Controversially backed by Sir Peter Jackson, Wellington’s mayor is out to show he’s following his own script.
He wasn’t a bit nervous about it. “Do I look nervous?” He might be nervous on the inside; if he has an interior life he is not about to open the door to it. He has been a local body politician for 27 years but he seems to have the very slenderest of public profiles. “What do you mean by profile? That I haven’t got myself into trouble?”
He is not a flamboyant character. “Um, if you mean by flamboyant completely out there and slightly crazy, no.”
He declined to put on the mayoral robes for me. “No, no. It’s a bit of a rigmarole.” He was happy to show me the inauguration oath which is about the most boring offer of sharing imaginable. He began reading it out: “… pursuant of clause 414 of schedule seven. That’s the sort of thing that rivets everybody.”
He has a dry and crisp sense of humour. I imagine he does a nice line in sarcasm, although he mostly hid this in the closet, along with his mayoral robes.
His campaign was buoyed, or marred, depending on your point of view – the latter if you happened to be the defeated mayor – by the backing of Sir Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. They supported his run financially and by endorsing him.
It will become public knowledge just how much money they gave his campaign, so he might as well just tell me. “I will. When they say that they’re willing to release it early. Otherwise, it gets released in due course, 50-ish days after the election … It’s not a big deal. I mean, I have said there’s a bunch of people where collectively it’s 36k.”
I take a stab at a figure: $35,500. “You’re playing Dutch auctions now … And to be honest, if it was 35.5 or 5.5, would it make any difference from a media point of view?”
Of course it wouldn’t, but the more you don’t tell people things, the more they want to know them. It doesn’t make any difference, then, but Lester has implied that he bought the mayoralty. Did he? “No. I spent less than Justin spent last time.”
There appears to be little love lost between him and Lester. “I don’t dislike Justin. He might be trying to work on that but I don’t dislike him.”
Is that true? “Mmm. There are some things about him I like; I don’t like other things about him.”
What doesn’t he like? “Oh, look, I think he wasted three years of the city’s potential,” he says, which is the sort of thing the winner gets to say.
As is, “jealousy gets you nowhere”, which is what he says in response to my suggestion that Lester’s complaints had little to do with the money and more to do with the profile of Jackson. Besides, he says, Lester had “the Minister of Finance running around doing work for him this time round”. A Minister of Finance versus Sir Peter Jackson? It’s not much of a comparison. Jackson is Hollywood; he’s the Lord of the Rings; he’s The Hobbit.
The New York Times ran a piece in which the observation was made that Jackson’s backing of Foster was “an unheard-of local political intervention in a country where money, fame and power are most often wielded lightly”. He has not seen the piece but says he doesn’t think the journalist can know New Zealand very well. (The journalist lives in Wellington.)
He points to the frequency with which political parties put up former All Blacks, cricketers or TV personalities as candidates in parliamentary elections.
Surely that’s a quite different scenario: candidates are not backers. “Oh. Well, maybe I should feel all the more pleased then.”
He is quite argumentative; he would no doubt say that I am, too. He said I asked some strange questions; I’d say he gave some strange answers. We had a labyrinthine debate about perception, which was like chasing each other through a maze, neither of us ever managing to find an exit. I wondered whether there was a perception that Jackson would be the power behind his mayoral throne; that he was Jackson’s poodle.
If he was a dog, he’d be a greyhound. He has the lean, sinewy build of the keen runner and cyclist he is. He would most definitely not be a poodle. I thought he might bare his teeth, like a bad-tempered hound, at my question. Instead, – to take a metaphor and thrash it to death – like a greyhound, he took it in his stride, which is how we ended up inside the maze.
He says he has no idea whether there is any such perception, and, if there were, “then that’s a reflection on the people who are perceiving, not me”. I ask whether that’s how perception works. “Yes, perceptions usually come from people’s own biases and people’s own value sets.”
But all good and clever politicians know that perception is about 90% of the game. “Perception is really important, but is it reality.”
In an attempt to find that elusive exit, I ask a more direct question: What does Jackson get out of his backing of him? “Nothing.”
He, Jackson and Walsh are of one mind about a proposed $500 million development at Shelly Bay: they don’t want it. The Shelly Bay development would include 350 new housing units and a rest home. Wellington desperately needs more housing.
“We do need more accommodation, but I, and many, many other Wellingtonians, think it’s too intense.” Does he have another plan? “You might well find that there might be one at some point in time.”
He wasn’t even the mayor yet and he was as slippery as an eel. “Not as slippery as some.” Who? “You’re recording.”
He wants a second Mt Victoria tunnel and he wants it fast, or at least faster than the LGWM scheme allows for – not for more than a decade. He campaigned on bringing the project forward, which obviously requires the mandate of his council.
Foster also supports the idea of Jackson’s stalled movie museum. He has said he is “quietly hopeful” that the museum will go ahead. Foster has said that he would recuse himself from any council decision involving projects that Jackson and Walsh have a financial stake in.
Still, and here we are back at the start, the perception is likely to be that Jackson must get some sort of return for his support. “No, and I can see that there is a sad and deep cynicism throughout far too much of society and it would be nice to prove people wrong.” Which he plans to do “by what I do”.
Later, when I call him a right-wing mayor who says he’s not a right-wing mayor, he bristles a bit and says, “Most right wingers don’t get involved in the community in the way I do, and most don’t get involved in the environment in the way I do … I’ve said to people, ‘You blue guys need some green in you and you green guys need some more blue in you.’ I’m the balance. That works for me.”
He is football-mad and wanted to be a professional player. “Oh, we all wanted to be a professional footballer. I was never good enough.” He still plays, for Island Bay, in the master’s league. They have proper strip and everything. “Of course we’ve got proper strip. We’re a real team. Of sorts.”
He comes from, he says, a “working-middle-class, white-collar” background. His mother was a primary school teacher; his father worked for various oil companies as an economist responsible for organising the coastal tanker system. He was obviously a clever boy. He won a scholarship to Scots College in Wellington, which is posh – its senior tuition fees and levies next year are nearly $23,000. “I certainly couldn’t have afforded to go there if I hadn’t [won the scholarship].
He was clever enough to win Sale of the Century in 1991. He entered, because “it was there!”, and he likes those sorts of shows; he likes quizzes. He won almost $50,000 in prizes, including a car. More than Jackson gave him! “Ha, ha, ha. A lot more, in the sense that it was nearly 30 years ago.”
He’s naturally competitive, isn’t he? Yes and no, he says. He values co-operation, too, he says. He also entered The Krypton Factor, a game show that tested physical and mental strengths. He is so competitive. “Ha, ha, ha. Everyone likes winning things.”
Ann is a project manager. He won’t say who she is a project manager for, because “that’s her story”. They met at the Karori Baptist Church and have been married for 21 years. He was at university and, as he is from a family who were not church-goers, it seems an interesting choice of a place for a young student to hang out. He might have been looking for something. “Too personal.” Does he know the answer to that question? “I do.” What is it? “That’s my story.”
I was trying to get his story out of him and was about as successful as I would have been trying to train a greyhound not to chase a rabbit through a maze.
He doesn’t have any skeletons he’d like to let out of his closet. “Ha, ha. No.” Of course he doesn’t; he won’t even let his mayoral robes out of the closet. The worst thing he’s ever done? “That sounds like skeletons.”
He told me about the game shows later, by phone. He also wanted to say that he was somewhat confused by the interview because he didn’t realise it was to be so much about the personal side of his life, and that my questions were more pointed than he’d expected. He thought, afterwards, “Crikey, I didn’t expect that.”
There is no point in asking him what his mayoral style will be; it is not the sort of question he entertains; too wishy-washy, probably. But I can take a stab at answering it for him: he’ll be a tough nut of a mayor to crack, and probably pretty good at cracking the whip.
This article was first published in the December 14, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.