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Political Watershed

Political change is in the air, most dramatically with respect to the Regional and CHB District Councils. But the Hastings and Napier Councils will have new voices and perspectives at the table as well.

Tom Belford02 December 2016

New Faces To Watch: Paul Bailey, Alex Walker, Damon Harvey, Geraldine Travers, Larry Dallimore, Claire Hague. And veterans waving goodbye: Cynthia Bowers, Wayne Bradshaw, Mark Herbert, Michelle Pyke, and Peter Butler. Voters delivered some clear messages in the recent local body elections. Some were uniquely directed at particular councils; others have region-wide implications.

Regional Council
The most profound change will occur at the Regional Council.

There, a ruling junta of five councillors has been overthrown, with two incumbents resigning (Dave Pipe and Christine Scott), and three determinedly pro-dam candidates (Martin Williams, Cynthia Bowers and Tim Gilbertson) defeated by sizeable margins.

Two new councillors, newcomer Paul Bailey and veteran Neil Kirton, join the council. These two have aligned with re-elected councillors Rick Barker, Peter Beaven, Tom Belford and Rex Graham on initial organising decisions facing HBRC. And Bailey also joins the four as a staunch dam critic.

As a result, Graham has been elected – unanimously – to replace Fenton Wilson as chairman, with Barker as his deputy chair. And key committee chairmanships have been voted to Beaven (Hearings & Coastal Strategy), Belford (Environment & Services) and Kirton (Corporate & Strategy).

The new majority has already signaled its commitment to putting the brakes on both the Ruantaniwha dam and further water bottling consents.

The fate of the dam might take two paths.

The scheme could fall over of its own weight if either the long-awaited investor or the dam contractor loses interest, and/ or if legal impediments to acquiring DoC conservation land for the reservoir cannot be overcome. Or, the new HBRC majority could take the steps necessary to plan an ‘exit strategy’ aimed at shutting down the project, as those councillors have indicated they are prepared to do.

rex-graham

New HBRC Chairman, Rex Graham

However, the new majority will take steps to adopt a legal stance requiring public notification of any future consents. On that basis, the issues could be fully examined in the public arena, conceivably yielding grounds for denial of consents even under the present ground rules.

Longer term, the fate of water bottling will be determined through the TANK stakeholder process, which in roughly two years will recommend new ground rules (via a formal Plan Change) for both surface and groundwater management throughout the Heretaunga Plains. These rules – based on a more thorough understanding of the sustainable capacity of our aquifers for water extraction of all types – could conceivably set a hierarchy of permitted water uses under varying conditions and at different locations.

The new majority has already signaled its commitment to putting the brakes on both the Ruantaniwha dam and further water bottling consents.

As for water bottling, HBRC is prevented by the Resource Managment Act from simply imposing a blanket restriction on future water bottling consents. All applications for water extraction – for whatever purpose – must be considered without prejudice on a ‘first in’ basis, and granted if no adverse environmental effects can be established.

And further on, the ‘new’ HBRC can be expected to advocate to central government for some form of compensation to the community if a new Plan Change ultimately allows extraction of water for export, based upon sustainability of the resource. The current Government opposes such compensation, and that might well become a campaign issue in the upcoming MP races.

These and other water issues – such as rigorously implementing clean-up of the Tukituki as required by Plan Change 6 and completing the overall TANK process – will continue to occupy centre stage at HBRC in the next triennium.

However the council will also move positively and more collaboratively on a host of other opportunities (as with re-opening the Napier-Wairoa rail line), especially when ideas are brought forward for the new Long Term Plan later next year. Enhancement of regional parks, response to climate change, tree planting and soil erosion, energy policy, fostering farm productivity and economic development will be higher on the agenda.

All of this will be pursued with far greater HBRC transparency than has been on display in the past several years. Four re-elected councillors – ‘the mushrooms’ – have lived in the dark very unhappily, along with the people of Hawke’s Bay. Reflecting the spirit of the new majority, that culture will begin to change immediately.

CHB Council
The CHB Council is getting even more of a facelift than HBRC – led by a new mayor, Alex Walker, elected decisively, with no political baggage whatsoever. Which means no past council practices or policies that she’s bound to protect.

And a fresh team of councillors as well. Six new councillors at a table of eight – Tim Aitken, veteran David Tennent, Bret Muggeridge, Shelly Burne-Field, Tim Choate and Gerard Minehan – join reelected incumbents Kelly Annand and Ian Sharp. And next year a new chief executive also, as current CE John Freeman will not be seeking reappointment.

Walker commented to BayBuzz: “Our community have voted in a very clear way that they expect change, expect things to be done differently, and expect a higher level of leadership and professionalism … The strong vote for change came from a breakdown in trust between the council and the community. In the short-term, there are a couple of key issues that need to be progressed to help re-establish that trust – the performance and perception of our Building Control Authority, and, the performance and perception of our waste water treatment plant in Waipukurau.”

Hastings Council
Voters in Hastings were not either as gutsy or disturbed as their neighbours to the south.

Although Cynthia Bowers, Mick Lester and John Roil moved on by their own choice, only one incumbent was defeated, Wayne Bradshaw … the consummate council gadfly, an essential role on any council. Their four seats have been filled by Damon Harvey, Bayden Barber, Geraldine Travers and Ann Redstone.

Returning incumbents are Rod Heaps, Sandra Hazelhurst, Malcolm Dixon, Kevin Watkins, Adrienne Pierce, Simon Nixon, George Lyons, Tania Kerr, Jacoby Poulain and Henare O’Keefe.

Lawrence Yule weathered the gastro crisis, but his vote decline continued, with the mayor winning election with only 47% of the vote. More so than in 2013, Yule was saved by having two opponents. Guy Wellwood, starting with far less voter recognition and political experience, ran a creditable campaign and quite likely could have won in a two-person race.

Yule has enjoyed a remarkably stable core constituency, winning 11,533 votes in 2016 and 11,516 in 2013. However, his opponents picked up 2,063 votes between the two elections … virtually all of the 2366 new votes cast for mayor in 2016. Yule says he won’t test the mayoral market again.

With diminished mandate and with the loss of stalwarts like Bowers and Lester, the mayor will face a more unpredictable situation as he attempts to lead his council through the next triennium with the help ofnew deputy mayor, Sandra Hazelhurst.

Damon Harvey was the biggest newbie vote-getter (abetted by ubiquitous sign placement), and has higher ambitions. He has promised new energy … now we’ll see where he applies it.

Perhaps the most satisfying campaign must have been run by Geraldine Travers, until recently the principal of Hastings Girls’ High School. In my reconnoitering throughout the election, I spotted only one campaign sign for Travers. At most, she might have had a handful. She violated a cardinal rule of local campaigning – bludgeon the electorate with hoardings.

So how did she score 6,678 votes, coming in sixth out of eight winners? Sheer reputation. Well done!

What will the new council grapple with? Probably what seems like an umpteenth attempt to solve Hastings’ CBD malaise … and possibly acclimating the populace to permanent chlorination!

Napier City Council
Apart from the Napier seats on HBRC, Napier was guaranteed a relative yawner when no one had the, uh, temerity to challenge Bill Dalton, vanquisher of amalgamation, for the mayoralty.

That left it to the challengers for council seats to create some excitement, and they produced a decent showing.

In the wards, Larry Dallimore beat Ahuriri incumbent Mark Herbert (more on that below). Api Tapine, riding the Nelson Park coattails of Maxine Boag, herself re-elected, defeated incumbent Mark Hamilton. Tapine is the first Maori elected to the Napier Council. And Tania Wright reclaimed the Taradale seat she had previously held.

alex_walker

New CHB Mayor, Alex Walker

The Napier at-large contests produced one new face; former Napier Girls’ High School principal (see a pattern here?) Claire Hague impressively topped all incumbents except Kirsten Wise. Her newbie win squeezed incumbent Michelle Pyke off the council.

With only three brand new councillors to acclimate to his priorities and way of doing things, Mayor Dalton, assisted again by his returning deputy mayor, Faye White, shouldn’t face much difficulty leading NCC during his sunset term.

Unless he pedals ahead for a velodrome. On that issue the cyclists are pitted against the swimmers – which does Napier need more, a pool or a velodrome (aka, a multisport facility)? According to canvassing reported by HB Today, even some of Dalton’s veterans are skeptical of the velodrome proposition, while newbies are yet to dive into the issues.

Walker: “Our community have voted in a very clear way that they expect change, expect things to be done differently, and expect a higher level of leadership…”

Dalton must decide which will provide the most fitting monument for his service.

Wairoa
Wairoa delivered the least change of all. Mayor Craig Little was re-elected to a second term, and all councillors seeking re- election won their seats. Departing Benita Cairns was replaced by Charles Lambert.

Perhaps the only surprise was Fenton Wilson’s unexpectedly narrow win for his HBRC seat – with only a 146 vote margin over first-time challenger Dean Whaanga. Mayor Little won more votes than Wilson, as did five out of six of the mayor’s returning councillors. Is there a warning there?

DHB
And just to close out the region’s voting, Kevin Atkinson and all other incumbents, except Heather Skipworth, were re-elected to the DHB. The one newbie elected was well-qualified Ana Apatu, a former nurse, experienced in a number of health care service roles, and presently chief executive of Flaxmere’s U-Turn Trust.

Do issues matter?
While I believe simple name recognition is the single biggest generator of votes at the local level, I’d point to three campaigns in particular as proof that issues can drive an electoral outcome.

The numbers are convincing that voters in Hastings and Napier have voiced their reservations about the dam. And at the ‘retail’ level, certainly that was the message I picked up in my own campaign door knocking.

Both Paul ‘Can the Dam’ Bailey and I have clearly argued the case against the dam – there could be no mystery about our positions. So it’s notable that Green Party operative Bailey beat his closest competitor by 1,240 votes, while I won with a 1,000 vote margin over a 21-year veteran councillor most insiders assumed would beat me (as compared to my 67 vote margin over an equally long-in-the-tooth veteran in 2013).

Not convinced? Look more closely at Paul’s campaign. Competing against the lawyer for the dam, Martin Williams, and steadfast supporter Alan Dick, he increased his result over his 2013 campaign by a whopping 5,122 votes! His increase alone was over three times Fenton Wilson’s entire vote. Now Paul – and I say this with affection and admiration – didn’t pick up over 5,000 new votes by turning on the charm! One issue did it … the dam.

The other campaign to look at for issue impact is Larry Dallimore’s win in Napier.

Dallimore handily beat 18-year veteran Mark Herbert, even with a third candidate in the race as well. Dallimore has for years advocated a different approach to curbing erosion of the Westshore beach, and has been marginalized by the ‘powers that be’ through the entire journey. But his constituency has steadily grown, probably fueled in equal part by those who think he’s right and those who feel he’s been disrespected by the Napier and Regional Councils.

Dallimore is proof that persistent advocacy can be rewarded.

Voter turnout
One might think that strong views on one or another issue – the dam, the gastro outbreak, water bottling, the velodrome – might be enough to drive higher voter turnout in the region.

But the changes in turnout were marginal … a bit up in Hastings, Wairoa, and CHB (the biggest lift); a bit down in Napier. At 48% overall, virtually the same as 2013 across the region.

The amalgamation referendum did boost turnout to 63%, reinforcing the point that issues can drive votes. And after a year-plus of listening to arguments over amalgamation, one needed only to say yes or no.

However, it would appear that candidate elections either bore or confuse voters.

How many times did residents greet me at the door commenting that they didn’t know any of the candidates? And logically following on from that, neither did they know where any candidates stood on the issues … even issues they were especially troubled by, like the dam or water bottling.

I’ll go back to my earlier observation: name recognition is the single biggest generator of votes at the local level. People who simply haven’t the time or inclination to follow the issues, which seems to be a very large chunk of the population,

will vote for people they know … at least somehow by reputation. But if they don’t know the candidates, they do what is arguably the most responsible thing under the circumstances … they don’t vote at all!

hbrc_sign

The numbers are convincing that voters in Hastings and Napier have voiced their reservations about the dam.

Would we prefer they vote in total ignorance? Democracy involves a lot more than just voting.

At the national level, party affiliation provides the substitute both for not knowing individuals firsthand and for not knowing terribly much about the issues … so more people feel comfortable exercising their franchise, and do so, yielding higher turnout.

I don’t think mechanical changes like online voting or voting at the booth on a given day (either of which I would welcome) would actually make much difference to local body election turnout. Many people find it just as easy to return a post-paid envelope as it would be to fire up the computer to vote online or find a voting booth.

Others might blame the media for insufficient coverage of the elections. As a candidate, I had my grievances at times with HB Today’s coverage. But I cannot complain about its scope or the effort made. Frankly, I don’t know what more the paper could do other than tie voters to chairs and read the news aloud to them. C’mon folks, the information was available.

I suggest turnout would be boosted more by sharpening up the choices between candidates. At the local level, people are electing people, not parties. Unfortunately, in HB’s local political culture, people dislike direct comparisons … candidate ‘against’ candidate. It’s seen as ‘playing the man, not the ball’.

In every other ‘sport’ or profession, we’re not averse to holding individuals accountable for their performance. Yet calling the question on an opposing candidate’s performance is deemed unsportsman-like conduct.

Many will disagree, but I think the more we suck the one-on-one competition out of political campaigns, the less vital, understandable and relevant we make them. Competition isn’t by definition negative, it isn’t mudslinging, it isn’t slogging (although at its worst it can be these). It’s about sharpening differences so voters can make reasonable judgments … whether those judgments are about competing values, policies or personal attributes.

Blur the candidates and the result will be the less than 50% turnout we currently get.

In any event, it’s over for another three years. Voters have dealt some new cards in the region. And they have every right to expect that the new faces they’ve elected will deliver the changes that were promised. Hopefully neither the voters nor those elected will relent.

The issues going forward?

  • Regional Council:the dam, and everything ‘water’
  • Hastings:the CBD and drinking water safety
  • Napier:to swim or cycle
  • CHB:getting the basics right
  • Wairoa:seizing the opportunity for better times

A political watershed?
Definitely at the Regional Council and in CHB, possibly in Hastings. Napier’s turn will come with the exit of Dalton in three years. Stay tuned.

Tom Belford02 December 2016

  • Steve Director

    Good summary, Tom. Thanks for all your work and analysis. (I see in the US they are looking at Australia and NZ’s compulsory voting/compulsory registration – attached to small fine – in the national elections.) Education and making a festival of the occasion to me seems the best deal. Close the streets on the Saturday, have a market day, combine it with elections, bring the community fun into duty …

    Openness all round. But CHB farmers & council need alternatives, help from national governments for smaller water storage and water treatment – which means low-cost loans, regional development ‘subsidies’: after all, think national, act local goes as far as recognising that local enterprise not only assists local but taxes come from regions too.

    Water jurisdictions, capacity and council overlap: these too? ‘Nobody owns the water’ /’Everybody owns the water.’ I prefer the later, with rights allocated and apportioned according to need, value and community agreement.

Future Farming Centre for Hawke's Bay

01 October 2017

[Editor’s Note: This article was originally written before the last Regional Council election in 2016. Our automated system went ‘rogue’…