When I become Auckland mayor ... yeah right

By Damian Christie

Who will win the race? Photo / Brett Phibbs
Who will win the race? Photo / Brett Phibbs

If you believe the polls, Phil Goff will romp home in the race to be Auckland mayor. So how do the 18 other contenders keep going in the face of defeat? Damian Christie finds out.

There are 19 candidates in the running to be mayor of Auckland.

Here's a fact - 18 of them aren't going to win.

Some believe they might, some are trying hard, and some like Auckland Legalise Cannabis' candidate Adam Holland didn't get around to providing a statement for the council's website.

What about Wayne Young, who came seventh in 2013 (3943 votes) and is running again? His statement begins "When I become the mayor [Yeh right] ..." - those are his words, his statement to voters.

So why does someone wake up one day, and think "I want to run Auckland"? And why do it when you publicly rate your own chances like a beer billboard?

With 19 candidates for one job, the mayoral race is the most highly contested of all the council spots on offer.

According to most commentators, what polls there have been, and even some of his competitors, Phil Goff can safely start picking out curtain fabric for his new office.

Don't tell Penny Bright, 62, that. The fulltime activist returns my calls from inside the Auckland Transport Infrastrcture Conference. "Historic, very important," she calls it.

An enthusiasm for infrastructure seems like an ideal qualification for the top job, and a rare one at that.

Bright's third time running, she's learned to campaign on a budget she estimates as "bugger all", recycling corflute hoardings and stenciling slogans on the back.

'Super City = Super Rip-Off' - even the words are recycled from three years ago, as she sees nothing's changed for the better.

Corruption, a lack of transparency, billions wasted on consultants, that's what she's battling against.

Bright was fourth in 2013, just under 12,000 votes, so what makes her think she'll fare better this time? Brexit.

"I believe I have an excellent chance of capturing that Brexit feeling, that was never supposed to happen. Winston Peters was never supposed to win Northland, he was never supposed to have a show."

Like Bright, newcomer Chloe Swarbrick thinks the key is motivating the two-thirds of voters who didn't vote last time.

Though excluded from many public meetings and opinion polls, she's cut a swathe through the also-rans, and fought for her place at the debating table.

"Chippy and a bit bossy," one tone-deaf commentator sneered, perhaps preferring the young candidate be seen and not heard.

Auckland Mayoral candidate Chloe Swarbrick. Photo / Dexter Murray
Auckland Mayoral candidate Chloe Swarbrick. Photo / Dexter Murray

But Swarbrick's approach has worked.

When you're 22 and running for mayor, it's hard for the discussion to not be about your age or experience.

The flipside is you will get coverage you wouldn't get if you were Wayne "Yeh Right" Young, age unknown.

"It's a double-edged sword," Swarbrick acknowledges.

We meet at her local café in Mount Eden, and she says that's what intitally stopped her putting her name forward.

"I knew that people would be talking about my age and making a million inferences on it and, also, being a woman, having seen what happened to Jacinda [Ardern] and every other woman in politics, in the public eye, I was scared about all of the criticism that would be levied at me."

In person, yes she is 22, but also articulate, informed and passionate to the point of earnestness.

"Is she humourless?" a journalist asked me later, and I could see from some interviews why you'd think that, but the answer's no. Regardless, we're not looking for a stand-up comedian.

So does Swarbrick think she's got the experience to be mayor, compared to a former Cabinet minister who practically drove the ute when Michael J Savage helped move in the first state housing tenants? Goff has done it all.

"And failed as the leader of the oppostion," Swarbrick notes matter-of-factly.

"Does anyone know Phil's age [63]? Does anybody Vic's age [43]? No, they don't and that's because it's not actually relevant. What should be relevant is our policies and our skill sets and how we've gone about conducting ourselves this campaign."

As skill sets go, Swarbrick has been busy - a men's fashion label at 18, a law degree, a current affairs show on 95bFM, and now a marketing consultantancy. There's a café in the works too, but "should I be successful, it'll be looked after".

So will she win?

"My initial thoughts going into it, to be perfectly honest with you, I just wanted more people to care. Having been in a number of these debates, I now very seriously want to win."

While Swarbrick agrees to an interview knowing my angle - that I'm talking to people who probably won't win - Mark Thomas, 50, doesn't want to talk, certainly not about being counted out of contention.

"After 40 mayoral debates I guess I'm not feeling that excluded," he messages.

Auckland mayoral candidate Adam Holland. Photo / Supplied
Auckland mayoral candidate Adam Holland. Photo / Supplied

Thomas appeared on television last week, ostensibly to concede to Goff, but always adding the caveat "unless Aucklanders make a different decision". One. Last. Gasp.

We speak on the phone briefly. Thomas doesn't consider himself in the same category as my other interviewees, so he'd rather not be interviewed. The polls say otherwise - at 4 per cent he's level with Bright and behind Swarbrick. Doing better than David Hay though, on 2 per cent.

"I would buy you a coffee," Hay says, "but that would be treating." I don't know if he's right, but it seems unfair to argue with someone whose campaign donations currently stand at "just over $300".

Hay's easy to talk to, and says nice things about his rivals: Swarbrick is "a star", Bright "actually has some very good points to make".

It's his first tilt at the mayoralty, but he's run for Parliament twice, as a Green candidate in the National stronghold of Rodney in 2008, then against John Banks in Epsom in 2011.

He admits to being a single issue candidate - climate change is his thing. And masochism, apparently, specialising in unwinnable battles in safe seats.

"Actually, I discovered [in 2008] that I enjoyed it. Part of my intrinsic personal motivation for running this time is I love going to the public meetings. I love having the key message that you're putting to the people and knowing how to stay on message. For me, of course, climate change, reducing carbon. That's it."

Hay says he knew that when Goff announced, the Greens were unlikely to run against him. And with Vic Crone, John Palino and Mark Thomas to the Right, he felt it important to bring some balance, and ensure climate change got a look in. So when Crone flubbed on that very topic, this was David's moment to shine, right?

"Here I am the candidate that's standing on climate change. Nobody rang me up for comment, not a single you know across all media that covered it."

Hay admits to a 'brain fart' on Twitter, as his frustration became palpable, he tweeted of Crone's comments "saying that sh*t gets media attention at least".

In a world of limited pages, airtime, attention spans, people get left out. People complain about that, but if you include 18 candidates in a broadcast debate (assuming Adam the cannabis guy doesn't turn up), people only get time to introduce themselves if they're lucky.

And even if you are included in an article, Goff is accorded half a page, while guess who gets the single line "youngest candidate at 22 wants to be the voice of Auckland's future".

Most candidates admit a line has to be drawn somewhere - not surprisingly with them on the right side of it.

If you're not being ignored, you're being abused.

"It's been hard," says Swarbrick. "I'll be honest with you about that. I read every nasty thing that every person who has two degrees of separation from me says.

"There's a lot of people saying things like I'm super narcissistic or who am I to think I can do anything like this, I'm a little girl."

But who is anyone to think they can do this, run a super city with super problems?

And what happens if the public doesn't agree?

Auckland mayoral candidate Penny Bright. Photo / Chris Gorman
Auckland mayoral candidate Penny Bright. Photo / Chris Gorman

Bright says if it turns out she's not Auckland's answer to Brexit, she'll just keep on doing what she does - a sheet-metal welder by trade, these days she rents out her house - the one she famously hasn't paid rates on in nine years - to flatmates to fund her fulltime activism."People think I've got this boundless energy. No, I'm extremely focused, like a heat-seeking missile. The secret in politics is focus and timing."

Hay is hoping his mayoral candidacy will at least win him his other race - a council seat in Howick.

His incumbent rivals include Dick Quax. Another masochistic mismatch doomed to fail?

He doesn't think so, but acknowledges if he doesn't win, his foray into politics might be at an end, and he's not sure what's left to return to.

"I mean at my age and stage of life, I've got to think about what do I do for the next 10 years? My experience is in public service. I may have blown my chances by being on the political side of that divide of ever getting employed in a serious public sector role again."

For Swarbrick, the doors seem to be opening rather than closing.

As we wind up our chat, her phone buzzes for the umpteenth time. "I'll take all of these now," she says, as she swipes through, showing me an endless list of missed calls and messages - no longer ignored at least, whatever comes next.

Author Douglas Adams wrote "anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job".

I've often wondered if putting your hand up for office should rule you out too.

The passion, drive, and enthusiasm - for public meetings! for infrastructure!- is at odds with most of us, at odds with the tsunami of apathy that sees only a third of voters tick the box.

Maybe 2016 is different.

Maybe a single issue campaigner, a bossy youngster, a strident activist or Mark Thomas might break through, conquer that wave and ride it, Brexit style, all the way to the mayor's office.

It's a pleasing thought. But as a wise man named Wayne Young once wrote, Yeh Right.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf05 at 03 Dec 2016 12:46:18 Processing Time: 1084ms