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The mayoral election: technology as a way to attract voters

by Adam Roberts
One of the interesting things about this year’s local body election is the extent to which technology is being discussed by the Wellington mayoral candidates. They all seem to have their own set of toys that they are hoping will get the public excited enough to vote for them.

Mayor Kerry Prendergast is promoting faster broadband and a fleet of electric cars for the Rugby World Cup and beyond. Celia Wade-Brown campaigns for light rail and green technologies – although Bryan Pepperell can claim an interest here as well. Jack Yan was first to promise free wi-fi for the central city.

Which of these sets of toys will make the difference? Which is more feasible, and are all the candidates agreed in their importance?

Light rail

This is the centre-piece of Ms Wade-Brown’s campaign. She says we need the system to attract one-person, one-car commuters and replace some of the central Wellington bus congestion. She says light rail would reduce emissions and make the city quieter, while also attracting businesses and residents, who may choose to live closer to the transport spine.

The project would cost serious money, with a kilometre of light rail with double tracks costing around $20million. The 2008 NG2 Airport Study used a figure of $140m for light rail from Wellington Station to Newtown, which Ms Wade-Brown calls a “realistic” estimate.

But the other candidates say that such a plan is not feasible within the current financial situation. Mr Yan says the project is unrealistic. “We can’t afford it, but it’s a good dream.” It also ignores the potential development of the city, which he says will involve an airport based in Paraparaumu. He goes further, saying the only way for Ms Wade-Brown to get her dream would be to vote for him, as the government needs to see growth in GDP before they would consider investing in the infrastructure, a growth his “creative clusters” and pro-business policies would facilitate.

Ms Prendergast says there needs to be more research done on the feasibility of such a project, and stresses that since the Greater Wellington Regional Council have decided to invest in heavy rail, commuters will still need to transfer at the railway station.

Ms Prendergast and Mr Pepperell are both quick to point out the high setup costs associated with such a project.

Mr Pepperell says that in the wake of the Christchurch earthquake, the focus should be on earthquake-proofing our infrastructure, and perhaps approaching the problem a different way. “What if we worked closer to home where we were able to walk and cycle and use the information highway and we liberated the work force so that congestion that takes place twice a day was not such an issue?”

Ms Wade-Brown responds that the cost benefit assessment for the system is likely to be better than other proposed roading systems.

Faster broadband

Ms Prendergast has indicated that high-speed broadband will be one of her priorities should she continue as mayor … “so that we get the economic uplift Wellington needs.”

Other candidates agree on its importance, but they differ on its importance to the city. Mr Pepperell says he’s all for it, as long as the ratepayers do not have to pay for it. Ms Wade-Brown says broadband is a priority, but it would depend on central government as to when it would be introduced. She mentions micro-trenching as a possible cheaper method of deploying fibre.

Free wi-fi

This is Mr Yan’s main campaign promise, and he has a lot to say on the subject. The way he tells it, the plan is nearly a done deal, with providers waiting for the go-ahead. He is adamant that the ratepayer will not have to fork out for the plan, as all costs will be paid for with advertising on the home screen, the page laptop and smartphone users will be taken to automatically upon logging on to the service.

He is equally adamant that under his leadership the project will avoid the problems which have plagued other cities such as Portland [1].

His campaign promise was however overtaken by last week’s announcement of the introduction of free wi-fi [2] for the waterfront area, a joint effort of the city council and Trademe. Ms Prendergast is quoted in the announcement as saying that moves were under way to expand the free wi-fi initiative to the city centre – subject to costs.

Speaking to Wellington.Scoop, she said she would encourage the supply of free wi-fi without rates input, and that she was planning to extend the service along the Golden Mile.

Mr Yan says he is glad to have been first to put free wi-fi on the political agenda, and last week’s announcement does not affect his plans. “Their plans are geared more towards tourists, who are important, but they fail to be integrated into an overall tech strategy for the city. The service is not centred on where people are.”

He lists this as an example of the incumbent mayor being reactive rather than creative in her approach to the election.

Mr Pepperell says free wi-fi would be on the horizon should he be voted in, with ratepayers not being expected to pay up.

Electronic government

If he is elected, Mr Yan wants to broadcast all council meetings on the WCC’s blog, encourage people to comment on them, and then treat those comments as formal submissions. He says this will bring “people power” to the organisation. “Every field that the internet has influenced has been democratised – including politics, not that Wakefield Street has noticed.”

Ms Prendergast says the council is looking into webcasting meetings, but there are practical difficulties. One fixed camera gives inferior quality and several cameras need people and a good sound system, she says. “Which equals quite a large cost for, probably, a very small audience.”

“Taupo is the only LTA currently videoing – and it is very poor quality,” she says.

Clean technology

Here things get more speculative.

Ms Wade-Brown says she has been working with WelTec to investigate low emission fuels, which she says could be introduced early next year should she be elected. She is also interested in using energy from our coastlines; she says such plans are in the early stages, but are “a good opportunity for long-term investors”.

Mr Pepperell remains sceptical that clean energy is a solution to the coming problem of peak oil, and that powering down is our only real option.

Ms Prendergast has an advantage over her opponents after taking the first practical steps with her planned introduction [3] of electric cars. The first ten arrive at the end of this month. They will be leased because they are not yet for sale. “If the pilot program is successful then we’d hope to see the cars remaining after WC2011,” says the mayor.

Mr Yan claims these cars are not state-of-the-art, and says he has been in negotiations with other electronic vehicle producers.

Ms Prendergast says these claims are nonsense. “I went to Japan to test them. They are 100% electric and require just a three pin plug for charging. They are very latest from Mitsubishi.” The council will also receive 10 Nissan Leafs next August.

Candidate Mobile phone Computer Web-browser/add-ons
Kerry Prendergast iPhone HP Compaq 6910p laptop Internet explorer and Google chrome, do not use add-ons or extensions.
Bryan Pepperell Samsung c3110 Council-provided computer (Silicon) and own a Dell net book and an external harddrive with 100 GB Mozilla and I have Java and Net framework assistant.
Jack Yan Nokia Asus F5SR Firefox 3.0 with Adblock, Firebug and Internet Explorer add-on.
Celia Wade-Brown Palm Pilot Home built computer running Intel Core 2 Quad CPU Q6600 @ 2.4Ghz, home networked to 2 laptops. For work use: Council Silicon laptop also Intel Core 2 Duo – Firefox. No add-ons.

So, with all this discussion of technology among the candidates, Wellington.Scoop decided to go out and see what the voters had to say…

Adam Roberts is a student in Massey University’s Diploma of Journalism course.