Free radical

One of the interesting things about running for council is how you position yourself, and where other people see you. In general I was seen as being furthest left, with Lester centre left and Foster and other candidates centre right.

I didn’t complain about this positioning, but it was sort of off. I campaigned on selling the council’s airport stake. On deregulating planning rules which stop intensification of housing. On deregulating parking rules. I wanted user pays for the council’s biggest asset. I wanted a change to our rating system to one the Productivity Commission continually recommends. I was against old school Muldoonist style ratepayer funded vanity projects. Hell I even campaigned on changing some poorly used Town Belt land to some private (and some social) housing.

At the same time I wanted more social homes, a sinking lid on pokies and more cycleways and light rail. I didn’t actively campaign on any social justice type issues, but my positions are progressive. That would extend to things like street names and crossings.

The correct definition for my positions would be radical. My personal opinion is that many things in both Wellington and New Zealand are broken. I don’t particularly care where ideas come from, I want them to at least try to solve problems. My housing package said “we have to invest in social housing, and deregulate to allow for more homes in our existing suburbs. I’d love to be ideological about this and tell you only one of these things is needed, but we are beyond that now.” That approach is an exemplar of where I stand on many things.

While I think radical would be a better distinction, I do get why I was put on the left. Urban right wing politics is conservative, any market ideas are shelved. User pays are out for the largest council asset. The invisible hand of the market is absolutely nowhere to be seen in planning rules. ACT exemplify this, silent about the ludicrous thicket of planning rules in for instance Epsom. Markets are for other people, not those in the double grammar zone.

The NZ right think a city should mostly allow for one kind of home and one kind of transport. With a few exceptions, most people who identify as right generally want to restrict choice for people who live in cities and maintain the status quo. As in all of New Zealand political history, the right wing is unlikely to bring about any needed change. Anybody pushing change, and a challenge to this orthodoxy is then seen as Left.

It’s a shame. Nation-wide, I’d love to see more right wing politicians pushing for congestion charging, and up zoning. We’ll see.

The Chamber of Commerce backed the wrong horse

I can’t help but wonder if the Chamber of Commerce is happy with the outcome of Wellington’s election. One of the things that was obvious is that whatever the outcome of the mayoral election, the council was always going to have a progressive majority. Foster’s policies are a bit of a mixed bag, but I’ve previously argued that for him to get anything done at all, he’ll have to focus more on his progressive policies.

Throughout the election it was pretty clear the Chamber really did not want Lester to win. John Milford was churning out the negative press releases and writing columns that made that pretty obvious. In effect they were backing Foster.

The question though is why? The Chamber’s stated local body policies are roading, an indoor arena, asset sales, an airport runway extension and business rates cuts. If those are your priorities, Foster is a worse choice.

Foster is directly opposed to a runway extension and an indoor arena. The chance of Foster managing to get business rate cuts or asset sales through this council are essentially zero.

Around roads and Let’s Get Wellington Moving, a vote for Foster was simply a vote for stasis rather than action. The idea that a mayor can easily change something which had majority funding from central government, plus the unanimous support of regional and city councils is a cartoonish misrepresentation, and I’m sure the Chamber understood that. Foster as mayor is simply more litigation, more delay, more politicking, rather than getting on and delivering 3.5 billion dollars in Crown transport investment, which does include roading.

Lester on the other hand was about the only mayoral candidate who supported a runway extension and an indoor arena. He had managed to get support for a large transport investment, with a roading component in it.

Head to head then, Lester was a far better mayoral candidate than Foster for the Chamber’s stated policies. So why did they campaign hard against Lester? Was it blind ideology? A mayor with a business background and the Labour tag almost hidden on his advertising was too much to bare? They couldn’t handle someone who had what in almost every other OECD country would be considered a rational approach to transport?

Whatever the reasons, the Chamber showed a remarkable lack of pragmatism. They have got a council which is unlikely to deliver any of their main priorities. The leadership of the Chamber of Commerce totally failed to see what a good outcome for their members was. If I paid them subs, I’d be pissed off. Given I don’t, I actually find it kind of amusing.

Landlord differential

This evening i just want to look quickly at the way council defines what kind of rate someone will pay. In short there are two kinds – residential rates and business rates. From what I understand, business ratepayers pay more than residential ratepayers, by quite a bit.

So far, so easy. Seems pretty straightforward right? Well yes, but I guess there is one category of ratepayer who could be considered either. That’s the residential landlord. Is a house someone owns for the purpose of renting a residential or business property? It’s clearly both. At the moment, for rating purposes it’s classified residential.

But could it also be classified business couldn’t it? I wouldn’t quibble with that as a definition. Is there a lawyer out there somewhere who knows? That classification would have quite a significant impact on the business model of landlords. There may be other options too, like charging a small differential on residential landlords

Reports of media death are not greatly exaggerated

One of the interesting things about running for mayor is that you get the opportunity to see how our media operates from a slightly more inside point of view. I’ll write separate posts about some specific media organisations, but today I want to focus on one common element. That’s the limited scope of media, and what that looks like up close.

Everyone already knows this, but the media is basically absent from local body politics. The Dominion Post came to five meet the candidates events. RNZ and NZME attended one each. With such limited cover what ends up getting press is extremely ad-hoc. If you can put out a decent press release at a quiet time, it might get a tonne of coverage. If you can start up an angry Facebook group, you too will probably get coverage, as there will be a ready made spokesperson or decent quote to put in a story. Indeed, most wards gets caricatured as having one angry issue. Southern is the Island Bay cycleway, Eastern is Shelly Bay, and Northern is Johnsonville Mall. Meanwhile tonnes of other things going on across the city are ignored due to lack of journalists. I get that conflict is at the heart of every story, but it’s a shame that we lack the media resources to cover anything other than angry, change resistant people.

This media absence is felt more keenly below the mayoral level. It was notable to me that when the Dominion Post ranked councillors, they gave central councillors an average score of 8, and others an average score of less than 6. The reason for this is probably the obvious one: the journos who put those scores together spend far more time in the central city than they do anywhere else. Work done in other parts of the city is not even known about unless some group of angry ranters can get some attention, so there will be a negative bias before conscious rankings have even begun.

Because media is so weak, media organisations only focus on conflict. It feeds into this oppositional form of local body government where all that happens is that people oppose change. It’s incredibly frustrating, especially given the wider narrative seems to be that people would actually like to see some change in Wellington. No one’s to blame, but the ever shrinking media putting together cheap news is a potential handbrake on progress in Wellington.

Local body turnout

As most of you will be aware, I recently ran for Mayor. I didn’t win. The only conclusion I can come to is that the system must be broken. In all seriousness though, running for local body did make me think a lot more about the health of local body democracy, and I want to write about some of these issues. Today, it’s the turn of the uber issue, turnout (Warning to stats nerds: leans heavily on correlation implying causation).

In short, nobody votes and thats a huge problem. Wellington turnout was less than 40%, and only about 17 or 18% of people voted for the winner of the Mayoralty. In parts of the country with low turnout and different electoral systems, it’s likely that Mayors were elected with about 10% of people voting for them. This cannot be called democratic in any real sense of the word.

There are all the obvious things that have been touched on about who is most likely to vote – age is a big one. But I’m going to guess that the single thing that is most likely to indicate whether people vote is whether or not they own a home. In Wellington, turnout was over 40% higher in Wharangi-Western with it’s high percentage of homeowners, than it was in Pukehinau-Lambton with it’s high percentage of renters. Across the country smaller councils generally have higher turnout than larger councils. Again I am going to suggest that this is because city councils have higher numbers of people renting. Intuitively it makes sense. Directly paying a $3000 rates bill makes you care a whole lot more about what council does than your landlord paying a portion of your rent money to the council.

So we have a system with low turnout, and that turnout probably being dominated by homeowners. There are all sorts of downstream implications of this, but today’s just about noting that at local body level, government is decided by property owners. In effect it’s like going back 200 years to the Uk when you had to own land to vote. It’s bleak, and only drastic change will give councils the appropriate power and representation. I’ll get into what some of those changes might be later on, but today was just about identifying the problem.

Hanging out the passenger side of his best friend’s ride – an ode to cars.

Some of my best memories involve vehicles. Road tripping around Northland, discovering that almost-foreign subtropic. A massive delivery man nearly flattening me with a chest of drawers, while my mate engaged in casual chit-chat. Having a taxivan driver absolutely crank “Killing In The Name Of” while 8 of us sung along driving between parties as teenagers. Road trips, deliveries, and partying in the country side. These are some of the core role of cars in and around Wellington.

But for some reason we’ve massively extended the role of cars. Kids can’t cycle home, they need to be picked up. People drive to work at the drop of a hat. In some of our newer suburbs people feel they have to jump into a mobile to pick up a pint of milk. It’s not like anyone enjoys this. No one ever says: “man I still remember that Tuesday morning commute, it was so great.” School gate pickups are the absolute opposite of fun, as kids and parents play frogger with other traffic.

And that’s just the low level irritation. More New Zealanders have died in car accidents in the last 30 odd years than in all of World War 2. Every year thousands are injured. While the rest of our carbon emission are flat, cars are spewing out more and more Co2. Wellington is built around cars, and is a less social space than similar sized cities in many other parts of the globe. There are excellent uses for cars, but we have massively overextended what they do and it’s hard to know what the benefits are.

Maybe the greatest irony is that all the driving doesn’t get anyone anywhere faster. Build a road in Wellington, and it fills up and creates a bottleneck somewhere else. If we had high quality transport options, everyone including drivers would move faster. The city would be safer, we’d have better public spaces, and we would emit less carbon. Let’s save the cars for getting to beautiful remote beaches and for party taxis.

Bustastrophe

There’s been alot of anger about Bustastrophe, the multi-faceted meltdown of Wellington’s public transport. While the anger has focussed on the last ten months of change, the last ten years have seen Wellington’s public transport dead in the water. Indeed the graph above shows Auckland’s growth rate vastly outstripping ours. Wellington has added 2 trips per capita in these ten years, whereas Auckland has added 20 trips per capita. Auckland will soon have more trips per capita than us. I always thought Wellington prided itself on having the best city lifestyle of anywhere in New Zealand, but when it comes to transport at least, that will soon no longer be true.

So while Bustastrophe has been the catalyst for Wellingtonians public transport rage, it has more shown up a prolonged period of underperformance and underinvestment as much as anything else. This underinvestment led directly to Bustastrophe, as many of the things that would have led to increased patronage were not done before the new network implementation. These include integrated ticketing – using your snapper card on all public transport, trains running on 15 minute frequencies, and some frequent cross-town buses. It’s worth noting that with Auckland’s much more successful network redesign, these things were mostly rolled out. Auckland has had integrated ticketing for years, has at least one frequent train line, and has cross-town frequent buses.

For mine, we can complain about Bustastrophe as much as we like, but to keep Wellington as New Zealand’s best city, we need to invest more in public transport. Otherwise we will continue to stagnate. Wellingtonians make ten car trips for every bus or train trip. With more investment, many of these trips could be on public transport instead. To decongest and decarbonise we need to invest in our public transport properly, instead of just hoping underpaid bus drivers will somehow save us.

NB: The graph is from Greater Auckland. Also this post has left poor pay and conditions for drivers out. Because that is deserving of a whole separate post