At age 60, when most people are contemplating retirement, Mark Peck flung himself back into the arena of conflict that we call politics. The decision to run for Wellington City Council last year was a strange one, given that he’d served at a far higher level as an MP, and was running a successful business. So why, one wonders, did he do it? “Oh god knows, mate. I got lobbied by a couple of people. It appealed to my sense of public service.”
Even by New Zealand standards, this is self-deprecation as art form. One doesn’t, in general, just fall into a council seat. There’s always lobbying, networking, and — if you’re a Labour candidate — getting the unions onside. Being the only Labour nomination for the Lambton Ward helped, as did the fact that the ward’s second left-wing slot had been left open by Stephanie Cook’s retirement. But there must have been a bit more to it than that.
Still, whatever he did, it worked: Peck came in third in the ward, with just over 2,300 votes. “I woke up after the election night, and I thought to myself, what the hell have I done? Then I calmed down.”
In fact, he feels comfortable enough on council: “I have got nothing to prove. I have got things I can contribute.” But some might argue that he does have something to prove. It is nearly a decade now since Peck had what he calls his “little whoopsie” — the moment in 2005 when, while serving as the Labour MP for Invercargill, he crashed his car in Queenstown while drunk. As the New Zealand Herald noted at the time, he had been drinking in the pub until 11pm, at which point he decided he “wanted to go trout fishing”.
The New Zealand Herald also noted that Peck was “strangely chirpy” about the subsequent disclosure of his alcoholism and his disappointment at missing out on a Cabinet promotion in 2002. He’s still quite chirpy, and very frank about personal matters. When asked why, five years ago, he decided to open a café, he says, without preamble: “I couldn’t get work.” After leaving Parliament at the 2005 election, he’d had some work for the Smokefree Coalition, but then things dried up. What with the Labour politics and the drink-driving incident, he figures people took him for “a self-opinionated pisshead”. Self-employment started to look a lot more attractive.
Peck’s wife, it must be said, was sceptical about the café scheme, especially since it threatened to consume his life savings. “[She] said it was a crazy decision, and she was right. But actually it wasn’t a crazy decision, because I needed something to do or I would have gone mad.”
The result was Little Peckish, in the Dukes Arcade, which he still runs, but not as a living wage workplace, which would involve paying all his staff $18.80 an hour, even though he voted last year for the city council to do just that. The irony doesn’t seem to trouble him much. He pays generously, he insists: senior staff on more than the living wage, others paid upwards of $15 an hour, and no youth rates. “I pay well, and will continue to do that.” And move towards becoming a living wage employer? “No, I won’t. I like the concept of the living wage, because it does actually encourage people to phase it in as they can afford it… But I can [only] afford to pay at the level my customers are prepared to sustain. Within 200 metres of me there are 32 places you can get coffee and food.” You do the maths, in other words.