Wellington Scoop

Shuffling the portfolios

Watching new mayor Justin Lester aggressively shuffle the Wellington City Council portfolios is an interesting contrast to the softly-softly start that Celia Wade-Brown employed six years ago. Then, it was a few gentle nudges to avoid upsetting the old order too much. Now, it’s all change, as some long-standing responsibilities are reallocated. Mayor Lester is reshaping the council with a different vision.

The big headline change has been Andy Foster’s removal as Transport portfolio lead, replaced by first-time councillor Chris Calvi-Freeman. Foster has been associated with transport in the city for an extended period, and didn’t exactly make friends around the table with his flip-flop on the Basin Reserve flyover.

However, appointing Calvi-Freeman to the primary role seems to be an exercise in backing expertise instead of experience – while Foster has the track record, Calvi-Freeman has been a professional transport planner not only in Wellington but also in Sydney and London. It will be interesting to see whether there is a big change in emphasis or direction in the council’s transport policies as a result.

The Greens have been thrown a bone in the transport space, with Sarah Free appointed to look after public transport, cycling and walking – all items that are top of their agenda. While the portfolio will undoubtedly play to her passions and interests, it remains to be seen how much power she will have, with Calvi-Freeman deciding the strategic direction. The two councillors may work collaboratively together, spreading the workload in a busy and important portfolio, or Free’s role might be symbolic. Only time will tell.

The Environment portfolio, held during the last term by Green stalwart Iona Pannett, has been taken over by first-time councillor Peter Gilberd. Cr Pannett is now responsible for infrastructure and sustainability, as well as chairing the decision-making city strategy committee, which will be a test of her collaborative working style. The Greens may see this as some sort of endorsement, given the national memorandum of understanding with Labour. But Lester’s choice of Labour stalwart Paul Eagle as deputy mayor has put paid to any idea of a formal Labour/Green coalition. Green leadership of a few portfolios is hardly a big win, given that they featured heavily in portfolio leadership during the Wade-Brown era. It seems scant compensation for their strong electoral showing, but is pretty consistent with how Labour have traditionally treated the Greens.

On the important economic development front, Swampy Marsh gets the nod at the same time that the role is largely emasculated. Perhaps in response to the slush-fund issues that surfaced during the campaign, all decisions of more than $100,000 will now need to come to a full council meeting. This should be a useful check-and-balance against handouts that have poor transparency, but it does reduce the portfolio lead somewhat – to get anything done, Swampy will need to turn up cap-in-hand to his colleagues, many of whom have negligible-to-zero commercial experience. It’s a very different approach to the autonomy enjoyed by Jo Coughlan under the previous administration.

And then there are a brace of new portfolios. For some reason, there’s now a living wage portfolio led by Brian Dawson, who has exactly the skills necessary to work in this area. Quite what needs to be done and why it needs to be addressed as a full-blown portfolio is harder to understand – perhaps it’s merely mayor Lester’s way of making use of the talents of his team, rather than filling any burning need. Much the same might be said for the new city scientist portfolio, which has newcomer Peter Gilberd at the helm. We can but wait and see what important issues are to be addressed by these newly-created responsibilities.

Andy Foster has not been left out in the cold, despite his loss of transport. He’s in charge of finance, and he’s still the urban development lead, which will undoubtedly figure large in mayor Lester’s desire to do something about Wellington’s housing market, even though deputy mayor Paul Eagle has been given the new Housing portfolio. Expecting a council to do anything about a property market that’s being whipsawed between the Reserve Bank, central government policies and international capital flows might be a bit ambitious, but undoubtedly we’ll see some announcements out of the mayor’s Housing Task Force in the coming months.

All up, it’s all change. Under Wade-Brown’s leadership, we had gradual evolution of responsibilities and a seemingly cautious approach to who did what. But there’s clearly a new broom in town, and Lester seems unafraid to make the big changes and play to the apparent skills of his team of councillors. It will be interesting to see how his new appointees measure up.


  1. Trevor, 21. October 2016, 12:27

    Good analysis. It will be interesting to see who gets the Airport Directorship. The Living Wage portfolio seems absurd.

  2. Dr Sea Rotmann, 21. October 2016, 15:22

    Agree. Interested to see who will sit on WIAL’s board and if they will also sponsor the quite significant director’s fees of $60K to the smart energy fund, previously held by David Lee? And is Mayor Lester still in charge of the airport portfolio, now maybe renamed ‘major city projects’? Very glad the slush funds have been stopped, although I wonder if this extends to our free-wheeling CEO as well? So many questions, will be interesting to see what comes of them all…

  3. Durden, 22. October 2016, 8:27

    To paraphrase Oprah – “you can have car, you can have a car, everyone can have a car” ! Or an electric bike.

    So now every councillor gets the top-up to the salary that is available for a committee chair? Is that what has been now classified as portfolio leader? Nice tactic to spread the money around the council table and buy some support? And no individual responsibility for decisions. Only a collective responsibility of the single ‘strategy committee’. Presumably this is modelled on the Chinese system of governance?

  4. Councillor Sarah Free, 22. October 2016, 10:16

    My role as portfolio leader for public transport, walking and cycling will certainly not be symbolic!

    This will be one of the most active and important portfolio areas with the new bus contracts about to be rolled out, integrated ticketing, bus hubs and dedicated bus lanes all on the agenda, not to mention 37 million to be spent on cycleways and more emphasis on safer walking as well.

    Chris and I have both made it clear that to achieve the very best outcomes, we will be working very collaboratively; not only with each other, but with all WCC colleagues and wider stakeholders, including local communities.

    Please hold me accountable for making good progress in each of these areas over the next three years.

  5. Concerned Wellingtonian, 22. October 2016, 11:36

    Councillor Free, I hope you hold the new mayor to his promise of a fare-freeze for the next five years. This is the way to get people onto the buses.

  6. Ian Apperley, 22. October 2016, 12:19

    Shuffling deck chairs I think should have been the title.

  7. Keith Flinders, 22. October 2016, 12:43

    What influence you will have with the yet to be appointed new transport chair at the GWRC remains to be seen Sarah, but I hope that it is more than just the cosy meetings of the past few years. Wellington city bus issues have been badly served by the GWRC over the past many years, and the proposed 2018 route changes are a regressive step.

    You have mentioned that you want to see that if trolley buses are phased out then they are replaced by electric ones, so what is your stance on the current plans to convert trolley buses to hybrid ones . Hybrids with insufficient battery capacity and ones that will be using fossil fuel and polluting, whereas trolley buses are 100% pollution free.

    Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco and dozens of other cities, especially in Europe, are adding to and modernizing their trolley fleets. This whilst the GWRC who are charged with protecting our environment will be adding pollution to it. Quite the wrong message.

    Battery only buses are the future but not currently at over $1 million each and costing more than that with replacement batteries in their service life times. The ideal public transport application battery hasn’t been developed yet, and is likely to be at least 10 years before it is.

  8. Casey, 23. October 2016, 13:44

    Concerned Wellingtonian would like to see bus fares frozen for the next five years to get more people using buses. The overriding issue is that overcrowding on some bus routes is having some would be users prefer to use cars, though such costs are higher still. Being jam packed in a bus twice a day, often standing all the way, isn’t that much of an attraction. Suburban rail users don’t know how lucky they are.

    For those on the average wage and above, Wellington public transport is more affordable than it was in the 1970s. For those on the statutory minimum wage, or slightly above, public transport has never been so expensive. As was stated by one of the GWRC candidates in the recent election campaigning.

  9. Concerned Wellingtonian, 24. October 2016, 9:42

    I hope that comments on my hope that the Mayor keeps to his election promise about a five-year fare freeze are not just a way of getting him off the hook.