Transport, housing and resilience issues will continue to define Wellington’s local body politics Despite these significant issues, voter returns are frighteningly low. Laura Walters reports on Wellington’s mayoral race and why incumbent Justin Lester might not be a sure thing.

Wellington city is facing some meaty issues. Like other main centres, transport and housing are key election issues. Add to that the shaky city’s resilience problems.

Despite the significant challenges facing the capital, voter turnout so far has been frighteningly low.

Mail voting in local body elections closed yesterday, and Wellington’s voter returns on October 7 were at just 13.56 percent. That’s a 36 percent drop on the 2016 election, which had a 21.32 percent return at the same point.

In recent decades, Kiwis (particularly young Kiwis) have been criticised for being an apathetic bunch, but that image is changing thanks the massive mobilisations of the school climate strikes, this week’s Extinction Rebellion protests, and industrial action by teachers, doctors and nurses.

It’s too early to say whether the poor return will end in a poor final turnout, and whether that is due to a lack of young voters, but those keeping an eye on the race are concerned.

Local Government New Zealand principal policy advisor Mike Reid says central government’s “clear domination” plays a part in the low voter turnout – why vote when central government makes all the big decisions?

Central government receives 95 percent of taxes, and the lack of balance between regional autonomy and central control has led to poor economic performance and social wellbeing, Reid says.

There is also extreme regional inequality because regions lack the autonomy to make the kinds of investments to attract further, new investment, he says.

An uninspiring race

Others watching the race in Wellington say boredom is also playing a part in low voter turnout.

There have been quirks, like the surprisingly on-point insights from the Shelly Bae Twitter account and the satirical blogger turned legitimate candidate (more on that later).

But NZ Herald Wellington issues reporter Georgina Campbell says the mayoral race has failed to capture the voters’ imagination.

In 2016, current Mayor Justin Lester went head-to-head with former Porirua mayor Nick Leggett and Jo Coughlan (Go for Jo!). It was a hard battle, with Leggett coming out 6000 votes behind Lester.

This time around, the race has been lacklustre. Earlier in the year, the headlines proclaimed: “Where is Wellington’s mayoral race?”. And less than a month ago, the papers were struggling to find an angle out of mayoral debates, with a Stuff headline reading: “Wellington’s latest mayoral debate leaves no clear winner”.

The three front runners should have the name-recognition and track-record needed to spark lively debate on core issues, and get Wellingtonians voting, but it’s just not happening.

‘Wellington on a good day’ can’t account for the mounting challenges facing the city’s housing and infrastructure. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The one-term incumbent Labour candidate Justin Lester has made bold promises on transport and housing and was the one who led the city through the immediate and ongoing impacts of the Kaikoura earthquake.

Hot on his heels is Andy Foster, a well-known councillor and three-time mayoral contender.

Foster has enjoyed more prominence this time around, thanks to the backing – and bankrolling – of Sir Peter Jackson.

Diane Calvert is another credible contender. As a first-term councillor, she doesn’t have a lot of name recognition, but she has been vocal and willing to challenge Lester at the table.

Another notable mention is candidate Conor Hill.

Hill worked on Lester’s 2016 campaign and then ran a satirical blog about his (make-believe) run for mayor. Earlier in the year, he turned this into a into a serious bid for the job, and threw out his Labour membership to run against Lester.

As an early opponent, Hill won significant airtime and was quoted on the front page of the local paper.

Is Lester a sure thing?

Sometimes a less-than-exciting race can be a symptom of the frontrunning candidate being seen as a sure thing.

And a one-term incumbent, who has led a city through a major earthquake recovery, would usually be seen as exactly that.

Many do believe this is Lester’s race to lose.

“I think Wellingtonians become quite frustrated with the lack of progress in this city or developments being held up by small lobby groups. So I think that plays on their minds.”

But those watching closely say Lester might not be the shoo-in he appears to be at first glance.

There are murmurings of discontent and a mood for change in some quarters.

“This city has a track-record of things being held up and not being done. Arguably for good reasons – some of them – if you think about Shelly Bay, or the Basin Reserve Flyover, or Gordon Wilson flats,” Campbell says.

“I think Wellingtonians become quite frustrated with the lack of progress in this city or developments being held up by small lobby groups. So I think that plays on their minds.”

The criticism of Lester is: what have you achieved? And the answer for some is: not a lot.

But when Wellingtonians actually cast their votes, the question they need to ask themselves is: if not Lester, then who? Is Foster a credible alternative?

The sticky issues

Reid says this local body election seems dominated by very local issues.

“For some councils the issues are growth related, such as how to fund the services and infrastructure new residents need; and in other areas it is how to meet the demands of the growing tourism industry.

Other than climate change, there aren’t many generic issues across the country.

For Wellington, transport is at the top of the list of challenges.

The city’s never-ending transport woes went from bad to worse with the change of bus operator in 2018.

The so-called ‘bustastrophe’ drew attention to the regional council’s role, and a year of troubles fed nicely into the great reveal of the city council’s Let’s Get Wellington Moving (LGWM) plan.

Among other things, the $6.4 billion package proposes mass rapid transit.

Aside from that, the city has become near-obsessed with LGWM’s plan for the second Mt Victoria tunnel.

Justin Lester and transport Minister Phil Twyford unveiled what’s become a controversial transport plan for the city back in May. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

After a lack of delivery on other transport promises, and the ditching of the Basin reserve Flyover, the fixation on the Mt Vic tunnel is understandable. This interest been exacerbated by interest from MPs.

Then there are housing issues, including a lack of affordable housing, earthquake risks, the quality of rentals and homelessness.

Add to that the never-ending controversy of the proposed Shelly Bay residential development.

The impacts of the Kaikoura quake are ongoing – epitomised by the recent closure of the central library. And beyond buildings there are risks to power and water infrastructure.

Looking further afield

Campbell says it’s important to also keep a close eye on what’s going on in other races, including in Hutt City and the exciting mayoral battle in Porirua.

Porirua first-term Mayor Mike Tana is facing the battle of his life, with four of his councillors looking to roll him.

Tana has faced repeated criticism for his spending habits, including a $120,000 bill for consultants in the mayor’s office. And things aren’t looking good for the man who won despite being the underdog in 2016.

The Government is spending $1.5 billion on a housing revitalisation project for the eastern city, and Transmission Gully will be looking to come online in the future.

With house prices skyrocketing in central Wellington, this increasingly connected area will continue to grow.

“The whole region is bracing for growth so we should definitely be paying attention to those races,” Campbell says.

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