Paul Lonsdale: The running man

Paul Lonsdale announced his intention to run for mayor last month.
Paul Lonsdale announced his intention to run for mayor last month.

Shopping mall manager Paul Lonsdale has emerged as an unlikely candidate in the Christchurch mayoral race. Does this "apolitical" novice have anything new to offer the city? PHILIP MATTHEWS reports.

Local body elections are just six weeks away but in most New Zealand cities, mayoral races are a non-event.

Expect incumbents to sleepwalk to victory in Auckland, Dunedin, Hamilton and possibly Wellington, while Christchurch has been a non-event of a different order.

The incumbent dropped out and the first serious challenger, Labour MP Lianne Dalziel, is so dominant that the Christchurch contest has risked turning into the Louis Vuitton Cup.

You can see why local media were relieved when a challenger with something approaching name recognition emerged. The debate would no longer be a monologue.

Paul Lonsdale announced his intention this month. Newstalk ZB host Chris Lynch promptly put him on air. Lynch's predecessor, Mike Yardley, opened his Press column with a call to "thank God for Paul Lonsdale".

Yardley went on to compare Lonsdale to lantern-jawed Sesame Street newsreader Guy Smiley. Lonsdale only wishes that Yardley had "thought of something way cooler" to dub him. He has a suggestion.

"How about the Lonz?"

The man who would be the Lonz is in a Press meeting room on a bright Friday morning. He has a smile and a handshake. He puts his sunglasses and car keys on the table. He wears a shiny grey suit and an open-necked white shirt. The general effect is upmarket real estate agent.

Lonsdale, 52, has been manager of the Central City Business Association since 2007. Before the quakes, that meant reviving central city retail. Post-quake, it means devising and managing Re:Start mall. He has also managed The Palms and Merivale Mall and did two years as "executive co-ordinator" at Lifestyles magazine.

He is very South Island. He was born in Gore and raised in Invercargill and Christchurch. He went to Burnside High School. He lives in Merivale but has lived in Spreydon and has his eye on Sumner. He has a rehearsed line that he likes to return to: "I'm not political. I'm a Cantabrian."

Christchurch property developer Antony Gough describes himself as a Lonsdale supporter. Actually, as chairman of the Central City Business Association, he is ultimately Lonsdale's employer.

"I think he has a lot to offer," Gough says of Lonsdale. "He's very passionate about the city and Christchurch as a whole. He hasn't had the level of political knowledge that Lianne Dalziel brings with her. But he's got passion and ideas, so good on him."

Yes, Dalziel has "tremendous abilities", Gough says, but "her biggest hassle is going to be unhitching from her red apron strings".

"She will need to bring businesspeople on board."

And although Dalziel has been focused on the suburbs, Lonsdale has been thinking about the central city, which "has been knocked sideways", Gough says.

"It would be very easy to expend all the effort out in the suburbs and have a hollow core. That would be disastrous long term for Christchurch.

"None of us should underestimate the need for the central city to get its own legs."

Can we take this as an endorsement of Lonsdale? "I'd be happy to support him," Gough says, before adding, "I'll work with anyone who gets there".

If Lonsdale misses out as mayor and ends up as just an independent councillor for the Hagley- Ferrymead ward, replacing the outgoing councillor Tim Carter, that is still an "excellent outcome" from Gough's perspective.

It is also the most realistic outcome. This week, political betting website iPredict put the chances of a Dalziel victory at 92.2 per cent, with Lonsdale running at just 6.9 per cent.

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't think there was a chance," Lonsdale says, but you would expect him to say that.

It is a small campaign. He has no campaign manager and no financial backers yet, although "people have said they are going to help me work on getting some funding". There may be billboards. There is a modest website.

"I'm not kidding myself," he says. "It is a David and Goliath situation. But we know how that story finished."

The point of difference, as Lonsdale and Gough reiterate, is that Dalziel is Labour through and through whereas Lonsdale is "apolitical".

Lonsdale says that he has never belonged to any political party and never run for any political position before, even at a student level.

That word "politics" is the bogeyman. Lonsdale raises the spectre of Dalziel clashing with Gerry Brownlee and John Key.

"Politics is the last thing that Christchurch needs at the moment," he says. "We don't want someone butting heads with the Government.

"We have to work alongside the Government. We have to restore their confidence that we can achieve the result that's required. I've had a good relationship with Gerry."

Some might say that a pledge to work alongside a centre-Right Government is itself a political position.

"To be fair, I sit right in the middle," Lonsdale says. "I will take a position on key issues. Council is not about politics. It's about achieving results and driving the city."

When Lonsdale was thinking about running for mayor, he sought the advice of two people whose views he respected. One was his father, Michael Lonsdale, who died recently. The other was Christchurch businessman Roger Bridge.

Lonsdale says that he knows Bridge from the ReStart the Heart Trust. He doesn't mention that Bridge is also deeply connected to the National Party, as both the regional chairman for Canterbury- Westland and as a board member at the senior party level.

Bridge acknowledges that he advised Lonsdale to run and will donate to his campaign. But he says that this does not make Lonsdale a National-endorsed candidate.

"I'm backing him as an individual," Bridge says. "It's nothing to do with the National Party.

"I will be a donor in a private capacity. I'm not underwriting his campaign. Neither is the National Party."

But the distinction is subtle. Students of political branding might also notice that Lonsdale's website is dominated by the colour blue, with three large ticks. It looks like a variation on National's "two ticks" billboard from 2011.

Bridge sounds realistic about Lonsdale's chances.

"It's important that there is a strong competition," he says. "Paul is clearly the underdog. He's doing it for the right reasons, in that he is committed to Christchurch. It's a hard ask but good on him for having a go."

He talks of Lonsdale's management and dedication to Re:Start, his "strong administrative and business experience".

As for whether Lonsdale's political inexperience is a drawback, Bridge says "he has dealt with the council for many years, and an enormous range of tenants".

Lonsdale warms to this theme.

"Council is a business and it needs to be run like a business," he says. "Creative thinking and people who take action and get results are the ones who are going to drive the city forward.

"The council has to be goal- oriented. It has to deliver. People want to see some timelines and some results."

There is something of the job interview about this conversation. Lonsdale is trying to convince the reader, through the interviewer, that he has the right stuff.

This means that any anecdote or life experience quickly becomes an illustration of how he has the skills required. How he led change or headed a team.

Even his time in early 1980s Christchurch rock band the Solatudes becomes proof of the self-help truism that "if you want to do something, you can do it if you've got enough drive. It's about achieving results".

Certain words recur. Outcomes, results, targets, creative, vision, passion, action. Sometimes he gets several of his key words into a couple of sentences.

"I am an action-oriented person," he says. "I set bold targets with a date and I work towards achieving those."

If you were recruiting a sales manager rather than a mayor, you might be impressed.

The Solatudes toured as far as Timaru, had a decent following in Christchurch and disbanded after one single. Lonsdale was on guitar. They split because sometimes "egos get in the way of a good outcome". Singer Anton Jenner went on to a slightly better remembered band, the Wastrels.

Lonsdale believes that his creative side was evident long before the Solatudes. His high school art teacher "could see massive potential" in him.

"He called me a 3-D thinker. I didn't understand it but I've developed an understanding of it now. Intuition is a big part of 3-D thinking - being able to see an issue or an outcome from every angle."

As a would-be sculptor, the young Lonsdale was a big fan of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Salvador Dali.

"Obviously very, very deep thinkers," he says. "I don't sleep a lot so I have a lot of time to do deep thinking.

"People say you have to get a thick skin [in politics]. I don't want to get a thick skin. It would change my personality.

"I want to feel stuff. I'm very aware of maintaining my sensitive side. That probably comes from my creative background. To create, you need to be sensitive to things."

Music shifted the sensitive teenager away from art: "I really wanted to achieve some results in music. I always had a bigger vision for myself."

In the end, music wasn't it. But some significant "personal growth" happened when he was hired to manage Merivale Mall.

He saw that the mall was stuck in negativity. "Business was decreasing after the refurbishment. The attitude coming from behind the counter was wrong.

"The first thing I did was shift the attitude. By the time I finished there, it was like a big family. We doubled the centre's turnover in four years.

"If someone's negative, I find it a challenge to turn them around and make them positive."

Does this mean the Christchurch City Council is 13 people in need of an attitude adjustment?

"It's not an attitude adjustment. It's way more complicated and interesting than that.

"It is an opportunity to form a partnership with each other, and each other's communities, to get some great outcomes. And for the public to see a council that is working together to achieve an outcome for them."

Although he lives in Merivale, he is standing for the council in the Hagley-Ferrymead ward. This is because "my brand is actually Hagley-Ferrymead".

He is more identified with the fortunes of the central city than the suburbs.

When Lonsdale was hired by the Central City Business Association, there were "antisocial issues" to deal with.

Teenagers were hanging around, not spending much and turning respectable shoppers off. He found some research that said classical music makes people smarter - it's called "the Mozart effect" - and began pumping classical music into the outdoor mall.

This wasn't about scaring teenagers away. It was about "modifying behaviour". He was turning negatives into positives once again.

Even with the more anodyne Re: Start mall setting a new example, the post-quake city will still need to be kept clean.

He is against booze buses and wasted youngsters and thinks "public drunkenness should be an offence". How to keep young people in Christchurch has been a problem for generations. In Lonsdale's day, bored kids in the suburbs formed new wave and punk rock bands. Now, they leave.

Lonsdale is "just a wee bit gutted" that one of his three children is going to university in Wellington, not Christchurch. The capital is seen as more lively.

"Wellington has done a great job of branding itself," he says. "It's all about branding."

Politics is about more than branding, though. Even at the local body level, it's about representation and achievement. Who does Lonsdale rate among the current councillors?

"I suppose Tim Carter would be the standout. He pushed to change the business as usual culture.

"If I become mayor, I want to see councillors getting into the community a bit more. I've been the Business Association manager for six years. I haven't seen [Left- wing councillor] Yani Johanson in my office. I have invited him."

How about Carter? "I haven't seen Tim either. I'm disappointed."

Does Lonsdale think that Carter is an achiever and Johanson less of one?

"No, I think they're a great balance. Tim would have been seen as more business focused and Yani more socially focused.

"If I became councillor, Yani and I could balance each other out."

If or when? The smart money would say that this is the most likely outcome, result or even target. But you would lose your shirt betting on Lonsdale as mayor.

PAUL LONSDALE ON . . . 

Bob Parker. "Bob fell into the trap of not listening to people. There were warning bells at the last election. They were loud and clear. He should have taken heed of them."

 

Tony Marryatt. "It's time for some fresh thinking at that level."

Lianne Dalziel as mayor. "There is a risk that the council could be a political football. Thumping tables at Cera is not going to get a good outcome."

Being a councillor under Lianne Dalziel. "The biggest problem the city has had is councillors not working together, so I'm not going to be obstinate in the corner causing problems. That doesn't mean I won't debate issues and the way I see them. I'm a straight shooter. What I say is what I mean. You won't get any fluff on the edges."

Whether local government should be big or small. "You have to draw the line somewhere otherwise you become another political machine that takes its eye off core things. I'm not in favour of creating a bigger machine."

The Ellerslie International Flower Show. "Should the council be running it to the level that it is? A private enterprise wouldn't be losing money. I could make that work a lot better than it does."

Council asset sales. "It sounds like it makes sense. But the assets we have keep rates at a reasonable level. I would rather pay a few more percentages now than sell off things that are going to impact negatively down the track. You can't rape and pillage the cupboard."

Cricket at Hagley Park. "Tourism and sport tourism are a massive generator for us. It's a small modification and it's going to deliver a lot for our community. It's going to be very, very cool."

A covered stadium. "It's such a hot potato. It's a lot of money. Right now, it can be left to one side. It is one of the anchor projects that is not high priority."

The cathedral repair versus a new build. "What is heritage in 100 years? It is what we build today. [The new design] is a good outcome for Christchurch."

The loss of ECan democracy. "The commissioners won't be there forever. You've just got to look at the results. You're seeing great direction and outcomes being met."

Christchurch Town Hall. "I don't believe [the council] should be signing this off before their term finishes. It's a lot of money to retain a theatre that's not going to look the same anyway. I understand Sir Miles Warren wants to keep the feel but why not have him involved in the new one? When you say 'retain heritage', it sounds all emotional and the right thing to do, but what are you doing?"

The Press