Nickie Muir: Joys of unexpected change

By Nickie Muir

Newly elected Whangarei Mayor Sheryl Mai
Newly elected Whangarei Mayor Sheryl Mai

Pre-October 13, I felt the local elections were shaping up to go the same way as the America's Cup.

I'm still having trouble being proven wrong. I'm adjusting to the unlikely fact of living in a provincial town in New Zealand where a woman, who literally rode in from left field on a scooter, is now mayor.

My natural cynicism (some would say Eyoreish tendencies) had assumed the big money would win on the day. Hey, it usually does.

The billboards round town reminded me of the late 90s in Argentina when Maradona went on a drug-fuelled bender with a hotel room of taxi boys and got caught out by the paparazzi who bowled in after the pizza delivery guy.

His legions of fans plastered the city in government-funded posters that shouted: "Evil Cocaine!!!"

Anything really, to prove their idol wasn't gay or corrupt and that all was well with the world if only we got rid of Charlie.

It wasn't that Maradona's Olympic nasal efforts were really causing outrage, it was more that this one event seemed to crystallise everything wrong in Menem's Gotham City and it was time for a change, which came soon enough.

Here, it was as if one arts project - irrespective of its potential drawbacks or benefits - came to represent the same thing.

The calls for council staff to resign - on public noticeboards on State Highway 1 - didn't go unnoticed by visiting friends and relatives from overseas either.

Nobody goes about the year-long background wall-papering of a town with calls for a senior council staff member to step down unless they are feeling seriously aggrieved but, sadly, I realised I had become used to them in the same way as I'd become accustomed to the status quo.

I expected any reviews on council staff behaviour by councillors would constitute a ceremonial moistening of the odd bus ticket rather than real investigation.

To the uninitiated in Whangarei's politics, it showed we were indeed a bunch of unhappy campers whichever side voters pitched their tents on the fractured political divide.

Hardly the image of the kind of place with a positive "sense of place" or one where people are really "loving it here".

Despite the verbal battering from billboards - all part of democracy finding its pulse - the visiting Belgian contingent loved the Festival of Light and Art so much they are threatening to make an annual pilgrimage north and rearrange the Europe-based extended whanau's yearly visit so they can fit it in. Low-tech - family friendly - great food and the kids involved with everything.

That's what they loved - and hey - who needs Disney when there is, despite the problems, still a lot to love here.

The public swearing in of the new mayor and her council next Wednesday does feel like a change of guard. She has made promises of a return to process and transparency and to look for consensus among all the elected representatives of the people who have put them there. Big ask. Big job. Big change.

I might even go along.

It's not that I'm about to take Eeyore out the back and shoot him just yet - I'm just putting him out to grass for a while - long enough at least for her to saddle up, pick up the reins and hopefully start heading this town somewhere that benefits more than just a privileged few.

- Northern Advocate

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