Wellington Scoop

Why he lost

by Gordon Campbell
For obvious reasons, politics is more of a big deal in the capital city than anywhere else in the country. Even so, fewer than four in ten eligible Wellington voters bothered to vote in Saturday’s local elections (turnout 39.66%). Even less was felt to be at stake this time than in 2016, when 45% voted Justin Lester into the mayoralty. To put it mildly, the Lester-led Council failed to live up to expectations. Lester will be remembered mainly for the fact that somehow, he managed to lose this election.

By contrast mayoral incumbency proved highly beneficial to Phil Goff and to Lianne Dalziel, given the lack of a potent alternative. The fact that Wellington rejected Lester and chose Andy Foster in his stead, has an oddly retro quality to it. Foster has been a councillor for 27 years and has been in senior roles for the past decade … so, more a part of the problem than the solution, one would think.

Consistent with that view, Foster’s agenda – he’s against light rail, against the Shelly Bay development, in favour of more roading, a second Mt Vic tunnel, and a lower rates burden – does have a certain Back to the Future feeling about it. It is as if the city has been handed back to a prior generation of business interests even while the media is celebrating the entry of new energetic talent (eg Tamatha Paul, Teri O’Neill) to local government, and more gender and ethnic diversity. Meaning : if anything, the polarisation that immobilised the Council during Lester’s term of office is likely to become even more pronounced this time around.

So how did Lester manage to lose a sure thing?

At a time when the public was angry and frustrated at (a) the abysmal new bus system and (b) the Council’s lack of interest in speedily fixing the city’s beloved central library, the Lester campaign appeared to be fixated upon a giant red herring – namely Sir Peter Jackson’s funding of the Andy Foster campaign. All that this fixation achieved was to pour new wine into Foster’s old bottle. If Lester had put a smidgeon of that energy into railing – however symbolically – against the Regional Council for its bus disaster, he would have looked less like a bystander to events in the capital that seemed beyond his ability to affect, let alone control.

Foster will now have to deal with the same polarisation and stasis that defeated his predecessor. As a participant in those fruitless debates in the past, he will presumably have some ideas about how to either convince his opponents in Council, or circumvent them by working more closely on the side with the Council’s bureaucratic hierarchy. Those new younger, greener Councillors may require a crash course in fighting their corner, and in promoting open and transparent forms of democracy in the day-to-day workings of Council.

Footnote : The wishlist issued by the Chamber of Commerce is a foretaste of the retro future that Wellington faces. The Chamber has come up with a collection of centre-right doggerel that could have been written 30 years ago.

For starters, the Foster-led Council is being exhorted by the Chamber to “ Make decisions in the way a business would, with a robust cost-to-benefit analysis,”… and to “demonstrate fiscal responsibility through wiser spending, lower debt, reducing the rates burden on business over time…” Hilariously, this “low rates” façade of fiscal responsibility also finds room for massive spend-ups on the usual white elephant projects : “An indoor stadium – A comprehensive venues strategy.” Not to mention spending on roading aplenty as well as on mass transit : “The Terrace and Mt Vic tunnels, cut and cover at Te Aro, mass transit, and linked regional projects such as Petone2Grenada and Melling Interchange.”

Oh, and the Chamber believes in more Council spending on the hopelessly flawed Wellington airport runway extension : “Continued support for developments at the airport and port, including improve road and rail access to port and support growth of long-haul air connections.”

How, you might well be wondering, could this centre-right wet dream possibly be affordable, given the Chamber of Commerce’s desire to simultaneously reduce the revenue that’s available to Council from rates? It would all be done apparently, via recycling. The Chamber advocates : “Alternative funding mechanisms for council, such as recycling and renewing assets, to pay for new infrastructure.”

In reality of course, big contracts will continue to be signed for the usual vanity projects that benefit only a sliver of the city’s business sector. Foster has told RNZ it would be “tremendous” if the Convention Centre could be rejigged to house the Film Museum monument to his biggest sponsor. If such projects go forward, the public services that the majority of Wellingtonians actually use will inevitably suffer.

Footnote Two. If Justin Lester did have a plan for two terms as mayor serving as a platform for a subsequent career in parliamentary politics, any such dreams are now kaput. Too bad that he seems to have learned nothing from his defeat:

An embittered Justin Lester – facing a shock ousting after one term as Wellington mayor – is blaming Hollywood heavyweight Sir Peter Jackson’s money for swinging the result. “We could have spent more money, look, we spent a lot more money last time, we could have spent more money this time. It shouldn’t come down to that, it should come down to the best ideas and the best people,” he said.

Jackson’s money wasn’t the reason why Lester lost, and why his rival won. Nice bloke and all – but in the end, having Justin Lester around just didn’t seem to make that much of a difference, to anything.


  1. Traveller, 15. October 2019, 8:29

    Add the pointless convention centre to the list of reasons why Justin Lester failed to win a second term. So much money being wasted on a building that so few people will use.

  2. Ben Schrader, 15. October 2019, 10:28

    Justin’s public persona was diffident and aloof. A mayor needs to be someone who strongly champions the city he or she leads and he didn’t do enough of that. A case of point was the central library. No one would blame him the library closure, but he must have known how important the place was in the social and cultural life of the city. As such, he could have immediately pledged that he’d do everything in his power to re-open it sooner rather than later. Instead, he deferred to Lavery (his CE), who said a decision couldn’t be made for at least a year. It was a missed opportunity for Justin to showcase his leadership qualities. No wonder the impression gained ground that he was letting the city drift.

  3. Benny, 15. October 2019, 10:49

    Add the support to Shelly Bay’s development … against the community’s clear and strong opposition. Still can’t understand why an elected member would oppose his/her voter base. Had he opposed Shelly Bay, he might have got the 503 votes to get across the line.

    I also blame a lack of consistency between the talk and the walk. For example, supporting the runway extension while declaring a climate emergency, followed by opening a petrol station, flip flopping on what should come first (mass transit versus tunnel). At least, with Foster, we know what we’ll get.

    Blaming the money is easier than looking in the mirror it seems.

  4. Geoff, 15. October 2019, 10:56

    Add Justin’s identity politics and lack of transparency as well.

  5. michael, 15. October 2019, 11:55

    If Justin had listened to the public (and engineer Adam Thornton) he could have got the library opened and he might not have lost the election. His insistence on going ahead with the convention centre, which will most probably become a big white elephant, didn’t help his cause either. Nor his desire to push for another stadium.
    Wellingtonians made it clear they just wanted our iconic Civic Square, town hall and library back, but I can’t help think it was the chief executive who was making the decisions while councillors scrapped amongst themselves.

  6. Ms Green, 15. October 2019, 12:10

    Add too much spin which never rang true.

  7. Marion Leader, 15. October 2019, 15:03

    Another failure of Justin Lester in championing Wellington was when he was in front of the Parliamentary Transport Select Committee and defended his friends on the Regional Council, He never even mentioned that we in Wellington badly needed help. Ben Schrader is spot-on in pointing out the lack of advocacy which has marked the last three years.

  8. Lisa W, 15. October 2019, 16:31

    Lester lost because he was too unpopular and so couldn’t be used to spin the old Central Govt and council agendas anymore. Foster is a Yes man. Yes on all the democratically unpopular plans like PJ’s museum and the Basin flyover.

  9. Richard Dantes, 15. October 2019, 22:17

    He lost because of Shelly Bay – this is 2019, not 1849! We need to give the stolen goods back to the owners as soon as possible. There are 19K+ worldwide and while they may have come to terms with the theft from their ancestors and breaking of NZ statutes meant to protect them – you can bet they are going to bear the grudge of this new open wound, as long as they live. It HAS to be put right and the sooner the better.

  10. George, 16. October 2019, 16:10

    Many Wellingtonians believe light rail will also be a massively expensive white elephant and will shut down the CBD and see many businesses and retailers move elsewhere. Cost over runs are a given. Ratepayers cannot afford more rate increases. Lester continued to squander money on things like cycle lanes in areas where there was already adequate provision for cyclists.

  11. Henry Filth, 16. October 2019, 18:20

    Edinburgh has had a long and bitter experience with the Airport Tram.

    Rabat, Morocco, on the other hand, seems to have had a good experience with its Sale-Rabat tram service.

    Done well, it can be a very attractive form of mass transit.

    On the other hand, if I lived in Miramar and wanted to go to Kilbirnie, I would definitely consider an e-scooter. Even if I had to use a backpack to carry the shopping. A tram/bus in the rain, and a car in a strong southerly with rain.

    Where could I conveniently park my scooter?

  12. Chris Calvi-Freeman, 16. October 2019, 20:42

    Gordon: “if anything, the polarisation that immobilised the Council during Lester’s term of office is likely to become even more pronounced this time around.”

    In fact there was remarkably very little polarisation, at least during the first two years of the triennium. The Mayor and councillors resolved very early on to work together, as much as humanly and politically possible, for the good of Wellington, and the majority of decisions were unanimous. Of course dissension began closer to the election, as some councillors sought to gain advantage for their or their friends’ mayoral campaigns, at the expense of the Mayor.

    I’d venture to suggest that it was Kaikoura 2016 that eventually undid the Mayor, as it might have for anyone in his seat. For a while there was a minor Dunkirk spirit while everyone accepted that Wellington had been damaged and got behind efforts to restore it and make it safer. The same spirit was evident after last year’s Christchurch atrocities, where Lester’s leadership of our capital city was outstanding. However, by that time, the true costs of the earthquake were becoming apparent and reflected in the rising rates bills (and needs for other income such as from weekend parking charges) that had come from the increased insurance costs and all the costs to the city to replace or strengthen civic buildings. The library closure was the final straw, as people saw it as an almost-random administrative decision and not necessitated by the earthquake.

    Working closely with the Mayor and councillors, I saw first-hand the strengths and shortcomings of Mayor Lester. While I am no Labour Party man, he had my vote for 2019, although I have great respect for Andy Foster as well, though they are very different people.

  13. Mike Mellor, 16. October 2019, 20:50

    Henry Filth: Edinburgh has indeed discovered that trams/light rail are a very attractive form of much transit, so much so that its line is being extended. The construction experience was clearly seen to be worth it.

    And using a scooter would be an option (but hardly an inclusive one) to get from Miramar to Kilbirnie if there were a safe crossing of Cobham Drive, so it’s good that’s one of LGWM’s proposed early projects.

    George: cost overruns are by no means exclusive to light rail projects: see, for example, Transmission Gully. Just as Edinburgh and many other places have found, light rail is a great asset for the city and region, not a white elephant.

    Benny: Justin Lester does not have a monopoly on inconsistency. Andy Foster has as a policy: “traffic reduced in the Central City and reduced emissions from idling traffic (far less efficient than moving traffic) by early completion of Mt Victoria tunnel and Basin Reserve solution”, which is actually a contradiction in terms. Adding such extra road capacity for private vehicles will increase emissions rather than reduce them, even if traffic is currently idling.

  14. Henry Filth, 16. October 2019, 22:15

    Mike, as an occasional visitor, I’m a great fan of the Edinburgh Tram. I’m not sure that Wellington’s ratepayers would like to replicate the build process though:
    “Edinburgh’s problem-plagued tram system opened to paying customers on Saturday – three years behind schedule, more than two times over budget and limited to a route that covers less than half the network that had originally been planned for it.”
    The Guardian 1/6/14
    As for dicing with death on a scooter along Cobham Drive, is the Coutts St subway closed?

  15. Lissa, 17. October 2019, 8:25

    I didn’t vote for Lester because of the library closure. Words cannot express how devastating this continues to be for multiple communities. We need our library back.

    When I was a student, I dove gratefully into their fashion section; as a fan of vegan cooking, the library gave me the ability to try recipes by popular vegan chefs without forking out for their cookbooks. Central Library is where I discovered Rumi, a poet whose work changed my life. When I was on the sickness benefit, expected to live off of $280pw & unable to move around much due to intense chronic pain, on the days where I was mobile, Central Library was an absolute lifeline. Being in that building made me feel like part of the community during a period where I was extremely isolated. It’s about more than the books. When I was finally well enough to start working again, I would often visit to explore the world of nonfiction on the second floor (the second floor of central library was literally one of my favourite places in Wellington). Before the closure I would regularly pop in on my days off work, to learn something new or just relax in a welcoming space.

    Central Library represents the best of Wellington. It is a special place. Our city doesn’t feel whole without it.


  16. Marion Leader, 17. October 2019, 9:23

    Beautifully written, Lissa!

  17. TaranakiWhanui22, 17. October 2019, 11:45

    Lester did not gain my respect, primarily due to his stance and behaviours around Shelly Bay. He purported to be supporting mana whenua. However he was not interested in the views of iwi members, but sided with the port nicholson block settlement trustees who were meant to be acting on iwi behalf. The same people/org who are now facing court action. All of which, Lester knew about.

  18. Conor Hill, 17. October 2019, 12:01

    Foster is far worse on the library, so hope he was ranked lower. From his website:

    “Make a decision on strengthening the library within at most 6 months, and get on with it!” – that could be to bowl it if he doesn’t like the costs, he has never been clear.

    “Consider with you how the library might be economically internally modernized like Christchurch’s new Turanga library.”
    – What does that mean? Sounds like another hold up.

  19. TrevorH, 18. October 2019, 9:03

    My sense was that Lester’s loyalties to the Labour Party far outweighed his commitment to obtain the best outcomes for Wellington. This became apparent in the LGWM fiasco. Release the Genter letter Justin.

  20. Concerned Wellingtonian, 18. October 2019, 10:55

    As has been said before, if Justin Lester has got the Genter letter then it is Mayoral property.
    Andy can do what he likes with it. Please get hold of it and release it, Andy.
    Take the politics out of the way. Think of Wellingtonians!!