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Election Wrap-up

Tom Belford01 December 2019

BB50

Kirsten Wise … WOW! 

Sandra Hazlehurst … comfortable win. 

Alex Walker … no contest … carried in on a throne. 

These ladies should have no trouble pushing around returning Wairoa mayor Craig Little and returning Regional Council chair Rex Graham at the monthly meetings of our region’s top political leaders! They commanded 31,684 votes to the guys’ mere 8,592. 

Regime change 

Without question, the biggest change afoot in Hawke’s Bay local governance will be in Napier. Those choosing ‘Wisely’ gave their new mayor 63% of the nearly 22,000 votes cast, a whopping mandate to clean house, restore due processes and set new direction for the Napier City Council. With five new councillors to assist. 

BayBuzz columnist Andrew Frame and I interviewed mayor-elect Wise the Monday after the election closed to hear her initial plans. Andrew reports on that interview separately in the following article, so I will leave the detail to him. 

Suffice it to say, a ‘reform’ candidate doesn’t win 63% of the vote because constituents are pleased with the status quo! The new mayor has been bestowed enormous political capital which she must now deploy, well, wisely. Perhaps Wise’s biggest immediate challenge will be sorting out her priorities and deciding what to tackle first. Some of the bigger issues will take time to sort, possibly testing ratepayer patience. 

From the outside looking in, but regularly hearing the complaints made, it would seem that ‘culture change’ should be her first order of business. The substantive issues NCC has grappled with in recent times, like the aquatic centre and before that the velodrome and handling of the War Memorial, have been surrounded by ‘process’ intrigue, even manipulation some would argue – who knew what when, reliability of information presented, lack of respect for public views and desultory consultation. And other complaints regarding personnel practices and the unresponsiveness of services staff to ordinary citizens. 

While such dysfunctions fall on the shoulders of councillors, there’s no question that staff attitudes, starting with the chief executive, really drive the culture of the organisation. And with the mandate she has been given, and its roots, it is the staff – from chief executive Wayne Jack on down – who will be need to come to terms with the new mayor and the values and modus operandi she wants to embed in the organisation, not vice versa. 

Her tone will prevail; it is not a negotiation. 

Once Mayor Wise deals with this issue, hopefully Napier citizens will find that, moving forward, good policy follows good process. 

The substantive issues to be revisited are familiar to Napier voters – having been well canvassed during the election (a credit to Chris Tremain as well): the aquatic centre, chlorine and water infrastructure generally, the aquarium, the War Memorial. See Andrew Frame’s article following for insight into how Mayor Wise intends to proceed.

Newcomer Peleti Oli was the new vote champion in Flaxmere. 

Dullsville 

On the other side of the Tutaekuri River, the status quo prevailed. Incumbent Sandra Hazlehurst won 56% of the nearly 23,000 votes cast for mayor, as against Damon Harvey’s 44% … about a 3,000 vote margin. A laudable accomplishment, making this the first time in many elections that Hastings will have a mayor elected by a majority of those voting. 

That said, this was not a bad showing for Harvey, given the incumbency advantages that Mayor Hazlehurst fully exploited to deliver a barrage of ‘good news’ announcements, trophies and awards, and grand openings as the term ended. With no overriding contentious dispute or crisis to drive debate over the election window, the few issues that did arise – Lowe’s pit (aka lake) and Water Central (aka the water museum) were too little too late to stir rebellion. 

As a result, Hazlehurst’s Love Boat was not torpedoed. 

The status quo was reinforced by the re-election of all standing councillors, save one. No Hastings/Havelock North incumbent was defeated, accounting for eight of fourteen HDC seats. The strongest showing non-elected contender was Rizwanna (Riz) Latiff, who has worked hard on many fronts to advance multi-culturalism in Hawke’s Bay. 

The only incumbent to lose a seat was Flaxmere’s Jacoby Poulain. Newcomer Peleti Oli was the new vote champion in Flaxmere, campaigning as a Labour candidate and topping Henare O’Keefe, who secured Flaxmere’s second seat by a scant 36 votes as of this writing over Poulain. Poulain was probably not helped by her high-profile dispute with colleagues at the HB District Health Board, where she also lost her seat.

Only two other newcomers secured HDC seats, Alwyn Corban of Ngatarawa Wines fame, who now represents the Heretaunga Ward (replacing retiring Rod Heaps) alongside returning councillor Ann Redstone, and Sophie Siers (replacing retiring George Lyons) who claimed the Kahuranaki Ward seat by default, facing no opposition. 

HDC can now move on to its important agenda, starting with sorting out who leaked what with reference to Water Central, an issue sure to bore most of the district’s ratepayers, and then finding another public building or room to name. If there’s a serious issue brewing at the Hastings District Council, it has yet to surface. 

And perhaps that suits Hastings district voters just fine. 

The big issue going forward for HBRC will not be championing the environment – that course is set – rather, it will be co-governance with Māori. 

Status quo 

At the Regional Council, while six seats at the nine-person table changed, when the smoke cleared, the power alignment did not. And, from my perspective, that’s what counts. The pro-environment tilt of HBRC remains intact. 

Three incumbents peacefully retired – Alan Dick in Napier, Debbie Hewitt from CHB and Peter Beaven representing the Ngaruroro constituency. 

And three other incumbents were forcibly retired – this writer, representing Hastings/Havelock North/ Flaxmere, losing his seat to former MP Craig Foss, Napier’s Paul Bailey falling to Hinewai Ormsby and Martin Williams, and Wairoa’s Fenton Wilson losing to challenger Charles Lambert. 

However, as noted, the net effect overall is that the Regional Council’s current direction will be maintained. 

Winning incumbents Rex Graham (by now re-elected by his colleagues as chair), Rick Barker, Neil Kirton, Hinewai Ormsby and Jerf van Beek (replacing Beaven) – a core majority – can be expected to be on the same page most of the time. 

Charles Lambert and Will Foley can be expected to advocate well for the interests of their opposite rural wings of the Bay, but look for both to have much warmer and productive relations to the core five than their respective predecessors, Wilson and Hewitt. 

Lambert, like Ormsby, brings a Māori perspective to the table; Foley is a recent convert to ‘regenerative agriculture’ practices on his farms, suggesting he is attuned to ‘best practice’ from an environmental perspective. 

That leaves self-proclaimed ‘environmentalists’ Craig Foss and Martin Williams, both ardent advocates of the Ruataniwha dam, who will be hard-pressed to deliver on their claims that the Regional Council has under-performed in its core mission, protecting and enhancing the environment. God bless if they do! BayBuzz will be happy to recant when we see these two at the leading edge of Hawke’s Bay environmentalism, leaving the rest of their colleagues in the dust. 

The big issue going forward for HBRC will not be championing the environment – that course is set – rather, it will be co-governance with Māori. I’ll come to that in a moment.

DHB re-charges 

Kevin Atkinson remains a fixture at the Hawke’s Bay DHB, topping the ballot. Thankfully, in my book. This term will be his last as chair, making succession planning a key challenge for the biggest ‘business’ in Hawke’s Bay. 

Which makes the new composition of the DHB board – including its four members appointed by the Health Minister – rather important. 

Leaving aside Atkinson and Peter Dunkerley, who are expected to leave after this term arm-in-arm, the five other elected Board members are incumbents Ana Apatu and Heather Skipworth, previous incumbent and newly-returning David Davidson, and newcomers Anna Lorck and Hayley Anderson. 

Undoubtedly these five bring important skills and experiences to the table, but with all due respect none has run a half-billion dollar business. In fact, has anyone else in HB done so? [OK, Rod Drury, but he’s busy.] Yet underneath all the head-scratching and strategising about effectively dealing with mental health, an ageing population, an under-served poor population and so on, there sits a very complex $500 million business, the largest employer in the region. 

And what mix of business acumen and healthcare experience is best-suited to chair the board of such a socially and economically critical enterprise? 

Heaps of people advocating for this or that better, more accessible, more culturally-sensitive, more patient-empowered healthcare regularly surface as DHB candidates, as they did in this recent election. But unfortunately, with the exception of recognised names like Garth Cowie, Claire Vogtherr and Graeme Norton, few bring business savvy along with their health perspectives. 

Moreover, the Board must deal pronto with a more immediate succession issue of equal importance and sensitivity – selecting a DHB chief executive to replace departed Kevin Snee. 

All of this during a political window when the government in power is demonstrating a willingness to deliver overdue funding to the resource-starved health sector. 

The HBDHB must demonstrate its readiness and ability to advocate to Government in this environment, while revamping its health delivery services in critical ways, winning public support for those changes (and for the needed preventive changes in individuals’ own lifestyles), and organising a leadership team for the future. 

Perhaps these are the elected officials with the biggest challenge of all in Hawke’s Bay!

Māori politics 

Hawke’s Bay’s Māori community is undergoing a power realignment of its own. 

For one thing, more Māori are being elected into what has been the Pākehā governance structure of four territorial authorities, the Regional Council and the District Health Board. By my rough count, 12 elected Māori serve on these bodies. Two have just been elected to the Regional Council. 

For the most part, Pākehā voters and ratepayers seem to tolerate Māori representation that flows through the local electoral process. And not much angst is generated by the existence of Māori advisory committees, which most of our elected bodies have, given the emphasis is on ‘advisory’. 

However, controversy ensues when other steps are taken to incorporate Māori perspectives into councils’ decision-making – such as HDC’s decision to appoint un-elected Māori representatives to its standing committees with voting rights (already a practice at HBRC), or the prospect of dedicated Māori seats on the councils. 

Within the Māori community itself, the various sources of leadership legitimacy further complicate matters – including seniority-based kaumātua, marae and hapū leaders, appointees to various bodies, elected councillors, institution-based professionals, NGOs, and treaty claimant trusts. 

To paraphrase a point often made by Ngahiwi Tomoana, chair of Ngāti Kahungunu Iwi Inc (NKII), ‘Hey, we’re no more or less complicated than you white folks’. 

And when the official Pākehā-led governance bodies get it wrong (given their treaty and legislated obligations to consult), all hell breaks loose … the best recent example being the controversy over the aborted Te Mata Peak track. 

Here in Hawke’s Bay, the issue of Māori involvement in council decision-making is becoming most contentious at the Regional Council, where decisions on natural resource issues – such as freshwater management plans – must be passed through a Regional Planning Committee (RPC) comprised equally of the nine elected councillors and nine Māori representatives, one appointed by each of the nine treaty settlement groups in the region. For any decision to be made, an 80% consensus is required, meaning that four votes can quash any action.

This is the only such arrangement in New Zealand, required by special legislation passed during the last National Government after discussions with HBRC during the Andrew Newman regime. Aimed ostensibly at facilitating Māori participation in resource issues, arguably this is co-governance in the extreme. Effectively the legislation sets unworkable ground rules Parliament would never impose upon itself. I suspect few people in Hawke’s Bay would be aware of this arrangement.

Unfortunately, the RPC has become a vehicle of paralysis – for example, delaying for over a year adoption of the community-driven TANK plan that would govern water quality and allocation for the Heretaunga Plains, and now halting its official notification progress. Unresolved arguments have raged over Māori members’ compensation, staff support and even the terms of reference for the RPC. 

The newly-elected Regional Council will need to sort out this co-governance arrangement if any natural resource decision-making is to proceed in Hawke’s Bay.

Government by the minority. The mayor of Napier was elected with 13,774 votes. The mayor of Hastings elected with 12,972 votes. The mayor of CHB with 4,938 votes. The mayor of Wairoa with 1,911 votes. The chair of the Regional Council with 6,681 votes. 

The Silent Majority

As usual, one of the most notable aspects of the recent elections is the number who didn’t vote! Even with a higher than normal turnout in Napier (which reached 50.04%), fully 60,000 eligible voters across the Bay did not vote, yielding their responsibility to the approximately 54,000 who did.

With now-customary weeping and gnashing of teeth, pundits will attribute this poor performance of civic duty variously to defects in the process (with calls for same-day, in-person voting; or heading in the opposite direction, online voting), inadequate media coverage, uninspiring invisible candidates, and/or lack of energising issue controversy.

All of these factors are then summed up and cumulatively blamed for voter ‘apathy’. 

I disagree.

Voter apathy begins with the voter. All the other ‘reasons’ are actually excuses made by should-be voters to fob off their civic responsibility. 

Most of the candidates work hard to bring attention to themselves, with brochure drops, advertising, door-knocking, appearances at the very few candidate meetings on offer, websites, and increasingly social media. As for whether they are uninspiring, any super-star is free to pay the filing fee and sweep us off our feet.

As for issues, many really important issues are, sorry, boring. Infrastructure is the most glaring example … until 5,000 people get sick and chemicals must be added. That said, Napier had no lack of issue controversy and still barely managed 50% turnout.

Yes, media coverage could be more extensive, and more challenging of candidates’ claims, in my opinion. But again, few should-be voters bother to read our resource-constrained newspaper at all. Hawke’s Bay holds in the neighbourhood of 115,000 voters. Less than 20% of them are reading Hawke’s Bay Today with any regularity, and fewer by the year. 

As for process, c’mon! A voting packet with candidate guide is delivered to your doorstep with a post-paid return envelope. How hard can it be to tick some boxes and drop off the envelope? While I personally don’t favour that process for various other reasons, I really cannot say it’s ‘too hard’. 

So, forget about blaming these factors. The should-be voters are themselves the root of the problem. Some with plausible excuses, like illnesses or other family or personal calamities that happen to coincide with the voting window. Some with a view that politics and elections don’t matter … a self-fulfilling stance. Although Mark Twain famously said, “If voting made any difference, they wouldn’t let us do it.” 

But most have no legitimate excuse, instead sheer laziness, perhaps compounded by ignorance of the stakes involved in the selection of local leaders. 

On the other hand, we might come at the issue from an entirely different direction. Other than feeling a bit ‘uneasy’ about minority rule in what is supposed to be a majority rule democratic system, do we – should we – care whether only 40-45% of eligible voters in Hawke’s Bay call the shots?

The mayor of Napier was elected with 13,774 votes. The mayor of Hastings elected with 12,972 votes. The mayor of CHB with 4,938 votes. The mayor of Wairoa with 1,911 votes. The chair of the Regional Council with 6,681 votes.

Government by the minority. Maybe GK Chesterton was right: “Democracy says that the majority is always right. But progress says that the minority is always right.”

Perhaps, like it or not, our local democracy is operating at its best social equilibrium and decorum. Maybe we’ve reached the optimal balance point between responsible students of the issues and candidates, and the wildly uninformed punters (judging from the social media rants I observed during the campaign), who are nevertheless passionate in their views.

If somehow the process were jiggered to yield more voters, which kind would we gain more of?

Whichever the result, the last word goes to George Bernard Shaw: “Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.” 

Tom Belford01 December 2019

BB50

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