Bryce Edwards: Why Tory Whanau has the lowest approval rating in the country

Bryce Edwards: Why Tory Whanau has the lowest approval rating in the country

Polling shows that Wellington Mayor Tory Whanau has the lowest approval rating of any mayor in the country. Siting at -12 per cent, the proportion of constituents who disapprove of her performance outweighs those who give her the thumbs up. This negative rating is higher than for any other mayor in the country. By contrast, Waimakariri mayor Dan Gordon has an approval rating of +51 per cent, and Matamata-Piako’s Adrienne Wilcock is on +46 per cent.

The polling was carried out by David Farrar’s Curia Research. Other notable results at the top end include Nelson’s Nick Smith +44 per cent, Rotorua’s Tania Tapsell +30 per cent, Christchurch’s Phil Mauger +12 per cent, and Hamilton’s Paula Southgate +12 per cent. At the bottom end, Kāpiti’s Janet Holborow is -8 per cent, Auckland’s Wayne Brown is -9 per cent and Whanau at -12 per cent. Also included are Tauranga’s unelected commissioners, who have a worse rating than the mayors, on -18 per cent.

This was all explained in an article by Sapeer Mayron in the Sunday Star Times yesterday: Aotearoa’s most popular mayor: Dan Gordon of Waimakariri (paywalled)

Whanau was initially extremely popular in Wellington. Even a year ago, the Curia Research poll showed her performance rating among constituents at +8 per cent.

Her plummeting performance rating also aligns with collapsing confidence and satisfaction with her Council. The last poll released by Wellington City Council showed only 17 per cent of Wellingtonians say they are “satisfied” with the Council, and 52 per cent say they are “dissatisfied”.

Wellington’s “most rightwing mayor”

Wellington’s have clearly fallen out of love with Whanau – having voted her in as a fresh new face in 2022, replacing incumbent Andy Foster and easily defeating rival Paul Eagle, backed by the Labour Party. It was her first electoral contest, and a strong election campaign and the backing of the Green Party buoyed her.

Wellington Mayor Tory Whanau’s score is undoubtedly impacted by her personal problems and integrity issues. She’s been criticised for behaviour ranging from her poor attendance at important meetings, her treatment of hospitality staff, and her problems with alcohol. In addition to her integrity issues, many will point their finger at misogyny and racism as a factor in her decline.

However, Whanau’s policies and priorities are at the centre of her problems. Although she has campaigned and positioned herself as somewhat leftwing and environmental, Whanau has presided over and championed policies that would usually be seen as rightwing or pro-Establishment. Many Wellingtonians have come to see Whanau as the most rightwing Wellington mayor in living memory.

These are the issues and political stances that the Mayor has become most associated with.

1) The Reading Cinema deal

This has been widely viewed as a corporate welfare bailout for the multinational film chain, which wants help repairing its earthquake-closed Courtenay Place centre.

Whanau held secret negotiations with the company soon after becoming mayor, offering to pay Reading Cinema $32m so they could more easily afford to earthquake-strengthen their building. The political left normally sees these sorts of deals as “neoliberalism.”

Ultimately, Whanau couldn’t convince most of her councillors that it was a good use of public money, and the project was cancelled. Whanau put all her eggs in this basket to fix up Courtenay Place, but she has lost the legacy project she so badly wanted.

2) Introducing private water meters as a response to the water crisis

Wellington’s ongoing water crisis, largely due to leaking pipes throughout the city streets, has been a headache for Whanau and the council, especially after they initially cut the budget for repairs. Last month, it was revealed that the council-owned Wellington Water takes considerably longer to deal with leaks than in other parts of the country – see Ryan Anderson’s Wellington leaks taking 17 times longer to fix than other cities

Rather than just fix the problem in terms of the leaky pipes, the Mayor has proposed introducing expensive water meters onto people’s properties – estimated to cost $130m – that will allow the introduction of user pays. The political left typically strongly opposes such policies associated with increasing inequality and privatisation. In the case of Whanau, she has also been against water metres, but now says her experience of the water crisis – which many blamed her for being “missing in action” over – has changed her mind.

3) Selling Wellington Airport

Early in Whanau’s term as mayor, proposals were developed to sell some Council-owned assets to afford projects such as the Reading Cinema bailout. This later extended to her proposal to sell the Council’s remaining stake in Wellington Airport. Initially, many of Whanau’s Council allies were open to this. But after a campaign to keep the airport partially in public hands, many councillors are turning against the idea – see Erin Gourley’s coverage in The Post: Seven councillors back keeping Wellington Airport shares (paywalled)

4) Privatising Civic Square

Wellington’s Civic Square, or Te Ngākau, has been a victim of earthquake problems, with the buildings surrounding the plaza closed, especially the Wellington City Council office buildings. Whanau has now announced that those Council buildings will be demolished. The Council will now shift its headquarters to a leased building on the capital’s waterfront – the old Datacom buildings. And the empty land around Civic Square will be handed over to Precinct Properties, the developers responsible for the Commercial Bay shopping mall in Auckland. Something similar will be built, and Wellington’s Civic Square will essentially become “Commercial Square” with privatised offices and bars built instead – see BusinessDesk’s Precinct Properties wins bid for Wellington civic square redevelopment project (paywalled)

The deal hasn’t yet been finalised. The attraction for Whanau and her colleagues is that the property developers say they will build a five-star green building incorporating te ao Māori and mana whenua perspectives. However, one of the councillors, Iona Pannett, has dissented, describing the new building’s design as inadequate for the space.

The Mayor justified the decision to sell off the asset to property developers with reference to the disastrous earthquake-strengthening project for the Town Hall, which has blown out to about $329m: “The decision to select a private developer means the developer funds and undertakes the redevelopment. This means the city council avoids the cost and risk of redeveloping the site – which we know can be challenging from our experiences with the town hall”.

Whanau has promised extensive negotiations with the property developer before signing the deal, but no genuine consultation with the public is occurring about this crucial asset. Similarly, a decision has been made to demolish, and not replace, the iconic and much-loved City to Sea Bridge that links Civic Square to the waterfront.

5) Austerity cutbacks and higher rates

Whanau has led the Wellington City Council’s austerity drive. Like much of the Mayor’s policies in office, this wasn’t signalled when she campaigned for the mayoralty. Citizens have generally become discontented with cutbacks and lower service delivery from the Council.

Meanwhile, the cost of Council rates continues to skyrocket, making the city more unaffordable for homeowners and renters (who effectively have the rates passed onto them in higher rents). For the next financial year, the Council is considering another big rise – an 18 per cent increase. The Post’s Tom Hunt has calculated that with compounding rate increases, the likely ten-year rate increase will be over 175 per cent. This is a huge increase for individual ratepayers: “A Wellington home owner who paid $4000 in rates last year will be getting a $11,035 annual bill within the decade, Wellington City Council figures show” – see: ‘Eye-watering’ rates rises coming for Wellington city (paywalled)

The council, which employs many public relations staff (54), continues to get criticism for spending on what many see as vanity projects. The latest is a video campaign to sell the merits of Wellington to outsiders, especially tourists, using the Council’s new marketing slogan, “You would in Wellington”. For more on this, see Tom Hunt’s story in The Post: Spend $550k on a video campaign? You Would in Wellington (paywalled)

6) Transport problems hardly progressed

Campaigning for the mayoralty, Tory Whanau supported the Labour-Green Government’s “Let’s Get Wellington Moving” (LGWM) initiative and associated changes, such as revamping the “Golden Mile” as a bus route.

Unfortunately, the LGWM scheme turned out to be incredibly ineffective but expensive. The project has now been cancelled, and the final cost has been added up as $180m, much of which was spent on consultants. According to Tom Hunt, the physical achievements of LGWM can be listed as: “a pedestrian crossing, speed reductions, a roundabout, and changes to Thorndon Quay” – see: $180m final cost for Let’s Get Wellington Moving released (paywalled)

However, some of the LGWM projects have been kept alive by the local authorities – the Golden Mile bus revamp is the most contentious. It will have ten new bus stops, some of which will have weather shelters. Last week, leaked documents show that each bus stop cost more than the average house in Wellington – see: Wellington’s $1.2m bus stops costing more than a home (paywalled). The new bus lanes are also being budgeted at a further $57m.

Tory Whanau has alienated both left and right in Wellington

All of the above policies and positioning make Tory Whanau a much more right-wing or Establishment politician than many Wellingtonians might have expected from the new mayor. After all, she ran for office with the message that she would do things differently and that her approach would be progressive.

She was also backed by the Green Party, for whom she had previously been the Chief of Staff at Parliament. Of course, between working for the Greens and becoming mayor, she had worked for about a year as a corporate lobbyist, which might have also signalled her approach. Working for Neale Jones’ Capital Government Relations firm, she was involved in the Wellington world of property developers and others trying to do corporate-government deals with decision-makers. Her new approach as Mayor isn’t perhaps that different.

She has also followed the age-old strategy of smart but opportunistic politicians: winning over your own base (the left) and then governing in the interests of the voters you still need to win over (the right). Some political strategists refer to this as “triangulation.”

The risk with this strategy is that you appear flaky and hollow, and you lose the support of your own side while not making any inroads on the enemy ground you’re trying to win. In Whanau’s case, this seems to be precisely what occurred. She has positioned herself as a leftwing radical but has been governed as the most rightwing Wellington mayor in living memory. As a result, she’s lost her political soul and any chance of getting re-elected in 2025.

Whanau sets her sights on Parliament for 2026

Two weeks ago, Mayor Whanau announced another U-turn – that she was rejoining the Green Party after previously vowing to remain independent in her role as mayor – see Ethan Manera’s Herald article, Wellington Mayor Tory Whanau rejoins Green Party after previously deciding not to renew membership

Some Wellington constituents might see her re-joining the Greens as a broken promise or a betrayal – because she campaigned for the mayoralty based on being an “Independent” and non-partisan mayor. She sold herself as a “bridge builder” for a fractious Council. She now suggests that her Green membership was only “on hold temporarily” rather than a proper resignation.

In this sense, her decision to re-join is an honest move — it was always something of a fiction that she was an “Independent” politician. Many local politicians pose as non-party independents, and it’s often inauthentic—but this was especially so, given that she was endorsed by the Greens and continued to be active in the party after her resignation.

Rejoining the Greens is also an honest reflection that posing as a “bridge builder” hasn’t worked out — under Whanau’s leadership, the Council has become more divided and fractious. And Whanau herself is seen by many as the most polarising figure, causing further disunity. She probably feels that she may as well be her genuine political self rather than pretending to be an independent.

Most significantly, however, by publicly throwing in her lot with the Greens, Whanau is essentially launching her next career move – to become a Green MP, following in the footsteps of former Green councillor Tamatha Paul into national politics. This has long been speculated upon, and the Green Party would be sure to welcome Whanau onto a high placing on their party list for 2026. And there has been talk this year of Whanau being a future replacement for co-leader for Marama Davidson.

But would the Greens want her? Some say she would be given a high list ranking. Yet her track record as mayor – particularly the corporate political direction she favours – should be pause for thought. Do the Greens want a former corporate lobbyist turned ineffective mayor pushing their party in the same direction that Wellington has been going in over the last two years? Although James Shaw was hated by many in the party, it might not be long before he is sorely missed.

Dr Bryce Edwards
Political Analyst in Residence, Director of the Democracy Project, School of Government, Victoria University of Wellington

This article can be republished for free under a Creative Commons copyright-free license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project (https://democracyproject.nz)