Battle of the motormouths

By Susan Edmunds

Things are hotting up in the normally laidback Far North as its abrasive mayor Wayne Brown prepares to go head-to-head with former MP John "Hone" Carter over the mayoralty.

Wayne Brown surfs most days he can at Tokerau Beach. Photo / Malcolm Pullman
Wayne Brown surfs most days he can at Tokerau Beach. Photo / Malcolm Pullman

The road out to Tokerau Beach is windy, deserted, the roadside houses empty. Wayne Brown travels it most days, surfboard in the back of his ute, to dunk his head in the waves and wash away the stress of his role as the Far North's mayor and, more recently, his campaign to hold on to his position.

Today, he pauses briefly as he turns off the main road. One of Brown's campaign signs has been defaced, with the words "new mayor, the Far North in charge, not Brown".

"It annoys me," Brown says, zipping his wetsuit. "These guys are obsessed. It's the worst part of it by far. They're getting up early in the morning, going out and smashing signs. But they never approach you, never talk. My wife doesn't like it at all."

Most of the Far North has already decided that this year's campaign for the mayoralty is a two-horse race, although there are five others standing, including Brown's deputy, Ann Court.

There's the incumbent, Brown, 67, who threw his hat in the ring at almost the last minute, and John Carter, 63, who signalled early from the Cook Islands that he was coming home for a tilt at Brown's office.

Sentiment is running high - Brown's campaign team has posted almost 300 slickly-designed campaign signs but locals are running a commentary of their own - from "corporate greed, down with Brown", on a streetside sign to an anti-Brown, anti-mining slogan painted on a cliff just outside Kaeo.

Northland Age editor Peter Jackson says it's the first time in 30 years he can remember the Far North community getting so involved in a local government campaign. "It's unusual for up here. We're usually not that demonstrative."

He puts it down to Brown's personality. "He offends people. He's rude and arrogant. I quite like him but he's very acerbic. I don't doubt that he's destroyed a lot of relationships. He's a bit autocratic, he likes to run the council as if it were a business and he was the director."

There have been allegations of conflict between Brown's role as a director of a mineral exploration business, Tai Tokerau Minerals, and his role with the council that might issue companies with mining permits in the future, a dispute with his own council over unpaid rates on a 10-year-old Kerikeri subdivision that cost the council more than $60,000 in staff time and legal fees, and earned Brown a rebuke from the auditor-general for writing to the council's chief executive on mayoral letterhead about rating issues for Brown's property developments.

But Brown is campaigning heavily on his business credentials. Although an engineer by trade, he's been chairman of Transpower, Northland Health, the LTSA, Kordia and Auckland District Health Board, among others. He hasn't always made many friends but claims he's been called in when things needed fixing. "Very few elected people understand a balance sheet. Council is a $100 million-plus business."

The Far North has come through the global financial crisis with low debt compared to other councils and Brown is taking the credit.

How Northlanders want the council run is up to them, he says. "It's a very clear choice. You have a career politician or a career businessman. I'm going to stand on my record. If people want a career politician, that's what they'll get."

Brown's son, Sean, who works in public relations in Auckland, has told his father to think before he speaks. Brown knows people say he's abrupt but he says he's just trying to be realistic.

"People believe Kaikohe will be saved by an international airport. Some people might encourage them but I'll say that's really unlikely to happen.

"The people will go away saying I'm abrupt and rude but it's better than telling them 'start selling a few sausages, get a barbecue going'. It's not realistic to expect that to be the solution."

And of that sign in Kaeo? Brown says the only thing toxic about mining at the moment is the paint used in the slogan.

But if it comes down to a popularity vote, Brown accepts he won't win. He finds standing outside a supermarket canvassing for votes embarrassing. And he will freely admit that his opponent is a likeable guy. "If it comes down to a contest to shake hands, he'll do me like a dinner."

Jackson says Brown has started to make quite a good case for his re-election over recent weeks but Carter is running a better campaign.

While the signs are no match, Carter has decades of experience in politics and knows how to capture locals' attention.

Northlanders remember him as their MP, when he'd drive around town, waving to schoolkids. "He's very good at that, kissing babies and shaking hands," says Jackson.

So far, Carter has travelled 6000km and shaken more than 3000 hands. "I love campaigning. Even if I do say so myself, I was considered to be one of the best on-the-ground campaigners in national politics. I enjoy being with people."

Carter and wife Leoni have been back in Northland for about six weeks, living at what was their holiday home in Waipapakauri Ramp, where friends dropped by for a glass of wine on a Friday afternoon, to sit on the deck and look out at the waves rolling in on Ninety Mile Beach.

The beach is Carter's running track - and food source.

"I'm the best tuatua fritter-maker in New Zealand, according to the legend of John Carter, anyway," Carter says.

He has just finished two years as New Zealand's High Commissioner in the Cook Islands but says he had been thinking about the council job for a long time - partly as a way to get involved with the local community again. "The people in Northland were good enough to support me as their parliamentary representation. I wanted to put something back into the Far North community. This is one way to do that."

While Brown may have burned some Wellington bridges, Carter says he'll be able to use his contacts in national government to the benefit of the region.

Jackson says Carter has a strong reputation for helping people out of tight spots. One of those people was his wife. In the 1990s, Leoni had returned to university to do a law degree and had trouble with StudyLink wanting to send mail to her Northland address - even though she lived in Auckland. Complaining didn't work, so she went to see her MP.

"Within two days it was fixed and I had a letter saying it was fine." That was how the couple met, and later married.

He might be more palatable to the public but no one should think of Carter as softer, says his wife. When he was fighting bowel cancer, he put off surgery until after an election campaign - despite the nerves it caused her.

"He's completely driven. When he has to do something, that's what's going to happen, it doesn't matter what else is going on. That can be a good thing or a bad thing."

Carter also struck controversy. He was sacked as National's whip in 1995 when he called John Banks' talkback radio show, calling himself Hone, claiming to be a Maori man avoiding work.

In an area with a substantial Maori population and where unemployment is a touchy issue, that could count as a black mark against him but Jackson says few Northlanders were very bothered. "It was only the media who were really interested in that."

More recently, he upset some people by saying that Maori seats in a proposed unitary authority for the north amounted to apartheid.

Brown says Carter shouldn't under-estimate the importance of good relationships with Maori. "I can just about speak passable te reo. I can rattle off a mihi when I need to. That's a valuable commodity."

It's too early for anyone to pick a clear winner. Brown will be pleased when the votes are in - his wife, Toni, says campaigning requires nerves of steel, "which I don't have".

Carter says he won't stop until the very last minute. "You can't take anything for granted. When you do that's when they turn off."

- Herald on Sunday

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