Lack of dignity and grace undermines the cause

RACHEL STEWART
Last updated 13:06 27/08/2012

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OPINION: We all love our hometown and never more so than when we don't actually live in them. Distance provides our mind's eye with a lovely hue and glow over the place where our childhood played out and innocence turned to maturity.

Whanganui is that place for me. The river is my awa. Circumstances dictate I don't live there but I follow its heartbeat closely. Lately it's been skipping a beat or two.

Whanganui often finds itself on the wrong end of the media's stick. By turns it is portrayed as gang- ridden, poor, racially divided and angry.

Much of this has been unfair but a good chunk has definitely been earned.

Unlike close and confident neighbour Taranaki, the River City has a decent-sized chip on its shoulder and displays classic signs of low self-esteem.

How else can one explain the two terms Michael Laws served as mayor a couple of years back?

Under his leadership we all watched an ugly, divisive debate about the 'h' being put back in Whanganui.

It was unnecessary given the entirely predictable outcome of both versions being fully recognised.

All it really achieved was to provide a perfect platform for Laws' rants and narcissism.

He and his then council also vigorously pursued a ban on gang patches.

By railing against the symptoms rather then the causes it was an empty gesture always destined to be an act of pure marginalisation and meaninglessness. So it proved. In 2011 it was tested in law by a member of the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club and the High Court overturned it.

So, as if that image damage wasn't enough, we now see the Stewart Murray Wilson debacle rearing its head. Whanganui was completely caught off guard by the decision to locate him on the Kaitoke Prison grounds upon release.

Let me be very clear when I say this is not a column about the offender.

He is vile, remorseless and sick. He should never be free but, in the absence of serving further prison time or a suitable mental institution, he is about to be.

That is the Government's shame solely and must be the focus of any debate about such offenders.

No, this is a column about how Whanganui, led by its council, chooses to behave knowing the eyes of the nation are watching. Given their reaction, it's almost as if the council deliberately sits down and asks itself how to ensure the most direct path to successfully sabotaging their national profile once again.

First-term Mayor Annette Main is rightly doing her best to reassure citizens she takes their concerns seriously when she speaks of the many unanswered questions from both the government and the Corrections Department.

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She talks about a 'flawed process' and admits to leading a co-ordinated attack against Wilson of community 'shunning'.

The council has also filed papers requesting a judicial review of the decision.

However, from where the rest of us sit it smacks of nimbyism. They understandably don't want him but, if they succeed in their legal bid, they are happy to simply pass the problem on to another region. That doesn't feel too gosh darn neighbourly to me.

Despite the tightest controls ever placed on any paroled sex offender Whanganui citizens turned up in droves to, in many cases, talk about lynching, castration and revenge - and all done in front of TV cameras. Attractive stuff indeed.

The predominant mood of hate and bile was on display for all to see.

Sadly the odds are high that some in that crowd were familiar with domestic and/or sexual abuse - both giving and receiving. I'm picking that fact was behind much of the raw emotion and illogicality.

Annette Main is not silly taking the safe position. A cynic would say it won't hurt her re-election chances but, in my view, here's the error she's making. Two of her councillors, one the aforementioned Laws, have organised these meetings and are culpable of inciting a lynch-mob mentality.

They should be severely sanctioned for doing so and that sanctioning should be driven by their mayor.

Whanganui also needs to understand that it is not alone. The system lets all of us down with monotonous regularity and we stand with it on that.

But here's the thing: like a wayward sibling the community makes it hard for the rest of us to support it unreservedly when it is publicly behaving so badly.

When this whole Wilson issue is done and dusted, the hope is that Whanganui will think carefully about how it's going to handle the next big media feeding frenzy. Will the district council ponder its part in ongoing negative publicity and consider whether a more reasonable approach might attain the outcome it wants?

Surely the long game must be to encourage tourism and jobs in the region for all the positive spin-offs that brings. Carrying on publicly, without a hint of dignity or grace, is undermining the cause.

It's time for the mayor to confidently lead Whanganui - a beautiful, historic and often misunderstood city - into a new era of truly believing in itself.

- Taranaki Daily News

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