As Kiwis look ahead to 2023, Newsroom has asked influential New Zealanders about what they hope to see in the year ahead. In the first of a series, after riding to the top, Otago Regional Council chair Gretchen Robertson is urging us to reconnect and re-ground ourselves

It’s somewhat clichéd to climb mountains and ponder the new year, but as it happens I’m on top of Otago’s Mt Cardrona today.

I’m multitasking, sharing my wish list and mountain biking with my family. Like our boys, whizzing past, 2022 you were a handle-grippingly-crazy ride. 

In October I became chair of the Otago Regional Council. This blows my mind for two reasons. Firstly, I must admit I suffer from a slight superiority complex regarding Otago’s ‘outstandingness’. It’s scree-sliding jagged alps, lizard-basking tussocky hills, and sea lion-waddling white sand dunes. You have to admit it’s pretty awesome.

* Tory Whanau: I want people to be proud of their city again
Simon Mackenzie: I am the lineman for the county – let’s work together
Selah Hart: Don’t be too weak and hōhā to make a difference
Simon Draper: Let’s rediscover our ambition, Aotearoa
Dame Therese Walsh: To look into the soul of the universe, wink, and smile

Gretchen Robertson wishes for understanding of the pressure local elected members feel. Photo: Supplied

Secondly, for me Otago Regional Council is a big part of who I am. My father was a scientist as Catchment Boards morphed into Regional Councils and I, like my brother and sister, are ex-council staff members too. At 21, I was a water scientist sampling Otago’s many spectacular waterways.

I’m also an avid believer in grass roots local stewardship. So I can’t overstate how humbled and honoured I feel to chair the Otago Regional Council.

So, what am I wishing for?

1. I wish for team.

Like many organisations facing big issues in an uncertain world, Otago Regional Council has been on a roller coaster over the past 3 years. Regional Councils play a key role as environmental custodians. This is a huge honour and a huge responsibility. 

Over the past triennium our Council found itself in the paper frequently and for the wrong reasons. With three ex-MPs and multiple, seasoned local council identities, we set ourselves up for a clash of the titans, Regional Council-style. 

Local government friction is about as epic as Christmas Day when your uncles battle it out backyard-cricket-style, grandparents sleep, and everyone else bickers about washing the dishes. Yet somehow local media finds ways to make this sound semi-entertaining. Often the big issues like making a difference for our environment, are not reported and good work goes unnoticed. 

It was not that we didn’t get on, because generally we do. We got to a negative space, because we slowly eroded our self-belief.

It’s been a tough world, our outlooks became narrowed, our job to be the environmental custodians of our most treasured resource, became a heavy burden.

Things went the way they often do when the going gets tough, kicks started landing from both outside, and inside, our own team.

This triennium has started differently. We are working well to support each other and feeling honour and joy in representing our communities. 

I wish for understanding of the pressure your local elected members feel, with big responsibilities for ensuring local communities thrive. Also for those lucky enough to have been elected, to understand that supporting each other and all our diversity is crucial to supporting our people and our environment. 

Sometimes hard times result in quantum positive leaps forward. I’m wishing for team. 

2. Fish, lots of fish

Take this at surface value or think deeper, either way, fish are important and I happen to love them. I love painting fish. They’re diverse, colourful, magic. Equally, nothing beats the taste of freshly caught blue cod, hands torn from grappling the twisting lively creatures from my line. 

I had a coastal childhood my blonde, windswept hair always salty. I learnt to swim in tidal pools, my Dad had a surfers’ unquenchable thirst for the sea. His words ‘love the sea, never lose the fear of its power’.

Sadly, fish numbers are dwindling along with the health of our coastal ecosystems. It’s harder to catch fish, the giant kelp forests of the South are diminishing, our tidal eel grass flats are all but gone and our land-based activities spill nutrients and sediment to the sea. 

Our fish need help. This is a big collective task requiring both ‘need not greed’ mentalities and ensuring our actions on the land don’t impact upon our coasts. Our remaining remote rugged coast and our nation’s marine reserve refuges are very special. I wish for fish.  

3. Wild places 

I wish for wild spaces. Places to lose ourselves and remember what’s important.

If you haven’t been out all by yourself in a patch of ‘wild’ for a while, do it.

Reconnecting and re-grounding ourselves with what it is to be a New Zealanders on this beautiful windswept island nation helps us see more clearly. Being small amongst our huge landscape lets us see the important things in our lives, the relationships and the surroundings we need and don’t need. 

I wish for the wild places we have to stay wild and for a bit of wild in everyone’s lives on a daily basis.  

This means protecting the native habitats and vegetation that remain, and for the highly modified areas (like cities), I wish for development planning cleverly weaving in naturalness and identity. Humans need healthy habitats too. 

4. Bikes

Whoever said that hilly cities are bike no-go zones? As a Dunedinite I once believed this, but e-bikes are game changing.

I live on top of a steep hill. Far from a disadvantage for biking, I’ve learned this is perfect for an early morning adrenaline fix as I beat the car-drivers snaking their way to work.

I feel like taking my bike is the lazy option as it’s faster and you can park right outside your destination. The journey home marginally slower, but a much nicer stress-free power assisted climb.

I used to tow my kids up steep hills by hitching a rope to the back too, now their bike skills far surpass mine. Somewhat terrifying on the downhill black-diamond trails today on Cardrona.  

5. Success

The word reminds me of a 1980s book. The cover sporting a moustached, pastel-pink shirt, leather-tie-clad investor. This American guru espousing convincing tips on positive visualisation of your own investment prowess. 

But really it’s far more about being the person you really want to be. Honesty, character, integrity, love and loyalty.

Success can’t happen for one person alone and it can’t happen at the expense of the sustainability of others. 

I wish for success for us all in being the people we really want to be. 

So like a Dr Seuss book, I find myself atop a mountain: wish list compiled and wild, dreaming of team, wishing for fish, liking bikes, and without digress wishing us success. Happy 2023. 

A seventh generation Dunedinite who first worked for Otago Regional Council as a 21-year-old aquatic ecologist, Gretchen Robertson is now the council's chairperson.

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