By PENELOPE BIEDER
It's after-dinner time. A tall, slightly hunched figure ambles slowly to the microphone. In one hand is a grubby pile of dog-eared notes. They are ignored.
He grips the podium and starts to speak. The big, crowded room is silent, expectant. Waiters line the walls and chefs appear from the kitchen.
Within moments there is a collective howl of laughter. Tim Shadbolt is back in town.
Earlier that day he had gazed across the lake from Rotorua's plush Millennium Hotel, musing that life is pretty good, really. At 55, Shadbolt still owns the best laughter lines in the country. His eyes may be older and sadder, but the wisdom that has etched these lines has always been there - knowing that he, Tim Shadbolt, is his greatest source of amusement and mirth.
After 35 years in the public eye, Shadbolt is loved and welcomed more than ever, waved at in the street, interrupted constantly as he grabs a quick lunch at the first Regional Development Conference this country has held in years.
From West Auckland showman to Southland shaman, Shadbolt is not finished yet. In fact he is on a roll, and maybe it's the rest of us who are just catching up with this chaotic visionary, this civic entrepreneur, this "glorified promoter", to use his own words.
None of the titles do justice to a man who has happily allowed his heart to rule his head, whose political courage, honesty and self-deprecating wit have a way of silencing the sternest critic.
"It's a mellow stage in my life that I've reached, but I still feel tremendously young at heart," says Shadbolt. "However, I don't have the strength, energy or determination to ram ideas home as I did when I was young and impatient.
"All those years ago I wanted no war, no starvation, a clean environment and I wanted it all tomorrow. I felt a sense of outrage - why wasn't society solving such obvious problems?
"Golly, my first demo was over an economic development issue! It was the pirate radio ship the Tiri, which launched private radio in this country, and we thought then, yes, we can win against the State."
Now the boot is jammed on the other foot. He has learned that it is actually difficult to get society to solve the obvious problems - humans are so damnably, rampantly individualistic.
"We don't love each other enough in this country. We are not good at celebrating our own successes. But my heroes have always been ordinary Kiwis, not international icons."
After more than 15 years in local government, Shadbolt has decided that a mayor is a glorified promoter of a region and its businesses. At the conference he agrees with the Associate Minister for Industry and Regional Development, Pete Hodgson, that civic entrepreneurs must be intermediaries for development, recognising it but not controlling it. Trust is the key.
But he has also relished being a real risk-taker and accepts "coming some real croppers".
Shadbolt's mayoralty at Waitemata City ended in tears and disaster. The mayoral chains went missing (they've never been found); a 16-year-old was arrested, over the limit, in the mayoral Commodore.
But the issue that finally brought Shadbolt down was the beleaguered Kiwi Dome - Shadbolt's big idea to bring crowds of sports and rock fans to West Auckland.
"I genuinely believed in the entertainment industry - after all, it's the second-biggest industry in the world after the armaments industry. The difficulty with trying to win over New Zealand to the concept of entertainment is that we are an intensely practical people ... "When I went with an idea like the dome they were bewildered. If I'd planned for a huge aluminium factory, that would have been fine.
"The Kiwi Dome could have made West Auckland the entertainment and sporting centre for the entire Auckland province. Then the Auditor-General came down so heavily on it, because there was opposition, of course - every project inspires opposition.
"To get an audit investigation into a project like the dome automatically killed it," he says. "My marriage collapsed, I lost the wife and kids, I lost the city, the mayoralty and I ended up on a friend's dairy farm in a little shed wondering what the hell had happened."
But when his old mates from the Manapouri Project wrote to him to say they needed a mayor in Invercargill, he could not resist the call, and took the gamble.
"If you believe that the only excuse you've got to be a politician is to be visionary, to lay your job on the line, you will be okay. By then I had had five years on the Auckland Regional Authority as well as two terms in Waitemata, which gave me a lot of experience."
Given that he has always admired smart and inspirational people, it was not surprising that when he was elected in Invercargill, Shadbolt immediately called on Vicki Buck, then Mayor of Christchurch.
"I asked her, 'What would you do if you were in my shoes?' She said, 'First establish an economic development unit' - which we did, set it up with her assistance and bought Christchurch's software package for $25,000.
Buck was also a strong believer in entertainment and had Christchurch humming with festival after festival.
"She firmly believed she was greatly helped by having regional TV. So one of my first missions was to set up Mercury Television, and it has worked a treat. In the provinces, the only reports on national TV you see about yourselves are terrible murders and road crashes, so a negative perception grows.
"Thirdly, I thought, 'I am an outsider - and that could be useful'. I inherited the fastest-declining city in Australasia, a city that the rest of New Zealand mocked. We suffer from the tyranny of distance, which can tend to lock us away.
"I wanted to forge a tourist alliance with Australians, who had a neutral view of Invercargill, and bring in visitors and tourists to sample the South. My vision for a larger airport is still there and it will happen one day.
"Being a civic entrepreneur is inherently risky, and the success I am having now is all based on tremendous adversity."
After one term Invercargill threw him out of office, and this time the ever-resourceful Shadbolt found himself making burgers in Queenstown ("They were awful," Jim Anderton interjected part-way through Shadbolt's Rotorua speech).
But he never lost the ability to laugh at himself - an invaluable quality for a politician. And he never gave up on being mayor again, or considered moving back to Auckland, although his three adult sons - Robert, 34, Reuben, 31, and Ben, 24 - all live and work in the big smoke.
For the past eight years, Shadbolt has lived in Invercargill with his young lawyer partner, Asha Dugt. He confesses somewhat sheepishly that their age difference of 24 years is exactly that of Rachel Hunter and Rod Stewart.
But his affection for her is obvious, and she appears to have had a steadying influence on him. She may also have had input into his greatly improved dress sense.
"I've learned that devastating, crushing defeat is often the only way forward, says Shadbolt. "It's all about taking risks.
"The next [Invercargill] mayor was a wise local guy who kept his head down, took no risks and made no mistakes. The people got bored and wanted me back.
"Thomas Edison says it all: 'I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work'."
Shadbolt has long been a man with heroes, especially ordinary New Zealanders who have had a go. He lists them: Sir Edmund Hillary for going to the South Pole on a Fergie 28 tractor against the wishes of the Brits, and for his continuing humanitarian work in Nepal; Dame Cath for her good sense and great fun; A.J. Hackett, who started bungy jumping in West Auckland off the Greenhithe Bridge, then the Auckland Harbour Bridge, and was arrested ...
It was prison-escaper George Wilder who caught Shadbolt's 14-year-old imagination first, when he was on the run in the Waitakeres in the 60s. "For 109 days they couldn't catch him," recalls Shadbolt. "When George Wilder took on the state singlehandedly he won the media war. He broke into a house at Piha, made the bed, swept the floor, washed the dishes and left a note to say he had eaten a can of baked beans.
"The police made him out to be a criminal but the people straightaway saw he wasn't. Other bach owners left notes for him on the doors of their baches saying, 'George, there's milk in the fridge'.
"The police were livid. When they caught him he got 23 years - to teach young people a lesson."
Later, Shadbolt joined Wilder in jail for three weeks, using his time to write his best-seller, Bullshit and Jellybeans, and trying to encourage Wilder to write his story too. Wilder rejected fame; Shadbolt decided to take it on. "I decided to accept being in the public eye. George never did."
Shadbolt's next major hero was Sir Dove Myer Robinson. "He was a capitalist on one hand, a socialist on the other. What he did for Auckland was so forward-thinking. The airport, for instance - buy up all the farms around it, but lease them back to the farmers. People thought he was crazy going out to Mangere when there were perfectly good airports at Whenuapai and Hobsonville.
"Take water - Robbie bought both mountain ranges to provide a million people with good water when Auckland's population was 200,000. Then he sorted out the sewage. He went to the Manukau to develop a brand-new system.
"He argued passionately that there would one day be a million people needing this water and that sewage treatment, and he was scoffed at.
"His final big project was to be rapid rail - he knew Auckland would choke unless a rapid rail system was built. The people threw him out of office. He had such an impact on me. He knew all the key factors necessary for a big city, and Auckland has a great deal to thank him for."
This more mature Shadbolt also counts his uncle, Maurice Shadbolt, as a hero. "He quietly helped me when I was a difficult teenager ... always a benign uncle. And he looked out for me after my test pilot dad, his brother, was killed when I was seven.
"Only when I grew older did I understand his gentle support, and also that he was a pioneering writer, writing about New Zealand at the worst time of our cultural cringe. He stayed here and wrote about us."
Recently, Shadbolt has arranged to save the childhood home of another hero, writer Dan Davin. Shadbolt's ad, asking 20 New Zealanders to donate $1000, made the money pour in to preserve the railway house in Invercargill.
Sam Neill, who is also keen to make a film about Davin, donated $5000. The Dan Davin Society is turning the front of the house into a museum, while the back will be home for a writer-in-residence.
His third term as mayor has seen Southland's enthusiasm for Shadbolt wind up a couple more notches. Today he is one of 15 mayors who make up the core group on the Mayors Taskforce for Jobs, a nationwide strategy chaired by Garry Moore, Mayor of Christchurch. Another 16 mayors participate in a broader capacity.
The taskforce's twin goals are that by 2005 no person under 25 will be out of work or training, and by 2009 everyone will have the opportunity of work or training.
He is also hard behind Southland's ongoing campaign to get New Zealanders to move down there. While the original initiative for the Jobs Supplement run in our newspapers came from the editor of the Southland Times and the head of the local Chamber of Commerce, there was - and is - firm backing from the mayor. Most of the jobs advertised were for Invercargill.
Southland's secret, according to Shadbolt, is that it's a small community. People know each other and are easy to get hold of.
"Just now we have the farming boom and the current low dollar on our side, so that's good luck. But if you examine our success stories you find we have small groups of four or five working together, determined to achieve something. Too big a group of people slows things down.
"I am guaranteed to back these groups up, they know that. With the new stadium I took a positive but passive stance. Politically, I hope I've provided a pathway instead of being a dead weight.
"On every project there is always a downside. But we plan to be a positive hit squad. No one person is in charge in Southland and we have to have our egos under control and act together."
According to Shadbolt, many of the negatives down south have turned into positives. For instance, winter frosts kill all the bugs in the soil - a boon for dairy farmers.
Until a couple of years ago, 13 per cent of available land was being used for dairying. In Waikato it's 85 per cent. Venture Southland did a promotional campaign, getting together rural land agents, banking specialists, accountants and lawyers to promote the region's dairying, and now there's a huge amount of conversion going on.
In '91-'92 there were two new tractors registered in Southland, Halfway through last year there were something like 360. Today, Southland, with its 3 per cent of the population, provides 18 per cent of New Zealand's GNP.
The ripple effect has been enormous for the local economy, says Shadbolt. "Now we have people coming down from Auckland and buying houses. It's possible with a median price still sitting on about $80,000."
As well as the new nine-court stadium there is an Olympic pool, and zero student fees in Invercargill have seen 700 more young people coming down each year to study and add life to the city.
The people of Tuatapere have just opened the superb Hump Ridge Track, a three- to five-day walking track through stunning scenery. Living Fiordland, a new $10- $12 million development scheme, is well advanced.
And while Shadbolt does not take the credit for these ideas, he obviously knows more than most that a community must have the courage and strength to run with a good idea, to resist being discouraged by criticism, to celebrate change and to seize the day.
He has realised the wisdom of listening to others and moved quickly to get resolutions passed by the council allowing money to be released. He pushed through $1.2 million for free education, $7 million for an inner-city upgrade and $4 million for the stadium.
Last weekend he was happily working as an unpaid frontman on TV advertisements for Southland's Institute of Technology.
Twelve years on, Shadbolt is hardly the discredited, defiant figure that Auckland remembers, but he acknowledges his very public defeats now almost as badges of honour.
Maybe it's a lifetime in the spotlight that has given him a protective shell. More likely, he survives in public life because he believes fiercely in what he is doing and does not give one whit about what critics think.
The current focus faces firmly south, yet his huge grin still shines with affection for the whole damned beautiful country.
By PENELOPE BIEDER