Monday, March 31, 2014

Steve Baron: Bon Voyage Michael Laws

Quite by chance, I bumped into Michael Laws as he was packing his car to leave town for his new life in Timaru. Although we have communicated a number of times we had never met, so I took the opportunity to introduce myself and had a short conversation. I could sense a certain amount of despondency about leaving and he voiced his pride and admiration for Wanganui, although raising apprehensions about the problems our city faces.

Being an outspoken public figure is never an easy role to pull off. The Mayoralty vote last year possibly reflected the public’s perception of Michael. Just under half the voters thought highly enough to vote for him while the rest probably wouldn’t touch him with a barge pole.

Love him or hate him, it must be said that Michael lifted the spirits of Wanganui. After all there’s something stimulating about having the country talk about your town, when in the past, under Chas Poynter, it rarely got a mention. Granted, with Michael it wasn’t always good national publicity, but at least people knew we existed!

Yes we may be further in debt after his term in office than before it, but it would be totally unfair to put all that blame on Michael—he had only one vote on Council even though he was Mayor. Every day as I walk along our beautiful river I do so on a decent footpath that was constructed under his term in office. Wanganui residents also got far more say in how their money was spent—he gave them a taste of real democracy through his annual referendums. These referendums were very popular with turnout often higher than for council elections. This goes to show that while the public are not much interested in politics, they are interested in issues that directly affect their lives. Michael certainly gave voters the chance to have their say more than just once every three years at an election.

What does sadden me is the sadistic vitriolic comments posted online now that Michael is leaving. Just as well Michael isn’t as pretty or as sensitive as Charlotte Dawson. I have no doubt though that from time to time such talk hurts the most thick skinned of people. After all we all have feelings. It’s easy to criticise from the side-lines and put this man down but the bottom line is that he was prepared to stand up for what he believed in and he tried to make a difference—whereas most sit in their armchairs and do nothing. So before you take another swipe at Michael just ask yourself… what have you done to make a difference in this part of the world we call Wanganui?

While I might not agree with everything Michael has to say, or even how he says it, I do believe he added to the fabric of our society and I for one wish him all the best on his new journey. I suspect we haven’t heard the last of Michael Laws because people like him can’t help themselves, there’s an innate force that drives them to speak out and address issues that affect all of us in some way.

[Steve Baron is a political scientist, co-editor of the book ‘People Power’ and the Founder of Better Democracy NZ.]


paul scott said...

Yes thanks Steve, for good post.
Timaru is small town as Wanganui is. Cold in winter. I can never imagine why a person getting older would move to a cold small town in the South.
For me, I will move to a Queensland village where the weather is always warm, or a small Thailand village where the weather is even warmer

Anonymous said...

Well said :)

Charles Russell said...

Anyone who puts their head above the parapets is an open target. Anyone who does better than others is open to criticism and jealousy. Having read a few comments from Laws in the press over the years, I feel he is above the herd in his thinking and not afraid to express himself.
NZ has a huge population of zombies and too few original thinkers. Being a small country we tend to be aware of who is who. NZ would be a sadder place without citizens such as M Laws. I wish him well.