Wellington voters smarter this time

21:21, Sep 29 2013

Election day in local government may not be until October 12, but mayoral races in our two largest cities already seem done and dusted.

In Auckland, incumbent mayor Len Brown holds a whopping three-to-one lead in recent polls over his main challenger, John Palino, the host of TV3's reality show The Kitchen Job.

And in Christchurch, former Labour MP Lianne Dalziel holds a similarly huge 75-21 per cent poll lead over her nearest rival, Paul Lonsdale.

Those frontrunners have benefited from a dearth of quality opponents, and arguably, much the same situation applies in Wellington.

Certainly, incumbent mayor Celia Wade-Brown would be in an even tighter race if her gaffe-prone main opponent, John Morrison, did not appear at times to be running against himself.

How else to explain Morrison's promise to offer "real leadership" on cycling issues in the capital where, in his view, there has been "plenty of talk but no action".


If true, this should surely be sheeted home to the Wellington council's sports portfolio that is responsible for almost all council policy relevant to cycling in the city.

It is headed by councillor John Morrison.

In similar vein, Morrison has promised to develop a BMX bike track at Ian Galloway Park, although - reportedly - the council approved the lease of land for that purpose back in mid-2012.

On a more serious level, the Anyone-But-Celia vote could well be split between the likes of Morrison, Nicola Young and Rob Goulden, to Wade-Brown's advantage.

Unlike the last Wellington mayoral election, however, voters seem far more alert this time to the nuances of the Single Transferable Vote system, and to the necessity of not merely ticking their favoured option, but to ranking their alternative options.

Elsewhere in the country, many eyes will be on the race in Hamilton, where entrepreneurial gadfly Ewan Wilson is looking very likely to unseat incumbent Julie Hardaker, thanks largely to Wilson's promise to bring international air services back to the city.

Another controversial figure on the comeback trail is Michael Laws, who is seeking his old job as mayor of Whanganui.

In all these contests, the winners will gain sweeping new powers under changes due to take effect as soon as the October 12 results are known.

The changes mimic those bestowed on the Auckland mayoralty in the wake of the super-city reforms.

They will enable mayors to appoint their own deputies, determine the structure of committees, appoint committee chairs and be responsible for driving the setting of annual (and long-term) plans and budgets.

The flipside of this centralisation of power is that mayors will hopefully be rendered more accountable, because they will no longer be quite as able to portray themselves as being hamstrung by their opponents on council.

The furore over the Ruataniwha dam proposal has shown just how crucial local government can still be, even on projects of national significance.

Hastings mayor Lawrence Yule has conceded that Hawke's Bay Regional Council is both the environmental regulator and the promoter of the Ruataniwha dam project.

Incredibly, the Hawke's Bay Regional Council is guarding with one hand what it is touting for commercial reasons with the other.

Given such situations, the need to vote responsibly in this year's local body polls is obvious.

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