An existential threat worms its way into local body politics, while The Wizard provides light relief. David Williams reports

“I knew this was coming.”

Climate scientist Dave Frame is having a moment while perched on a stool at a suburban Christchurch bar, beer in hand. “I knew that climate change would be a really big deal in local body politics.”

Frame had just witnessed last night’s lively “meet the local body candidates” evening at Bailies Bar, in Edgeware, just north of Christchurch’s central city. It was the full spectrum – from regional council candidates, to community board hopefuls, those vying for local council spots, and nine of the 11 mayoral contendors.

At whatever level, calls for climate change action were urgent and almost uniform.

As candidates, supporters and the politically curious pass Frame and head into the cold, he says climate change is capturing greater attention because atmospheric circulation is changing fast enough to have some real-time impacts.

“It doesn’t surprise me, but it’s striking how quickly society has caught up. And to me, that’s actually really encouraging.

“Because citizens who turn up at local body elections are demanding climate action, not just on mitigation, but in terms of the response of their communities to how they keep safe.”

In December last year, Edgeware Rd, the street outside Bailies Bar, was flooded by heavy rain. Nearby butcher, Peter Timbs Meats, became a national symbol of climate change and council incompetence.

Manager David Timbs blamed the council for not fixing the drains. He told the local newspaper, The Press: “We have had a job number for the council for the last four years and still no action.”

Tubby Hansen describes himself on council elections information as a “progressive nudist”. Photo: David Williams

At last night’s candidates’ meeting, not everyone was singing the same tune.

In response to a question about peak oil, The Wizard of New Zealand, the man formerly known as Ian Brackenbury Channell, said: “Don’t believe this bullshit. They’re trying to make you scared and then control you, and you become stupid.”

Carl Bromley, meanwhile, a controversial pastor who attended the Parliamentary anti-mandate protest, has warned in social media videos that the follow-up to the “propagandist pandemic” is the “oppressive ideology” of climate change.

Earlier yesterday evening, regional council hopeful John Knox described climate change as the elephant in the room, only to have his argument upended 25 minutes later by competitor Ashley Campbell.

“Climate change isn’t the elephant in the room because we’re actually all talking about it,” Campbell said. “And if people aren’t talking about it, and if they’re not passionate about doing something about it, then they probably shouldn’t be in this election – for anything.

“This is the climate change election.”

That may well be the case, but Frame, the climate scientist, raises a question that wasn’t put to the candidates – who will pay for flood defences or to relocate flood-prone buildings?

He recalls the Southland town of Kelso, home to 300 people at its height, abandoned in the 1980s after successive severe floods. As the effects of climate change worsen, he feels local councils or central government probably aren’t going to compensate everyone.

“A lot of them are going to go under.”

Phil Mauger holds court at Bailies Bar last night. Photo: David Williams

Local body debates can be dry, but occasionally come alive with colour and magic.

In Edgeware, candidates competed with the clinking of cutlery, the dong of freshly washed glasses being put away, and the ding drawing waiting staff to the kitchen.

The first cheer was 13 minutes in, when ECan candidate David East said he was opposed to the “three waters” legislation. Another theme which the crowd warmed to was opposition to central government-imposed building intensification rules, allowing three-storey houses to be built in most places without needing a consent.

Mention of cycleways drew both cheers and jeers.

Interjections from the floor were generally fun. East mentioned he was an action-oriented, resourceful person who made things happen and typically found a way through difficult situations. “Good attributes,” someone called out.

There were heckles, of course. Mayoral candidate Mark Chirnside, who’s also standing in the Riccarton ward for council, stumbled over his words, and someone filled the vacuum with: “Just agree with the last person.”

Tubby Hansen, who has stood in every council election since 1971, got one back on a heckler who said he couldn’t hear him, urging him to turn up his hearing aid. Responding to a question about defining governance, Hansen said: “I don’t think it’s necessary to really answer this question much.”

Candidates picked up on the theme of a city council under pressure, following terrible survey results from the public and its own staff.

“Public trust and confidence in our council is at an all-time low,” Papanui council ward candidate Victoria Henstock said. “People are saying they are not being listened to. They believe that the council is distracted by politics and ideologies.”

When sitting councillor Pauline Cotter, of Labour-aligned People’s Choice, said party politics weren’t evident around the council table, many voiced their disquiet. A question from the floor asked if the Labour Party donated to candidates’ campaigns.

Mayoral candidate David Meates, the former health boss, said: “People are tired with petty politics.” One of the goals of Phil Mauger, seen as Meates’ main opponent, is to restore ratepayers’ trust in the council.

One wonders if disgruntlement with the council will translate into a backlash against some sitting councillors.

Other issues touched on last night were Ngāi Tahu seats on the regional council, and city council membership of Local Government New Zealand.

Somewhat surprisingly, the $683 million stadium, and how to fund it, hardly featured, and neither did the stench from the fire-damaged wastewater treatment plant. Then again, this was a meeting for candidates in the north and north-east.

David Meates was part of an executive exodus from the now defunct Canterbury District Health Board. Photo: David Williams

Special mention must go to The Wizard, who animated the room with his mix of humour and social commentary.

“I assume that you know who I am,” he asked, to calls of ‘yes’. “Yet The Press said one of the lesser known candidates, referring to me, because they’ve got their two guys worked out already.”

He’d been cancelled since 1999 because he was, apparently, “too dangerous”. “I am the greatest threat this city’s ever seen, to misery, depression and stupidity.”

Wearing his “stupid hat” gained him publicity – “and children love it and old ladies give me cuddles all the time”.

The Wizard said the rich were getting richer and richer, faster and faster, while the poor get poorer and poorer, faster and faster. Yet the number of bureaucrats doubles every few years.

He described Christchurch and the South Island as being a dependent colony of a “bullying, brutal dictatorship”.

After one witty wisecrack, one wag yelled, “He’s got the job!”

The timekeeper was urged – without success – to give him three minutes to speak, instead of the usual 90 seconds.

Based on crowd reaction alone, The Wizard, riding an anti-establishment wave, might be more popular than initially thought.

Post-debate, Newsroom conducted an unscientific poll of one person – Jonty Curry, a regular at Bailies. What did he think of the mayoral race?

“A lot of people said a similar thing to each other, and I feel like a lot of people tried to avoid making a mistake while speaking. However, I think there was some diversity here tonight.”

Curry had an idea going into the debate who he would vote for, and that was confirmed by what he heard.

“It might be the Wizard. He was fantastic. I thought he was sharp, eloquent and articulate.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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