OPINION: Economic confidence in Wellington, according to the latest Westpac McDermott Miller survey, is at its lowest since 1992.
Only Northland is gloomier about its prospects. And economists warn that, given public sector spending cuts, pessimism will not swiftly switch to optimism in the capital.
The message cannot be lost on Wellington City Council. In the process of cutting its coat according to thinner cloth, the institution finally seems to have grasped that it, like the ratepayers who fund its operations, must economise, too. But the survey tidings are even more important for the council's political wing. To adopt the Government's terminology, ratepayers cannot afford to fund "nice-to-have" things just now. And new legislation limiting council enterprise will, when enacted, help concentrate councillors' minds – if they are smart enough, of course.
"Smart" people are those whose attention Rex Nicholls, husband of former mayor Kerry Prendergast and one-time city councillor himself, wanted to attract through The Dominion Post letters column on Monday. The man who some Wellingtonians saw as the power behind the throne will be aware that his wife's critics will be furious that he dared enter public debate on local government. Unafraid to stir the pot, however, he wrote that the last thing the city needed was the "recycling of some existing faces".
What a shame he refrained from naming names. Several politicians, including Helene Ritchie, Stephanie Cooke and Bryan Pepperell, have sat at the council table since the year dot, chiefly because, at election time, they benefit from the phenomenon known as "name recognition". In other words, voters who cannot be bothered boning up on candidates' CVs but feel obliged to cast a ballot, flick their eyes down the names on the voting paper and tick those they have at least heard of.
Mr Nicholls' comments might have been precipitated by city chatter about who will challenge Mayor Celia Wade-Brown next year, should she stand again. Rongotai Labour MP Annette King's name is being touted, though she demurs if asked directly. Apparently, private polling on who voters would prefer in a contest between Ms King and former mayor Fran Wilde has been done, though its results are known to only a few.
Ms King is well regarded, but is she brave enough to champion the cause of local body amalgamation? And Ms Wilde is surely aware that attempts to revisit past glories often end in tears. One said to be toying with the top job is Onslow-Western councillor Jo Coughlan. Some voters will regard her National Party connections – a brother-in-law is Deputy Prime Minister Bill English – as a bonus, others a turn-off.
Whoever stands for the mayoralty must remember at least two things. They need to be able to articulate their vision (to borrow an overused term) of what Wellington should look like in a decade, and second, to lead from the front. The city has its challenges, not the least being government cutbacks. Wellington property investor Ian Cassells wrote this year that it needs resuscitation. A council infused with new blood is imperative.
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