Wellington City Council was rocked last week by an admission of a drinking problem by Mayor Tory Whanau.
This comes after a second incident, during which Whanau was apparently seen visibly intoxicated in public.
Speaking to The Front Page podcast, NZ Herald senior journalist Georgina Campbell says the response from inside the council has been “a mixed bag”.
“A majority of councillors have rallied around to support Tory Whanau,” says Campbell.
“Labour councillor Rebecca Mathews, for example, has said the mayor is in a stressful job where there is huge scrutiny, and anyone doing it would have to face whatever demons they had. Matthews said Whanau’s honesty about her own demons is groundbreaking and believes Whanau will have the support to keep doing a great job as mayor while addressing her problems with alcohol.”
But not everyone within the council shares those views.
“Some of her colleagues are really concerned about her ability to do her job. One of them, councillor Nicola Young, has gone as far as calling for Whanau to resign. She said Whanau isn’t well and there’s no easy cure. She says the mayor needs to focus 100 per cent on her health and Wellington needs 100 per cent focus from its mayor.”
Given this division in views, could Whanau be removed from her position?
“In terms of local government, you can’t get rid of a mayor,” says Campbell.
“You can have a vote of no confidence in the mayor, which I think Tory Whanau would survive. I think she’s got the numbers to withstand that.
“But even if she didn’t, a vote of no confidence has no real consequences apart from having it on the record that the majority of councillors don’t have confidence in their mayor. It doesn’t boot them out of office. They’re there to stay, unless they resign or unless the Government sends in commissioners.”
Aucklanders will be familiar with this dynamic, having historically seen former mayor Len Brown hang on to power, despite being at the centre of a major sex scandal. Brown ultimately avoided a vote of no confidence but was censured by his council.
The missteps by Whanau come in the broader context of former Labour politician Kiri Allan, who blew over the legal limit after being involved in a car crash.
These events have again turned focus to the enormous pressure that politicians face in terms of constant public scrutiny.
It also sends a big warning to the first-time Members of Parliament who will be sworn in this week to take on the massive responsibility of representing their constituents.
So what should they be doing to prepare? Are we putting enough emphasis on the strain young politicians face? And can Tory Whanau recover from this situation?
Listen to the full episode of this podcast for a rundown on this complex issue.
The Front Page is a daily news podcast from the New Zealand Herald, available to listen to every weekday from 5am. It is presented by Damien Venuto, an Auckland-based journalist with a background in business reporting who joined the Herald in 2017.