Whoever leads the city’s 16-seat council after the October election may well set the direction of Wellington’s development for decades to come, Marc Daalder reports

It’s a political platitude that the upcoming election is always the most important one of our lifetime.

In Wellington, however, the next mayor really will have an outsized impact on the future of the capital.

A new district plan governing (among other things) housing intensification, the fate of the $6.4 billion Let’s Get Wellington Moving transport plan, the implementation of the Government’s Three Waters reforms and the response to the review of local government will all come up for decisions over the next three years. Whoever leads the city’s 16-seat council may well set the direction of Wellington’s development for decades to come.

That view isn’t shared by everyone. Incumbent mayor and 30-year council veteran Andy Foster, who is seeking reelection in a three-way race for the top job, told Newsroom this week that he’s already accomplished a great deal this term and needs the next one to finish the job.

“Over the past three years, I’ve had the chance to make a significant difference and to set the groundwork for all of those big decisions,” he said, before rattling off a list of changes made in the last term, including selecting a final option for Let’s Get Wellington Moving, bolstering the council’s social housing portfolio, boosting the pipes and potholes budget and grappling with the impacts of Covid-19.

Foster recently rated his performance as mayor an 11 out of 10.

When asked for their views on the process the council uses to make decisions in February, however, a majority of Wellingtonians said they were dissatisfied with it. Just 12 percent backed the current council processes.

Lack of consultation, council infighting and lack of transparency were the public’s major bugbears.

Finding himself in charge of a divided council after the 2019 election, Foster took a $30,000, week-long leadership course at a Queenstown resort. A year later, the dysfunction had worsened to the point that the mayor commissioned an independent review of the council. That review was later leaked to media, sparking another round of finger-pointing.

The council certainly hasn’t covered itself in glory over the past three years.

That’s where mayoral hopefuls Paul Eagle and Tory Whanau, endorsed respectively by the Labour and Green parties, sense opportunity. Both have pitched themselves as a fresh start for Wellington and as far more capable leaders than Foster.

Eagle, the Labour MP for Rongotai and a former city councillor, says he wants the council to go back to doing the basics (pipes, parks and public transport) well.

“For me, it’s about having the experience to form a unified council that puts Wellington first and delivers for Wellingtonians,” he said. “It’s about restoring the mana of Wellington as the capital city of Aotearoa New Zealand.”

But he has been criticised for vague answers to some of the tough questions posed by journalists and the public. Asked in a debate hosted by the Wellington Chamber of Commerce whether he would cut council spending and, if so, what he would cut, Eagle dodged the question.

“I would commission a review of council spending and then reprioritise the budget. I think it’s absolutely critical that we know what the city books like.”

Foster responded by saying the city’s finances are already publicly available, while the third candidate in the race, Whanau, later told Newsroom that that sort of answer was a copout.

“With Paul, what we’re getting is a long-winded speech about ‘We need to go back to basics’ and ‘We need a plan’. That’s not really saying anything,” she said.

Eagle pushed back, saying he was “absolutely committed” to a review. “I’ve been at it for a long time saying, what is the how around this? It’s very easy to say reprioritise, we need the how.”

Whanau isn’t immune from criticism either. Foster claims she’s brought nothing new to the table, with almost all of her platform rehashing some of the work the council is already doing.

“The thing with Tory is that virtually every policy is part of what we’re already doing. It’s all already from the existing city council direction. The only thing is that it’s only a subset of what we’re doing,” he said. “The only disagreement I’d have with her is that she didn’t include the rest of it.”

The former chief of staff for the Green Party during the tumultuous days of the coalition with Labour and New Zealand First, Whanau is happy to admit that her policies aren’t all that different from her opponents’. Instead, she said, her pitch to the electorate is that she has the negotiating skills to pull together a dysfunctional council.

“For the majority of our policy platforms for the three of us, there’s actually a lot of crossover. We all agree on the pipes, we all agree on public transport and we all agree on housing,” she said.

“The point of difference would definitely be leadership style. Andy thinks because he has party-aligned politicians in his council, that that’s the problem. I completely reject that. I’ve worked with difficult politicians as well and there’s absolutely a way to bring people together, even if we need to compromise.”

In other words, Whanau says the bad blood between Labour, Green and independent right-wing councillors in city hall is nothing compared to the challenge of finding a balance between James Shaw, Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters.

The three-way nature of this year’s race is somewhat unusual. Last election saw a head-to-head campaign between Foster and then-incumbent Justin Lester, but the 2016 ballot involved three high-profile candidates.

No public polling has yet been conducted to identify the frontrunner. Within the political beltway, the sense is that Eagle’s name recognition and general inoffensiveness place him as the favourite this year. Foster has suffered through a term of negative headlines and the city’s goodwill towards the council has clearly eroded, while Whanau is a relative unknown with no experience in local government.

That said, Lester was the favourite in 2019 but Foster pulled a surprise upset then, unseating the mayor by a razor thin margin of 62 votes. With Wellington’s single transferable vote and the three-way state of the campaign, the mayoral chains certainly aren’t in the bag.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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