Monday, September 19, 2022

Bryce Edwards: The Uninspiring Wellington mayoral election

Wellingtonians are desperately unhappy with the politicians running their city, and a new poll out yesterday shows they’re not very impressed with their mayoral options either.

The Wellington City Council’s own annual Residents Monitoring Survey shows plummeting levels of confidence in the politicians and the state of the city. When asked about satisfaction with council decision-making, the number of those who are “satisfied” had dropped to a new low this year of only 12 per cent, while those who said they are “dissatisfied” jumped to 52 per cent.

Only 17 per cent believed the Council makes decisions that are in best interest of Wellington (down from 50 per cent in 2017). There have been significant declines in other metrics like sense of community, safety in the city, attractiveness of the inner city, and even the quality of the arts scene.

Solid vote of “No confidence” in the mayoral candidates

Wellingtonians might have expected that this year’s council elections would be a chance for renewal and some vibrant new challengers to the incumbents. But this simply hasn’t happened, with the main three mayoral candidates promising “more of the same”. Accordingly, Wellingtonians appear to be entirely unmoved by what is on offer.

A poll out yesterday confirmed this – with almost half of respondents not interested in voting for any of the candidates. According to the Kantar-1News poll released on the Q+A TV programme, 47 per cent of those surveyed said they either didn’t know who to vote for, wouldn’t answer the question about their preference, or didn’t plan to vote. This is essentially a huge vote of “No confidence” in the mayoral candidates.

Of the 500 people polled, about 14 per cent said their preference was current Labour MP Paul Eagle (72 votes), 13 per cent preferred Green Party staffer turned corporate lobbyist Tory Whanau (67 votes), and about 10 per cent said they’d vote for the incumbent mayor Andy Foster (52 votes). The “No confidence” option romped in with 47 per cent (235 votes).

Of course, once the pollsters removed that 47 per cent from the survey equation, the result looked better for the frontrunners – with Eagle on 28, Whanau on 26, and Foster on 20, in something of a three-horse race.

The margin-of-error in the polling methodology, together with the vagaries of STV-voting, means that all three are clearly in the race. A lot will depend on voters’ second preferences for mayor. So, for example, even though Foster is third, he may still pick up enough second preferences from those voting for other candidates – especially for Ray Chung on 13 per cent – to potentially propel him to first place.

When Kantar simply calculated who would win, based on further preferences in the poll if it came down to the two frontrunners – Eagle was on 51 per cent, and Whanau on 49 per cent. The pollsters labelled this a “statistically too close to call” race.

It is also noteworthy that the Kantar-1News poll asked: “Do you feel confident in the ability of Wellington City Council to meet the needs of its residents?”, with only 23 per cent saying “yes”, again revealing huge dissatisfaction with the status quo in the capital.

Candidates promising “more of the same” for Wellington

There is not a lot to differentiate between the three mayoral front-runners – especially in terms of their policies for Wellington. All three are essentially promising “business as usual”, offering only variations on a very Establishment agenda.

In theory, the three candidates can be seen as representatives of three of the main parliamentary parties – Whanau is endorsed by the Greens, Eagle is endorsed by Labour (and is a sitting Labour MP), and Foster seems to be supported by a lot of National voters (although he has previously stood for Parliament for NZ First).

All three candidates are running relatively ideologically centrist campaigns, not deviating much to the left or right. As leftwing commentator Dave Armstrong wrote last week, “Foster lies to the right of Eagle and Whanau, it’s not that far right”, and “Eagle, as the centrist candidate, needs to shore up support on the left as well as right”. As a more liberal option, Whanau “is resonating with younger voters, urban liberals, women and many on social media.”

But is Whanau all that different to Eagle or Foster? Not really. Even Foster emphasises how similar her policies are to his (rather than trying to scaremonger about her being some sort of radical or fringe candidate). According to one journalist’s report, “Foster claims she’s brought nothing new to the table, with almost all of her platform rehashing some of the work the council is already doing.” Foster has said: “The thing with Tory is that virtually every policy is part of what we’re already doing”.

Whanau doesn’t really disagree with such assessments. Last week she responded to criticisms, pointing instead to her leadership style being better than Foster’s: “For the majority of our policy platforms for the three of us, there’s actually a lot of crossover. We all agree on the pipes, we all agree on public transport and we all agree on housing… The point of difference would definitely be leadership style.”

For Whanau, she is focusing on her demographic identity as her main point of difference, and so appears to want Wellingtonians to vote for her on the basis of her ethnicity, age, and gender. These aren’t unimportant dynamics. But will they be enough to enthuse Wellingtonians? So far, it seems not.

A lack of substantive choice for mayor

All three candidates have been strongly criticised for their lack of clear policies on the campaign trail. They are very vague about what they would do differently to the status quo. Naturally, this is not that surprising with the incumbent, Foster, who is defending his record. But it’s surely disappointing to those expecting that Eagle and Whanau would be able to present an alternative.

On issues like rate increases – which have been projected to increase by 60 per cent over the following seven years – none of the candidates are willing to promise restrictions. Eagle, for example, says: “I would commission a review of council spending and then reprioritise the budget. I think it’s absolutely critical that we know what the city books like.” On Three Waters there’s some disagreement. Eagle and Whanau are for it, Foster is opposed.

There’s not much more of interest in terms of policy differences. As Newstalk ZB’s Heather du Plessis-Allan recently summed up the contest: “The Wellington Mayoral race is awful. It’s talentless.”

Finally, all three mayoral candidates were recently asked to write a poem to pitch to voters about why they deserved to be mayor. These short poems are worth reading.

Tory Whanau: “Let down by pale, male and stale; Pipes and buses, an embarrassing fail; Then along came Tory; To make it all hunky dory; Vote Whanau number one and in relief exhale.” Of course, the other poems by Foster and Eagle weren’t any more illustrative.

Andy Foster: “Honoured to lead the city I love; Got lots done, even though it’s been tough; Fixing pipes, transport deals, providing for housing for all; Supporting the arts, library, St James, Tākina, Town Hall; Let’s work together and get our city on the move.”

Paul Eagle: “Over poo in streets; flies an Eagle. I’ll fix that, cries the howling wind.”

Although this poetry device was meant to give some colour and fun to otherwise dire campaign debates in Wellington, it has turned out to be quite illustrative of a rather empty and uninspiring campaign.

Dr Bryce Edwards is a politics lecturer at Victoria University and director of Critical Politics, a project focused on researching New Zealand politics and society. This article was first published HERE

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