Voter Volatility

Words by  Jim Tucker
Voter-Volatility Voter-Volatility

In Taranaki there are four councils who run the region: Taranaki Regional Council, who take care of the province’s environment; the Taranaki District Health Board, who run the local health system; then the New Plymouth, Stratford and South Taranaki District Councils, who look after the urban areas.

On the 12th October, ratepayers get to vote on who will represent us around the table at the various councils.

Jim Tucker takes a look at what the big issues are for ratepayers, and who’s throwing their hat in the ring this year.

If ever a modern Taranaki local body election held the promise of big voter turnout, this is it. Two words say it – Yarrow Stadium. 

Its controversy would have been far from the thoughts of Manaia baker Noel Yarrow and wife Melva when they so generously funded the rugby amphitheatre’s redevelopment earlier this century.

But bitter disagreement over restoration of the earthquake-prone stadium has boiled over in the last year and local body politicians may be on the wrong end of ratepayer wrath when polls open next month for the 10th election since local government reorganisation in 1989.

Voter turnout has been dropping since then and now languishes below 50 percent. Maybe it will lift this time – there’s nothing like a hot local issue to get people to the ballot box.

How can we encourage young people to vote? It’s a question that troubles Jacqueline Baker, New Plymouth District Council external relations and communications manager. Her concerns are shared throughout the country as we approach yet another election likely to show yet another drop in interest by people under the age of 35.

The question isn’t new. Back in the 60s, New Plymouth’s evening newspaper, the Taranaki Herald, pondered the same issue. The people it worried about are now aging baby boomers, more than two thirds of whom have turned out for local and national elections for decades (85 percent of those retired vote). 

Age counts. Most of them have grown up to own property and pay rates, so money has an overriding say in local politics, and voting.

Conversely, it’s an unalterable fact of life that most people in their teens, 20s and 30s show scant curiosity about what the local council is doing, even though its actions have profound indirect impacts on their distracted existence. 

There’s plenty of research on why they and other people don’t vote – alienation, poverty, powerlessness, location, and so on — but little on what can be done about it. 

There’s the slimmest chance, however, that this October’s poll might, just might, see a lift in their attention in Taranaki because of what’s happening in an arena in which most young people have a close interest — sport.

Taranaki’s active sporting community (participation is higher than in most other regions) is comprised of people with more than a passing interest in the Yarrow Stadium debate, which has spilled out of the backrooms of local politics and into the province’s clubrooms.  

The makeup of those clubrooms has changed. Not everyone espouses rugby these days, and according to many Taranaki sports people (including rugby stalwarts) Taranaki Regional Council went too far with its plans to restore the stadium. 

As Sport Taranaki, Sport NZ, NPDC and South Taranaki District Council point out, spending up to $50m on the stadium may deprive other sports of money to fund their much-needed facility upgrades, such as an extension of the TSB Stadium at New Plymouth racecourse, and increasing capacity at the Todd Energy Aquatic Centre.

Half the voters in New Plymouth are aged under 50, and their usual turnout at local body elections hovers around 40 percent, dropping below that figure the younger they are. But they are the ones who, for the next 25 years, will be paying more than $2000 each for Yarrow Stadium’s repairs and upgrade.

New Plymouth District Council made it clear they felt cornered by TRC’s request that they approve a spend of up to $50m or take back ownership of the crippled stadium (and a debt of $4.2m run up largely to fix stadium roof problems a couple of years ago).

There is irony in the fact three of the five councillors who voted against TRC’s tactics — Mike Merrick, John McLeod and Shaun Biesiek — won’t be seeking re-election. The other two — Gordon Brown (who as chair of Sport Taranaki has led the campaign against TRC’s big spending) and Murray Chong — will be standing again and will likely benefit from their stance.

Similarly, retiring South Taranaki Mayor Ross Dunlop would almost certainly have succeeded in a fifth bid, given the leading role he took among the three district councils in opposing the TRC proposal. 

Easier to speculate about is the effect on members of the Taranaki Regional Council, seven of whom are elected from the New Plymouth District Council (North Taranaki) area, three from South Taranaki and one from Stratford.

The seven from North Taranaki are deputy TRC chair David Lean, Tom Cloke, Charlotte Littlewood, Bev Raine, Craig Williamson (all New Plymouth), and Mike Davey and Donald McIntyre (North Taranaki); while South Taranaki has chair David MacLeod, Neil Walker and Michael Joyce, with Matthew McDonald representing Stratford.

Most of the regional councillors are experienced and long-serving (Lean has been there since the early 1990s; MacLeod has had more than a decade as chairman). 

When Live spoke to David MacLeod, he was undecided about standing again, and if he did he was unsure whether to switch from the TRC’s South Taranaki constituency to the New Plymouth one (he recently relocated to the city from Hawera).

The latter choice is something of a Hobson’s one, given both constituencies are full of ratepayer voters unhappy with the Yarrow Stadium outcome, in which MacLeod, Lean and TRC officers Basil Chamberlain and Mike Nield were the only ones to have much to say as the stadium project campaign unfolded. The two officers have permanent employment, but MacLeod must account for himself to the electorate.

David Lean states that the NPDC has a statutory responsibility to provide funding for regional sports “but they are not doing anything.

“There’s frustration from sports groups but they should direct their anger towards the district council. No-one has called them (NPDC) to account.”

Lean has been the top-polling TRC councillor for decades, so it will be interesting to see if he stands again and whether his share of the vote is affected.

There may be more irony to come — sitting members may be much safer than they seem. Despite the criticism TRC has faced over its stadium aspirations (said to have started around the $160m mark when negotiations with other councils began last year), increased competition for seats will depend on how willing would-be candidates are to join an enterprise with such determination to ignore the average ratepayer. 

Asked for his thoughts on upcoming election issues, David MacLeod reckons proceeding with grandstand repairs and essential refurbishments at Yarrow Stadium with a budget of up to $50m was one of the most momentous and difficult decisions ever faced by TRC councillors. 

“It was an unanimous decision,” he says. “Weighing up everything we saw, heard and read during a wide-reaching consultation process, all of us at the council table are confident the community largely shares our vision for Yarrow Stadium: the best non-metro stadium in the country for national and international sports, entertainment and community events, offering a quality experience for all who use it.”

He says it was clear to TRC that Yarrow Stadium should be reinstated to what it was, with refurbishments necessary to meet current and foreseeable requirements for such venues.

“Not everyone agrees, of course. That is to be expected. But I hope even the critics will acknowledge the council moved swiftly and efficiently to get to the point where a decision could be made giving certainty to the community as well as key stakeholders. 

“It was pleasing that so many took part in the consultation process. We all look forward to the first big event at the repaired and refurbished venue.”

He declined to comment on the possible development of more sports facilities at New Plymouth racecourse (consultants’ reports estimate it would cost about $160m to build a replacement there for Yarrow Stadium), instead suggesting we ask Neil Holdom.

Holdom had nothing to say about the stadium, but said Taranaki Racing is keen to accommodate more sporting codes on Pukekura Raceway (which NPDC owns).

“We have heard back from Winston Peters, Minister of Racing, who indicated he would support a bill to give Taranaki Racing certainty with their lease of the site. Taranaki Racing CEO Carey Hobbs has asked that we design a bill with enough flexibility to allow developments on site to accommodate other sporting codes without the need to go back to Parliament for permission.”

He says NPDC is awaiting results of work by Sport Taranaki to identify what facilities are needed and what are the priorities. The work is being undertaken in conjunction with Sport NZ and the idea is once they have a plan it is likely to be eligible for significant government funding via the Lotteries Commission.

“Our aim will be to develop a staged, multi-sport hub working to a clear master plan and then collaborate to raise a significant share of the required funds from sources other than ratepayers.”

On the subject of TRC’s achievements over the current three-year term, MacLeod says for a number of years running the council’s monitoring has recorded the best-ever gains in the ecological health of Taranaki rivers. 

Three decades ago, under TRC guidance, the region’s farming community voluntarily began the mammoth task of fencing the ring plain’s waterways and protecting them with vegetation. “So far that’s involved 5.6 million plants, thousands of kilometres of fencing and tens of millions of dollars in investment. The region’s on target to largely complete the job by the end of the decade (2020).”

Meanwhile, the dairy-farming community is also investing in improvements to effluent disposal, switching to land-based systems that leave waterways out of the equation.

“Thanks to this council’s work with stakeholders like this, we’ve been able to tell the government there are no ‘at-risk catchments’ in this region according to Wellington’s newly developed criteria for such a definition.”

He says TRC’s campaign towards a predator-free Taranaki launched in 2018 is the biggest project of its kind in the country and will cost $47m in the first five years, with $11.7m coming from the government.

Monitoring — using rat footprint tracking and a possum bite-mark index — shows catch rates have dropped. Rats went from 33 percent to 19 percent in the past year, while the urban New Plymouth possum index has fallen from 25.6 percent to 1.4 per cent in the past four years.

Eradicating possums from Oākura is getting closer. “Phenomenal support from Oākura urban and rural residents has seen 53 possums caught in town and 140 in rural Oākura in the past four months.” 

He says other achievements include the first sighting in 112 years of a North Island robin, seen at Pukeiti gardens after intensive predator control in the area. 

New Plymouth rural landowners are starting to manage and maintain traps utilising a new wireless trapping network and self-resetting traps, helping catch and monitor mustelids (stoats, ferrets, weasels) on a large scale across 14,000 hectares between Egmont National Park and New Plymouth.

The new rainforest centre and associated developments at Pukeiti, which opened two seasons ago, saw visitor numbers whoosh ahead before settling into a steady increase that’s so far about 200 percent up on what they were seeing just before the revamp. “We’re now nudging 85,000 a year, streets ahead of the 10,000 annual visitors when the council took responsibility for this property in 2010.” 

An often unheralded aspect of the TRC’s work is the advocacy work it carries out on behalf of the region in national forums or in response to initiatives and proposals by other agencies. In the current year, for example, 26 submissions have been made, up from 24 the previous year.

In contrast to MacLeod, New Plymouth mayor Neil Holdom is in his first term as an elected local body politician. After taking some missteps during his initial couple of years — inevitable for someone inexperienced — he now believes he is ready to address a range of significant new challenges.  

He says he’s part of a strong and diverse elected team who think differently and have collaborated over the past three years to deliver many tough decisions through high quality and often reasonably entertaining debate.

“In my view, all the councillors have lifted and are operating as an effective cohesive governance team, leading, testing and challenging our senior management to perform.”

The council is now refocused on core infrastructure, operations and maintenance through the development of a $2.1 billion long-term plan, he says, delivering a much-needed change to investment in water, waste-water and storm-water infrastructure. “First signs of this work can be seen in Inglewood with a major water reticulation upgrade well underway and new water reservoirs around New Plymouth soon to follow.”

Another achievement during the term has been completion of the Waitara Lands Bill following years of negotiations, and forging new and positive working relationships with iwi and hapū in Waitara. 

“The bill will deliver three enduring investment funds focused on improving the health of the Waitara River, growing the land holdings of Otaraua and Manukorihi Hapū and investing in the wellbeing of the community of Waitara.”

The council is successfully building its relationship with Māori, says Holdom. “NPDC/iwi relationships continue to grow as we learn to work together, trust each other and collaborate to make good things happen for all our people.”

Examples include the new airport terminal design involving Puketapu, collaboration with Puketapu on the design of the Bell Block-to-Waitara walkway extension, reaffirmation of the Te Rewarewa agreement involving Tāwhirikuta, and completing the Tapuae Roa economic development strategy involving all Taranaki iwi.

There has also been successful lobbying of the government to remove toxic debris from Barrett St hospital to assist Te Ātiawa to redevelop it, and working with North Taranaki Iwi through Te Puna Wai to secure a new drinking water supply for the district.

He says as chair of the Taranaki mayoral forum, he has helped build good working relationships with government ministers (including the Prime Minister) to secure more than $20m in Provincial Growth Fund money for Egmont National Park and restoration of Taranaki Cathedral ($5m), and $27m for the new national energy development centre, with the possibility of a further share of the government’s new $20m energy research fund.

Other fund-raising gains finalised with the government this term include a $26m development to regenerate Marfell via Kiwi Build, and an additional $13m for SH3 Bell Block-to-Waitara safety improvements (total budget now $29m) after more than a decade of inaction, multiple fatalities and serious injury accidents. “Work is underway to secure a further $21m to do the project once and do it right.”

He also mentions the signing of the Parihaka reconciliation agreement, which marked a New Zealand first “to help spark what we all hope will be the regeneration of one of Taranaki’s most historically significant settlements”.

The council collaborated around Mt Taranaki to deliver Tapuae Roa, a regional economic develop plan, and the subsequent Taranaki 2050 Roadmap and Just Transition Summit. They developed a plan for regional decarbonisation that “far surpassed anything other regions have done”.

He says one challenge during his first term has been building an understanding of the works needed on water infrastructure over the next decade. 

“Cyclone Gita helped highlight the fragility of our infrastructure but because the assets are underground they are out of mind, out of sight. However, close to a third of our water and wastewater assets will require replacement within the next 10 years, work that will cost more than currently budgeted.”
Another thing needed was improvement to the internal culture of NPDC following a period of significant turmoil. Recruiting a new CEO has made a material difference in the past 18 months, along with the performance of the elected team, he says. They have developed a 10-year plan that balances getting the basics right with achieving affordable progress.

He concedes his Fitzroy Golf Course land development proposal generated intense public debate. “I was surprised at the level of vitriol, but came to realise it goes with the job so simply focused on keeping things professional and working on the issues.”

In the end, NPDC listened to the community, showing that while not perfect, its consultation process delivered the outcome the community wanted. “I made a mistake, stepped back and apologised and learned from it.” 

His view is there are alternative ways to fund things beyond hammering the ratepayer, but they require a little creativity, a lot of hard work and building relationships and trust, along with the application of commercial principles that historically do not appear to have been applied in traditional local or regional government.

Asked to define future challenges, Holdom mentions “three waters reform” and the risk Taranaki’s community-owned infrastructure may be nationalised.

He is concerned about pressure on some household budgets from the rising expense of delivering services to meet community expectations, and the government’s refusal to share GST generated in the regions to offset the cost of community infrastructure. “We’re working with other councils on this, but the government hasn’t shown any appetite for changing the way tax revenue is distributed.”

He believes economic headwinds created by changes to the Crown Minerals Act and anticipated changes to freshwater management will continue to place pressure on Taranaki’s two largest economic engines, energy and farming, and will need collaboration and investment from both government and the private sector. 

“I’m fully confident we will adapt and continue to thrive, but it will require a well-co-ordinated effort to pull the plans off the paper and make things happen.”

He sees the national political environment in a state of flux and Taranaki’s strength has been in speaking to Wellington with a single clear voice, including the aspirations of local and regional government, iwi, the business community and more recently the unions.

Challenges he sees ahead include zero waste by 2040 and improving infrastructure to address historic underspending and meet expectations. That will involve securing the district’s drinking water for the next 50 years and ensuring the plan is adequately funded, easements and land are purchased as soon as possible, and the required consents obtained. 

On the books are much-needed upgrades to the Inglewood, Oakura and Okato water supplies, fixing Waitara’s stormwater, and reducing the frequency of wastewater contamination to waterways.

He wants to collaborate with the government and the business community to make Taranaki the national centre of new energy research and engineering, and that includes tertiary education aimed at securing quality jobs.

At least five of NPDC’s 15 councillors won’t stand again this election – Shaun Biesiek, John McLeod, Alan Melody, Roy Weaver and Mike Merrick — leaving some gaps likely to be filled by candidates new to local government. 

One councillor standing for his sixth term is Howie Tamati.

There are moves afoot in the community to encourage more women to stand, given the current proportion (13 percent) is one of the lowest in the country. One will be last election first runnerup Deb Tawa, a New Plymouth accommodation proprietor who in 2016 missed being a councillor by 262 votes. 

Others include New Plymouth commercial and property lawyer Amanda Clinton-Gohdes, former digital consulting business owner Katherine Blaney, former Act Party candidate (2017) Anneka Carlson (who says she no longer belongs to Act and doesn’t support the party), communications advisor and volunteering award recipient Sarah Foy, and Kurvarji Kurvaji, co-ordinator for the Marfell Community Trust, who is standing for mayor.

This year the NPDC is switching to single transferable voting (STV) for the first time, the same system as the Taranaki District Health Board.

Since STV was re-introduced to New Zealand in 2004, some councils have tried it but later switched back to First Past the Post, says experienced electoral officer Dale Ofsoske.

“Note that a council which changes electoral system must under legislation use that electoral system for a minimum of two triennial elections.” 

Election Dayfor New Plymouth, Stratford and South Taranaki District Councils

Taranaki Regional Council

Taranaki District Health Board

 Sat 12th October 2019

Nominations for candidates close at 12 noon on 16 August 2019.

Voting documents delivered to households the week of 20-25 September 2019.

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