By now Hawke's Bay residents and ratepayers who have enrolled to vote in time will have their local election voting papers, though statistically not many will have yet ticked the boxes and posted their votes back.

From a distance (and relying on the chatter of friends and relatives) it looks like the big issue in Hawke's Bay is water; whether it's the Ruataniwha dam, contaminated drinking water in Havelock North or the bottled water giveaway.

I note at least one Regional Council hopeful backing off support for water bottlers at great speed and Hawke's Bay Today reminding its readers about just who did endorse this giveaway with a not-very-old photograph.

As a political organiser I was involved in many local election campaigns in New Zealand and Australia. Seldom were serious issues like Hawke's Bay's water involved in these contests and very often they were just good fun.


I particularly recall one of Dame Catherine Tizard's Auckland mayoral campaigns where Peter Beaven, now a Hawke's Bay regional councillor, and I raised so much money that even a very, very long lunch to celebrate yet another victory still left money in the bank for the next campaign.

As a candidate Dame Cath was a joy to work with, though her dropping of the "f-bomb" during a campaign speech caused a brief but, as it turned out, unnecessary apoplexy amongst her handlers.

There is an interesting lesson in Dame Cath's Auckland mayoral career. Although she was a very public member of the Labour Party and for her first two successful campaigns ran as an official Labour candidate, she succeeded in territory which, in those days, overwhelmingly voted National.

This seems to be a characteristic of local elections in New Zealand where, despite the dominance of the National Party in the past couple of elections, just about all of our big-city Mayors are of the centre-left orientation.

This not so with our neighbour, Australia, where local elections are often party political battles driven by the same compulsory voting law that maximises turnout in state and federal elections.

I was fortunate to be given a close-up view of a truly remarkable local Australian election in 1991.

In that year, the superstar Liberal Party Lord Mayor of Brisbane, Sally Anne Atkinson, was defeated by an unknown, unemployed ex-priest, Jim Soorley, running under the Labor banner.

Virtually no one expected this outcome as Atkinson had won the mayoralty twice with increasing majorities.

Her high profile and apparent popularity led to speculation that she was a future leader of the Liberal Party.

I can recall a large research project undertaken by the Australian Labor Party at the time which showed that, beyond local grumbling about a proposed rubbish dump, there were virtually no issues for the Labor candidates to exploit.

What may have been of greater influence on the result was the fact that the Brisbane mayoralty at the time was so well remunerated that Atkinson's pay rivalled that of the Australian Prime Minister.

This allowed the unfortunate and damaging nickname "Salary Anne Atkinson" to stick and given the fact that 1991 was a minor recession in Queensland, this did real damage. This probably the only recorded example of a well known name acting to a candidate's disadvantage.

There was an 18 per cent swing against the Liberal civic administration and Soorley served as Brisbane's Lord Mayor until 2003, increasing his majority each time.

Local politicians in other countries often go on to national politics. Boris Johnson, the former Lord Mayor of London and now Foreign Secretary in the Conservative Government of the UK is a recent example.

In New Zealand the trend seems to be the other way.

Former National Party minister Warren Cooper went back to the Queenstown mayoralty when he left Parliament and Stevie Chadwick, a minister in the Clark Government is now mayor of Rotorua.

This happens because name recognition is a huge advantage in local election campaigns.
With large numbers of candidates for mayor, councillors, regional councillors, local boards, district health boards and sometimes local trusts, many voters simply tick a name they know regardless of policies or affiliations.

With 19 candidates nominating for the Auckland mayoralty, Phil Goff, the former Labour Party leader, is leading in every poll by a very wide margin.

This effect will favour sitting candidates in the Hawke's Bay elections, but voters should consult the useful little booklet that now comes with the postal voting pack.

This has a thumbnail sketch of each candidate, but most are silent on the Ruataniwha dam issue.

One who is open about his opposition is Paul Bailey, a Napier candidate for the regional council.

An already signalled strategy to tick Paul Bailey and no other in the Napier HBRC poll could tip the balance against the dam.

Watch that space!

Mike Williams grew up in Hawke's Bay. He is CEO of the NZ Howard League and a former Labour Party president. All opinions are his and not those of Hawke's Bay Today.