Wayne Brown calls himself Mr Fix-it. But it’s younger, talented candidates who are working well with their communities to get things done.
Opinion: When the results of our latest local body elections are declared around the country next weekend, we’ll likely see two long-running trends playing out. Voter turnout will be down again. But successful candidates will be younger and more diverse than ever.
All being well, the second trend will fix the first in the years ahead. Talented and committed young people will help make our democracy more effective, thereby restoring voters’ confidence in it.
To help tell that story, here are some data, the example of an inadequate older candidate, and five examples of capable younger candidates from around the country – three in Auckland, one in Hamilton and one on the Kapiti Coast.
Local Government NZ surveys its successful candidates after each election. The report on the 2019 contest shows the percentage of local body representatives under 40 rose from 2 percent in 2001 to almost 14 percent in 2019. Anecdotal evidence this time suggests there are more young candidates than ever.
The proportion who are women has been growing for the past 30 years, from 25 percent to just over 40 percent. But the average age was still high in 2019, landing in the bracket 56-60. Thankfully, though, those under 40 totalled 13.9 percent, up from 7 percent in 2016.
And to help spur culture change in local bodies, 41 percent of all representatives elected were first-termers. Moreover, this chart below of gender and age cohorts clearly shows men dominate older age groups and women younger ones.
Of course, people parade a profusion of personalities. But there is some truth to sweeping generalisations, such as younger people are more ambitious than older; women are better multi-taskers than men; and females co-operate more effectively than males. Thus, older men are likely to be less effective leaders. (Declaration of interest – I am one.)
A case in point: Wayne Brown is running for Mayor of Auckland. A couple of decades ago, he sorted out some complex, expensive public projects that had gone off the rails.
But today that’s all he can talk about. How will he collaborate with council colleagues to tackle the welter of other challenges and opportunities the city has?
“Show no favours. Concentrate on the numbers. Force everybody to understand the numbers.”
Auckland’s growing fast, what’s his pipeline of projects? “I’ll stop them all until I’ve fixed the broken ones.”
How will he get the boards of council-controlled organisations to work better with council? “I’ll fire them all.”
How would he work with our diverse communities? “I have huge support from the Indian and Chinese communities. They’re very transactional. They just want businessmen as mayors. They don’t care anything about the rest of it.”
What is his long-term vision? “I haven’t even thought about being mayor longer than three years. It’s probably more than I could handle.”
All of those answers are from Brown’s comments on the campaign trail, including some from my interview with him three weeks ago.
For that same column, I also interviewed Efeso Collins. His answers showed he is a candidate highly qualified for the immensely challenging job of Mayor. Quite simply, Collins has the skills and experience to help us create our future. All Brown, older and dogmatic, seems to want is the fun and kudos of fixing stuff.
Here are five examples of younger, talented candidates who work well with their communities to get things done. The first three are seeking re-election; the other two are seeking their first terms.
‘A lack of trust’
In 2019, Sarah Thomson was a 28-year-old, early in her legal career, when she was elected to Hamilton City Council. But she was no stranger to public issues. Two years before, as a Waikato University law student, she had brought the first climate case against the government. She contended its climate targets were “unambitious and irrational.”
The High Court found in her favour, saying that Climate Change Minister Tim Groser had acted unlawfully by failing to review New Zealand’s climate change response targets after the UN published an updated report on climate change. But because incoming Climate Minister James Shaw had indicated the Ardern government would set a new target, the Court did not order a formal review.
Thomson says she ran for office because some of Hamilton’s existing councillors were climate deniers. “I was motivated by climate, and the very short time we have to act on it.”
Elected with some other new councillors and a new mayor, she says the term has delivered “a huge change in working environment. It’s a challenging job but a positive experience. Councillors are taking a more professional approach and I hope the next term will be even more productive.”
For example, Hamilton now has a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030. Key to it is developing public and active transport so many aspects of peoples’ lives are within 20-minutes travel of their homes. While the council’s well-developed plan didn’t get money from the government’s shovel-ready fund during Covid, it remains the operative plan to help the city meet world best practice.
Thomson, now the mother of a young child, is seeking re-election. She notes, though, that there’s a lot more tension now among voters because of government plans such as Three Waters, Resource Management Act reform and higher density housing.
“I worry that responsibilities keep getting stripped away from local government; and that there’s a lack of trust between central government and local government.”
‘Hoping voter turnout will be higher’
Sophie Handford was elected to Kapiti District Council in 2019. She was 18 and keen to not only exercise her vote for the first time, but to also play an active role in her community’s politics and governance. Many of her campaign team, though, were too young to vote. So, she’s a strong advocate of votes for 16-year-olds.
“I want to be a voice for my generation,” she says.
She too is a climate activist. As a high school student in 2019, she led the first School Strike 4 Climate action here in New Zealand as the worldwide movement was beginning to gain momentum.
In her first term, she was ward councillor for Paekākāriki-Raumati, a leader on climate and youth issues and active widely across the Council’s work.
There are plenty of challenges ahead. Covid and its aftermath, for example, have changed the district. Such as, more people are working from home at least some of the time, and are thus more engaged in their communities, she says. And the Transmission Gully motorway is spurring fast growth. The district has some 55,000 residents now but expects to grow by another 32,000 in the next few decades.
Handford’s an inveterate campaigner. This week she’s out and about with others to offer some 2,000 “door-hangers” to residents to remind them to vote. While the cards have a small photo of her and a note that she authorised them, they are generic messages urging people to exercise their democratic rights.
“I’m hoping voter turnout will be higher this election,” she says.
‘All the amenities they need’
Fiona Lai arrived in Auckland’s Mount Roskill more than 30 years ago as a 9-month-old baby with her parents and grandparents. They were new immigrants from Hong Kong.
She’s lived in the community ever since, attending the local primary school (she’s now a trustee) and Mount Roskill Grammar where the student body is so diverse, flags of more than 100 countries adorn the walls. These days, she’s married, with a young child. A pharmacist by profession, she now only works part-time at Auckland City Hospital because of her wide range of community commitments such as ARK (Acts of Roskill Kindness) based at her local church.
In 2019, Lai was elected to her first term on the Puketāpapa local board, one of 21 boards in Auckland Council, and representing some 60,000 people. “Over recent years, local politics has become much more diverse by gender, culture and backgrounds,” she says.
This reflects that 49 percent are Asian, 35 percent European, 13 percent Pacific and 5 percent Māori. Some 50 percent of the population were born overseas; and collectively Mount Roskill residents speak some 120 languages. It’s also diverse economically, embracing areas such as Wesley which has a high proportion of state houses, and wealthier areas such as Lynfield and Hillsborough.
Last term, she says the local board worked hard to make Auckland Council and its subsidiary organisations such as Auckland Transport more engaged and accountable to the community.
Last term, Lai was also elected to the Auckland District Health Board. But the government has since replaced all DHBs with a new centralised organisation, Te Whatu Ora – Health New Zealand.
This term Lai, a C&R candidate, is seeking re-election to her local board. One of her areas of focus is the fast growth of housing in her community. For example, Kainga Ora is massively redeveloping Wesley and Fletcher is building a large number of apartments at Three Kings.
“I really want to make sure our local areas have all the amenities they need, such as parks and playgrounds. To make sure health and well-being and connectedness are done well.”
‘I stand up for equity’
Pamela Mills also grew up in Mount Roskill – “a powerhouse of multiculturalism,” she calls it – and went to the Grammar school. As a middle child of a single mother, she knows “life isn’t fair – I stand up for equity.”
She is seeking election as a first termer to the Puketāpapa local board, very aware that only 31 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in 2019. “If this slow decline in democracy and engagement keeps declining people won’t be safe. Cohesion takes everyone. To succeed, politics needs to be truly representative.”
Her career to-date has been in project management, skills she feels are appropriate to politics. They help people navigate through complexity and change. Though building a career in Australia, her deep ties to her community here drew her back. She’s revelling again in the local politics that she first tasted as a teenage campaigner.
Abdul Mohamud is also seeking a first term on the local board. Born and raised in Kenya by refugee Somali parents, he emigrated to New Zealand in 2013 to join his family here. He got a university degree, built a career in the health sector then began working in community groups some nine years ago. He is, for example, on the board of the Umma Trust which helps refugees and migrants.
A member of the Muslim community, “my biggest motivation is participation and inclusion. My main goal, if I’m elected, is to make sure whatever the issues are in neighbourhoods, we have mechanisms for participation so people can be involved.”