'A little bit more outrageous': Steve Chadwick's life in politics - and what's next

Felix Desmarais
Felix Desmarais

Local Democracy Reporter


After nine years in the role, Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick will step away, marking the end of more than 20 years in public life. What is Steve Chadwick's political legacy, and who is the person behind the headlines? Local Democracy Reporter Felix Desmarais finds out.

In 2010, Steve Chadwick took a stand and it cost her a seat in Parliament.

It was over abortion law reform. A former midwife, Chadwick wanted to take it out of the Crimes Act.

But Labour wasn't having it.

"I was told very clearly, 'do you want to win this next election or not? This issue's a tipper for us'."

She believed the "discussion" needed to be had.

The price was her spot on the Labour list for the 2011 election. Having lost her Rotorua electorate seat in 2008 to National's Todd McClay, she fell from 30 to 34.

"I knew I was on the cusp and if we didn't get the Labour vote in that last election then I was gone."

The Labour party vote was just 27 per cent. Twelve years in Parliament and it was finished.

She went to the family holiday home in Maketu, and "reconfigured".

"Just put my hands in the dirt. Walked, swam, let the sun shine on my face, talked and talked and talked to [my husband] John."

She had always sought her husband's counsel on big decisions. It's something she continues to do to this day – despite his sudden passing in 2017.

Brother Dick Frizzell believes Chadwick turns to her late husband during difficult times "in her head". She goes quiet when this brotherly insight is relayed to her.

"I do. That wisdom's there ... [John] keeps crashing in.

Steve and John Chadwick in 1999. Photo / Brendon O'Hagan
Steve and John Chadwick in 1999. Photo / Brendon O'Hagan

"Even our Representation [Arrangements] Bill.

"I knew when he'd say 'you're not winning the school of public opinion here'. But also, always, 'be brave, be strong'."

The experience of being with John when he died was surely traumatic, but Chadwick is wary of being "corny" about his death.

"All our conversations went to three in the morning. John used to read a book every night till at least one in the morning.

Steve Chadwick on Thursday. Photo / Ben Fraser
Steve Chadwick on Thursday. Photo / Ben Fraser

"Then he'd come to bed and that's when I woke up [and] he and I would talk together and sort it all out."

"When he died, I did lose that, [but] my lights didn't go out."

Chadwick, by her own admission, wasn't Labour's first choice as its Rotorua candidate in 1999. They wanted someone else – John, who had run for the seat against National's Paul East in 1993.

He came third, trailing East by 875 votes.

John Chadwick had come close (the previous margin in the seat was more than 5000)– but according to his wife, he said it was "Steve's time".

"They said, 'frankly, it's not Steve we're after, it's you', which made me cross.

"They said, 'we've got our candidate', I said, 'well, let us have to contest'."

Chadwick won the seat in the same election that swept Jenny Shipley's National Government from power.

She wasn't immune to the challenges of balancing family and politics – particularly for her youngest son, Rama.

Steve Chadwick on election night 2002. Photo / Stephen Parker
Steve Chadwick on election night 2002. Photo / Stephen Parker

"He had to live with billboards with 'Believe Steve' ... He had to live that while he had a mother he yearned for and I thought I could fit everything in. He's probably had to suffer the most."

Chadwick also faced death threats during the passage of the Smoke-free Environments Amendment Bill in 2003.

Dame Annette King, then the Minister of Health, said Chadwick – the bill's sponsor - "took all the flak for that, there was a lot of nastiness".

"I don't think that she ever got the credit that she deserved."

Speaking on the subject in 2021, when she was made a companion of the Queen's Service Order, Chadwick identified it as the only time she was ready to quit.

Chadwick says she felt like she'd "let down Rotorua" when she lost the electorate seat to Todd McClay in 2008.

"I went in [to McClay's election party] to concede with my head held high but my heart racing.

"The next morning ... I tumbled right down and I said I don't even want to go out for a walk."

John told her to go and get the newspaper.

"I said ... even the dairy owners will feel sorry for me.

"[John said] 'get a grip ... pick up, get on with your life'."

McClay, unprompted, referenced Chadwick's concession as an insight into her character.

"It showed a lot of strength and charisma and stamina to come along and front up."

With lows there were highs, among them Chadwick - then Minister of Conservation - finding herself on Shania Twain's sheep station in Wānaka, alongside Helen Clark. The image of the unlikely trio amid the rugged landscape doesn't strike Chadwick as surreal, just part of the job.

She says she preferred the work of politics, including the meetings.

It was just as well. Asked if he ever thought his "baby sister" would be a politician, artist Dick Frizzell says "no way".

"I thought there was going to be tears before bedtime."

"I thought she'd be slaughtered. I feared for her, I really did."

Frizzell, five years and four months older than Chadwick, said his sister took to politics "like crazy".

"I went from incredibly apprehensive to incredibly proud."

Chadwick took a year out of the public eye after Parliament and began consulting work.

But by her son Rama's account, it was difficult to contain the energetic Chadwick.

When Chadwick started "hinting" at a run for mayor, he and his siblings said "let's get behind her on this one, we need this as a family".

None of Chadwick's three children had stars in their eyes when their mother won the mayoralty in 2013.

"We aren't interested in her lofty stories about her fancy people she's met and whatever projects she's been on ... we appreciate just having our mum around."

Rama says the main support in his mum's life was his father, who he describes as a loving "handbrake" to Chadwick's "wild ideas".

But John "loved being on her wing" - his favourite joke was to say "she was the mayor and he was the nightmare".

As a child, Rama would fall asleep to the sound of his parents murmuring to each other late at night, nutting out the problems of the day together.

"They had each other's backs and you could feel it."

When Rama's memory is relayed to Chadwick, she is moved.

"That was us," she says.

Chadwick was elected mayor of Rotorua in 2013, ousting Kevin Winters.

She set about spearheading Vision 2030, aimed at guiding the council's long-term, annual and spatial plans, as well as general decision-making on projects.

Rotorua MP Steve Chadwick listens to local chartered club managers' concerns about the new smoking laws in 2004. Photo Kelvin Teixeira
Rotorua MP Steve Chadwick listens to local chartered club managers' concerns about the new smoking laws in 2004. Photo Kelvin Teixeira

It resulted in a $40 million lakefront redevelopment, a $14.5m forest development, a $17.5m aquatic centre redevelopment, a $33.7m performing arts centre redevelopment, and the redevelopment of the Rotorua Museum, which is expected to cost up to $73.5m.

The almost $180m price tag of those projects included about $76m of external funding, most of it from the Government.

Some of Chadwick's critics had called some of these "vanity projects".

Chadwick refutes it, saying they're "investments".

"I don't see them as extravagant ... If you're going to do a job, do it really well.

"That's the story of the Lakefront. You could have done a lake wall and you could have re-paved ... that's what many of those people wanted. But they ... enjoy it now."

Former rival and occasional critic McClay, perhaps surprisingly, agrees – though he says some contend there should have been other priorities.

"I think people will look back and believe [the projects] are an important part of Rotorua. I hope they remember the person that pushed for them and got them up, because it was Steve."

In McClay's opinion, the problem was perhaps one of communication between the council organisation and the public.

"If you make decisions without taking the public with you and explaining properly, there'll be all sorts of suggestions and name calling."

In 2015, Chadwick led the council in establishing Te Tatau o Te Arawa, aimed at strengthening trust and partnership with mana whenua Te Arawa.

Critics claimed the concept was undemocratic. Over 1000 submissions were made on the proposal.

Following a tumultuous 18-month process, the partnership agreement was signed, placing voting Te Tatau representatives on council committees, but not the top table.

Te Tatau chairman Te Taru White says while Te Arawa whānui may not always agree with her, Chadwick had "busted through that barrier" to boost iwi inclusion.

"She's special, there's no doubt about that."

Te Tatau o Te Arawa chairman Te Taru White. Photo / Andrew Warner
Te Tatau o Te Arawa chairman Te Taru White. Photo / Andrew Warner

Kaumātua Monty Morrison says Chadwick made a "tremendous impact", including helping lead the reorua – bilingual – push for the district.

One of the tenets of Te Tiriti o Waitangi was "to be able to grow ourselves, as people, together".

"I think she has certainly done that and more."

Deputy Mayor Dave Donaldson believes at times criticism – over any issue - was difficult for Chadwick.

"I am in awe of Steve's strength but I believe she struggles when her integrity is impugned - who wouldn't?"

A shattering blow came in the middle of her tenure as mayor when John - her "mate" of almost 49 years - died suddenly.

The day he collapsed, in Rotorua's Eat Streat, Chadwick had invited John - "a great raconteur" - to lunch with a Czech mayor.

John left early, said he wasn't feeling hungry and "disappeared".

"He collapsed at the door [and] someone said 'is there a doctor in the house' ... I know CPR and I went out and found it was John.

"My clinical eye showed me something huge had happened.

"I just stayed beside him.

"I was able to say to John, 'you're passing through and you're not going to make it'.

"What a wonderful thing to be there to share. It's like birth really, where there's birth there's death and I was there, the privilege of being there with him.

John Chadwick, five months before he died. Photo / Andrew Warner
John Chadwick, five months before he died. Photo / Andrew Warner

"It's how you live your life in the middle that matters. That's what drove me back to work, to make sure the bit in the middle keeps moving."

"I had work to do. I am an incredible worker. I think I thought that might be a way of coping with it. I thought I was razor sharp ... [council chief executive] Geoff [Williams] now tells me 'you weren't that sharp'. But we still got stuff done, which was incredibly important to me.

"That's this town, that's this place, that's the love of this place that I have."

The district faces serious challenges as she leaves office.

The council organisation is under significant financial pressure, is close to its debt ceiling, and a pre-election report painted a grim picture of the district, declining in almost every wellbeing measure over the past seven years. The tourist town's reputation has taken a hit due to the controversy of emergency housing in motels in Fenton St.

Her tenure ends on the denouement of the pandemic, with its devastating socioeconomic effects.

Chadwick says there's "no magic wand" to solve the problems.

"But the system of working together with [the] Government and with [Te Arawa] beside us is now there. We'll get there, it's not going to happen just when you elect a new council."

She won't be drawn to endorse nor disapprove of a mayoral candidate.

"It's not just brands that need to come out. Brittle economics alone won't solve the problems.

"The common sense of our community will come through."

One of the last substantial decisions Chadwick made was to use her casting vote to approve a controversial proposal to reclassify seven reserve sites so they could be sold and developed. Chadwick says politics isn't about being popular.

A recurring theme – from Clark, King, McClay and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – was Chadwick's ability to not bear grudges. McClay says something the public may not realise is the two, despite robust public swipes and opposing politics – are friends.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo / Andrew Warner
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo / Andrew Warner

Ardern says Chadwick's legacy was not just about what she did but how she did it.

She says Chadwick faced fraught political battles but had "a singular focus".

"It didn't matter what came her way, she knew she was doing the right thing, that really was Steve to a T."

Ardern says she always knows Chadwick's advice comes from love.

"She'll probably hate me saying this, she's just like a beautiful auntie."

Chadwick says she's not sure what she will do next, but it may involve a book, as well as lower-profile governance roles.

"I'm looking forward to find the person again ... [in politics] you put aside the things that you once loved.

"I intend to live a very full life and not so carefully. I might be a little bit more outrageous.

"I've loved this job. I am feeling tentative about the next steps."

She says "new light and new leadership" will be good for the town.

"I hope they've got the energy to keep driving our fantastic place forward."

Correction & clarification

An earlier version of this article stated that former Act MP Rodney Hide called Steve Chadwick a '"hairy-legged feminist from Helengrad".

To clarify, Chadwick claimed in Parliament that Hide had called her that.

However, Hide strongly denies saying those words.

Local Democracy Reporting is public interest journalism funded by NZ On Air.