Wade-Brown or Morrison will also depart. Their replacements could include, on current analysis, two from Young, former Labour MP Mark Peck, property developer Rex Nicholls, and prominent events organiser John Dow (Lambton Ward), Malcolm Sparrow (Northern Ward) and Malcolm Aitken (Western Ward). Councillor Bryan Pepperell is also thought to be under threat from media personality Ginette McDonald in the Southern Ward. No great shake-up is on the cards, however, so managing the council may come down to personality as much as ideology.
Elsewhere in the region, the mayoralty battle in Kapiti looks set to be the spiciest, as under-fire incumbent Jenny Rowan faces challenges from current councillor K Gurunathan and newcomers Jackie Elliott and Gavin Welsh. No significant challenges are expected to the sitting mayors in Porirua, the Hutt Valley or the Wairarapa, except perhaps in Masterton, where Garry Daniell has two challengers for the top job.
For the Greater Wellington Regional Council – currently driving the supercity debate under current mayor Fran Wilde – there are 13 spots available: five in Wellington, three in Lower Hutt, two in Porirua, and one each in Kapiti, Upper Hutt and Wairarapa. One councillor, Peter Glensor, is standing down, while former Green MP Sue Kedgley has thrown her hat into the ring for the Wellington constituency. Assuming that well-known Wellington ward councillors Wilde, Chris Laidlaw and Judith Aitken are returned, either Kedgley’s fellow Green Paul Bruce or Labour’s Daran Ponter could miss out, if the name recognition factor triumphs.
Spots are also up for grabs on the region’s district health boards, and are keenly contested: 23 candidates are vying for seven places on the Capital Coast DHB, including Kedgley, Laidlaw, current chair Virginia Hope, existing Labour member David Choat, Porirua mayor Nick Leggett, local councillor Helene Ritchie and historian Tony Simpson.
How the voting works
Local body elections are run under the supplementary transferable vote (STV) system. Each voter gets to rank all the candidates in order of preference: if there are nine candidates, for instance, a voter can give each of them a number from ‘one’ to ‘nine’.
In each ward, candidates will have to get over a certain share of votes to be elected: 3,500 votes, for instance. Candidates that get over 3,500 people ranking them as ‘one’ will be elected automatically. But candidates often don’t manage that. So the lowest-placed candidate – the one with the fewest ‘one’ rankings – will be eliminated, and their votes will be distributed to the candidates who were ranked ‘two’ on their ballot papers. This goes on – lowest remaining candidates being eliminated, and their votes handed out – until enough candidates have got over the line and are elected.
Under this system, voters don’t have to rank each candidate, but it is a good idea. Those they rank lower down won’t get their vote unless their most preferred candidates have already been elected or eliminated. And if they don’t rank candidates lower down, they give up their influence over which of those candidates gets elected (if any).