Peter Johnson spent two terms as a South Taranaki district councillor and got nowhere.
"I used to be quite critical of council and I thought it would be easy to throw stones from inside the glass house than outside. It wasn't. When you are one person on your own it is very, very difficult to change anything," he says at the tail end of his six years in local government.
"I don't think I achieved much, to be honest."
It was not for want of trying. Johnson had a reputation for stirring up the council and enjoyed nothing more than holding councillors to account, even if they didn't want to be. It took its toll.
In March, when he publicly laughed off the fire danger of a smouldering log on his farm, Mayor Ross Dunlop quipped that "with anything Peter does, it's usually all smoke and no fire".
"I was told very early on if I didn't stop asking difficult questions or making statements different from the views of the majority, I would be ostracised, I wouldn't be listened to," Johnson says from the farm from which he draws so much of his proud rural character.
He wasn't the only one out of step with the majority of the council. In that respect he had a partner, but definitely not an ally, in the charismatic and eccentric Michael Self.
Nationally famous for being the lucky busker of Lotto advertisement fame, to many in Taranaki his head of fuzzy grey hair and bushy beard is the face of the anti-fracking movement.
"Even if I don't agree with all the things Michael said, I admire him. He has stuck to his guns and held his views right throughout his term.
"He hasn't allowed the 11 other councillors around the table beat him down or change his views," Johnson says.
"But eventually it happens to everyone. I think you get beaten down by the system and by a desire to be one of the crowd."
That homogenising crowd is always a mixed bunch, says Dr Andy Asquith of Massey University's School of Management, and often the bunch isn't as good or qualified as people might want.
"It's often the people who like the sound of their own voice. They've been their rugby club president or have been involved in the Federated Farmers. There are some people that stand because it keeps them off the street, pays more than the dole and it beats working. They know bugger all about local government or the role of council."
But that skill level may change, Asquith says, as resistance to local body candidates overtly aligning themselves to political parties lessens. This is already happening in some respects with the Change group of five men standing for the New Plymouth District Council. The theory is that party affiliation would weed out the renegade independents. It would lead to a higher quality of candidate, debate and decision, Asquith says.
"That's the theory, anyway, but you only have to look at central government to know that doesn't always work out."
He sees the shift happening anyway as communities demand more and more accountability and independent councillors fall short.
"We've done an analysis of what independent local body candidates said in the last election and they all say the same thing. Nothing. They run on nothing but verbiage. They make vague assertions to working towards lowering rates or keeping costs down. "If a person was standing on a party platform they generally say I am standing for this and I promise A, B and C. Then three years down the track we have a checklist.
"And if we find he has done A, B and C, we can say, ‘he's a good chap, we'll vote for him again'."
Former New Plymouth man Rusty Kane is in the rare position of having stood for numerous elections as both an independent and under a party banner, albeit one of his own creation.
Since becoming politicised 16 years ago, the bio-soil consultant stood in five national elections and one by-election - he was in the race for the Stratford mayoralty, the Taranaki District Health Board and twice went for a place on the Taranaki Regional Council.
He never came close to being elected, his name becoming synonymous with hopeless causes.
He never intended to succeed anyway. Operating outside of the rules and constraints of elected office, he could say what he wanted, push the issues he wanted to push.
"It's the cheapest and most effective way to get an issue out there," he says. "Standing for council costs about $200. Now put an advertisement in a newspaper just once and it costs you $300. So if you are putting an issue out there it's very cost effective."
Those issues are currently to do with the environment - balancing production with environmental protection. It fits in with his current job but he'll back most horses.
In the past he has jumped onboard the Paritutu dioxin issue, riparian planting and opposition to MMP. He even had plans to turn Stratford into the country music capital of the North Island.
Now based in Tauranga, he is standing for the Bay of Plenty Regional Council, and this time he wants to win.
"Everyone says councillors should all be businesspeople but councillors cannot all be businesspeople. You have got to have councillors that come from all sectors of society. That's why I like the guys who are a little bit off to the side; because they are a reflection of society."
Those members of society who do come forward generally believe they can contribute to their community, says Massey University politics and public policy professor Grant Duncan.
"They really do think they can make a difference. They just might be deceiving themselves about how good their ideas are."
Ultimately, ideas may not count for much anyway, with local body elections often hinging on voters recognising a name they know among a slew of those they don't, Duncan says. That can often lead to high-profile individuals getting into positions of power.
But sometimes it works out, he says, citing Tim Shadbolt, the relentless grinning and rabidly enthusiastic mayor of Invercargill who rose to fame in the 1970s for his association with a concrete mixer. He is now the country's longest-serving mayor, having served two terms in Waitemata and six in Invercargill.
"He looked like someone who would just be a celebrity shoo-in but he went on to do really well. Every time I see him he is using his name and reputation to go in to bat for Invercargill. I think go Tim."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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