Bryce Edwards: The Uninspiring Wellington mayoral election

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 Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.  


Further reading on the Wellington mayoral contest

1News: Paul Eagle, Tory Whanau leading Wellington mayoral race – poll
1News: Results: Q+A Kantar Public Poll, Wellington mayoral election 2022
Georgina Campbell (Herald): Wellington mayoral poll a rude awakening for Andy Foster (paywalled)
RNZ: Wellington mayoralty: Paul Eagle and Tory Whanau lead in close race – new poll
Toby Manhire (Spinoff): The mayoral hopefuls’ pitches to Wellington – in poem form
Stephen Minto (Daily Blog): Wellington woes – vote them out
Tom Hunt (Stuff): How Wellington’s mayoral hopefuls will grapple with soaring rates bills

Tom Hunt (Stuff): Wellington’s mayoral candidates reveal their funding sources


Other items of interest and importance today

Chris Fowlie (Daily Blog): Auckland mayoral contest: tough choice for progressive voters
Bernard Orsman (Herald): Auckland mayoralty: The minor candidates and their policies
Andrew Kirton (Herald): Wayne Brown or Efeso Collins – we deserve whoever we get these council elections (paywalled)
Glenn McConnell (Stuff): Who is Wayne Brown? ‘Mr Fix-It’ explains what he’ll fix in Auckland
Matthew Theunissen (RNZ): Chatting with Auckland’s mayoral candidates: Wayne Brown, Efeso Collins, Craig Lord

Conan Young (Local Democracy Reporting): Most mayoral candidates say spending ratepayer money on climate change initiatives necessary
Justin Hu (Newsroom): Turnout: ‘I’ve seen the power of young people – they’re going to shake things up’
Erin Gourley (Stuff): Wellington’s 20-something council candidates on getting young people to vote
Krystal Gibbens (RNZ): LGNZ eager to get out the vote for elections
Leighton Heikell (Newshub): Famous faces get involved in push for young voters’ turnout
RNZ: ‘I’m running on that thing of diversity’ – Otago candidates aim to change face of region
Conan Young (Local Democracy Reporting): Survey shows support for Māori wards stronger in provinces than cities
Charlie Gates (Stuff): Killer MPs, Roxy Music & wizards – mayoral hopefuls reveal cultural tastes
David Williams (Newsroom): Crisis hits resort town of have and have-nots
1News: Plea for voters to get informed about candidates’ backgrounds
Paula Bennett (Herald): Local body elections: Tick some boxes, your vote counts(paywalled)
Virginia Fallon (Stuff): Fear and loathing in Featherston: How local elections saw us trapped in a shop
Grant Miller (ODT): Flowing water analogy helps explain STV
Shanti Mathias (Spinoff): How to cast your local elections vote
ODT: Voter apathy high despite big field
Katie Townshend (Stuff): Why every number counts when you fill out your STV voting papers
Stephen Ward (Stuff): Hamilton’s Māori ward kaupapa set to ‘go live’ at this year’s elections

Will Trafford (Māori TV): Ardern says Aotearoa will become republic
Oscar Jackson (Today FM): Jacinda Ardern would wait ‘hours’ to see Queen if wasn’t PM, feels ‘privileged’ to skip queue
Adam Pearse (Herald): Sir Tipene O’Regan throws support behind monarchy amid cultural evolution
Andrea Vance (Stuff): King Charles keen for Māori King Tuheitia to attend the Queen’s funeral

Damien Grant (Stuff): The monarchy is impotent and that’s where its power lies
Sasha Borissenko (Herald): Queen Elizabeth’s death a polarising moment (paywalled)
Giles Dexter, Anneke Smith, and Katie Scotcher (RNZ): Queen’s death reignites discussions over constitution and Te Tiriti
Aaron Smale (Newsroom): The passing of a myth
BBC/Reuters: PM Jacinda Ardern reveals Queen’s advice to her on life as a leader and mother
Cathy Odgers: Why didn’t Ardern invite Luxon to the Queen’s funeral?

Claire Trevett (Herald): Christopher Luxon to announce decisions on Sam Uffindell today
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): The 2023 NZ election will be a competition between competing cults & wounds
Claire Trevett (Herald): PM’s spring clean of Covid response an attempt to reset her flailing popularity (paywalled)
Jo Moir (Newsroom): Seymour takes aim at those not debating serious policy
ODT: Greens firm on backing Labour
Steve Maharey (Stuff): Not all young people who do something bad find themselves in Sam Uffindell’s shoes
Newshub: Government minister Peeni Henare doesn’t want compulsory te reo Māori in schools
ODT: Ardern’s Labour battling the airwaves
Jem Traylen (BusinessDesk): NZTA ads –when will somebody act? (paywalled)
Anneke Smith (RNZ): Independent Electoral Review seeks public views on changes
Rachael Comer (Stuff): James Meager National’s new Rangitata candidate

Colleen Brown (Listener/Herald): Why doesn’t middle-class NZ care about child poverty?(paywalled)
William Hewett (Newshub): Cost of living crisis: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern defends Government changes, expects food prices to come down
Susan Edmunds (Stuff): Rising incomes in NZ can’t keep up with food prices
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Kevin Norquay (Stuff): Are you job-obsessed? New Zealand joins global look at work addiction
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Sharon Brettkelly (RNZ): The councils pushing back on housing density rules
Paul Hunt (Stuff): Those caught in housing crisis need a system that’s accountable
Eva Corlett (Guardian): New Zealand’s motel generation caught between life in limbo and life on the street
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Liz McDonald (Stuff): The need for more housing – should Christchurch be a special case?
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Stephen Minto (Daily Blog): Labour/Green lies to Generation Zero

Janet Wilson (Stuff): The restrictions could remain no longer. Will the Government?
Heather du Plessis-Allan (Herald): Goodbye to the Covid rules, we’re back to normal politics (paywalled)
Michael Baker and Nick Wilson (The Conversation): New Zealand’s new cut-down Covid response is a missed opportunity – here are 5 ways to improve it

Colin Peacock (RNZ): Platforms under pressure to pay for news
Robbie Burton (Newsroom): The terror of publishing Nicky Hager
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Ursula Cheer (Stuff): After 50 years, is the Media Council still the right regulator for our news?
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Justin Wong (Stuff): ‘Don’t mourn, organise’: Well-known trade union leader Ken Douglas farewelled
Mike Treen (Daily Blog): The Ken Douglas obits – Concealing a great betrayal
Rebecca Macfie (Newsroom): Obituary: Ken Douglas, unionist and visionary
Matthew Hooton (Patreon): Ken Douglas, the 1991 general strike and all that(paywalled)

Eric Crampton (Stuff): We must take care with rules on what we can say
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Hikurangi Jackson (Māori TV): Crown Solicitor opens up on guilt he feels being a part of system that has landed against Māori
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Tina Law and Amber Allott (Stuff): ‘Long overdue’: New rules to protect NZ’s most-productive farmland welcomed
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Michael Fallow (Stuff): The worth of a principal – and a school – isn’t an accountancy matter
Lisa Tumahai (Herald): Climate change: Huge implications for Ngāi Tahu with ‘managed retreat’

Andy Brew (Stuff): Reframing and renaming Picton – erasing history or re-establishing it?