Yes, the highly visible billboards are gone, but now Hawke’s Bay politics moves off the streets and into the more obscure council chambers and murky processes. Who came out on top? What will they try to accomplish? And what will be the roadblocks and controversies?

Do we have a leader?

Given its fragmented five-council structure, Hawke’s Bay lacks a single agenda-setting political leader.

Lawrence Yule (elected with 11,516 votes), even setting aside amalgamation, is the elected official most prone to raising and articulating truly regional issues and concerns … most recently via the excellent HDC-sponosored oil and gas (fracking) forum. As indicated in his article elsewhere in this edition, Yule has a broader proactive view of the mayoral and council role than most of his colleagues.

Were Bill Dalton (8,343 votes) to host a ‘big picture’ forum, it would more likely examine whether Marine Parade should opt for a skate park or a wave pool.

But in any event, these two, and their mayoral colleagues, Peter Butler in CHB (2,676 votes) and Craig Little in Wairoa (1,708 votes), officially represent only their respective territorial pockets.

Regional Council Chairman Fenton Wilson sits astride an organization with a truly regional mandate, but as a councillor elected with 2,175 Wairoa votes, and then elected chairman by five of nine colleagues, Wilson doesn’t exactly sit on a commanding political mandate.

Indeed, the biggest vote-getter in the region is the DHB’s Kevin Atkinson. Only the DHB candidates run region-wide, giving Atkinson the distinction of winning more votes from throughout Hawke’s Bay (15,000 first votes in the STV system) than any candidate for any office. Most people probably do not perceive Atkinson as a ‘politician’ like Yule or Dalton, but perhaps they should.

Others might come along to claim regional political leadership, like Chris Tremain and yet-to-win an election Stuart Nash. But both have only been tested so far as Napier candidates, and apart from occasional newspaper columns, have positioned themselves around Napier issues. Both Tremain and MP colleague Craig Foss, under convenient cover of their ministerial cloaks, have largely avoided inserting themselves seriously into regional issues, limiting themselves to innocuous “Backing the Bay” cheerleader roles.

So, how does this work?

Once a month, the mayors and chair of the regional council meet in what amounts to a coordinating committee for Hawke’s Bay. This is the ‘leadership’ committee whose disagreements on reorganisation over the past three years seriously delayed even getting the matter on the table for study.

It’s quite mystifying what this committee will accomplish going forward, with four of the five members frightened to death of amalgamation and at loggerheads with Lawrence Yule. Perhaps top vote-getter Kevin Atkinson should be invited to the party.

Especially problematic will be the relationship between Yule and Dalton, especially as the amalgamation decision-making process unfolds.

Within their own domains, each mayor may face some difficulty maintaining his grip on the agenda and decision-making process.

Yule perhaps faces a bit more challenge than in the past with herding the cats, with only loyalists Bowers, Hazlehurst, Watkins, Lester, Kerr and Roil at the steady core; Bradshaw and Nixon as persistent challengers; and six others – Poulain, O’Keefe, Heaps, Dixon, Lyons, Pierce – as either new or occasionally independent.

Messages lost in the blizzard?

Dalton inherits seven returnees from the Arnott regime – Jeffrey, Herbert, Lutter, Price, White, Pyke and Boag – but beyond uniform opposition to amalgamation, it remains to be seen how far their loyalty to the new mayor and whatever programme he espouses will extend. Further complicating his life will be a change-oriented crew of newbies – Sye, Hamilton, Taylor, Wise and Brosnan. Napier Council meetings might actually become interesting to attend, especially if Boag and Pyke decide to show more appetite for challenging the status quo.

Most challenged could be Wairoa’s Mayor Little, who might have the edge on emotional support, fed by his strong opposition to amalgamation; however, new high-polling councillor Chris Joblin has the best understanding of the severe fiscal difficulties facing the district.

4-3-2

At the HB Regional Council, newcomers Dave Pipe and Debbie Hewitt entered a ‘confidence and supply agreement’ of sorts with Fenton Wilson, joining returning Councillors Dick and Scott to ensure his selection as chairman.

But it remains to be seen how far that alliance reaches.

Clearly Hewitt is a stalwart supporter of the dam; probably no amount of evidence will convince her it might be a bad idea.

In his electioneering, Pipe expressed a commendable precautionary approach on water storage – “ensuring that any progress on the Dam project is dependent on it being proved that it is financially sustainable and does not put future generations of ratepayers at risk”.

One might expect that both ‘sides’ on the dam will set about ‘educating’ Pipe on the issue! That makes the dam an unsettled proposition today.

Pipe expressed a similarly hedged position on oil and gas development – “proceed with caution to investigate the potential economic benefits it could bring to our region, always mindful of putting in place safeguards to protect our environment and public health”.

And on all other issues – coastal protection, climate change, water management on the Heretaunga Plains, GMOs, tourism promotion, leaseholds, bus service, investment strategy – the jury is out. The newbies will need time to sort through these issues and develop their positions.

Billboard too big, said Hastings Council

What might appear at first blush to be a term filled with steadfast 5-4 votes mirroring the chairman selection might wind up with surprising unpredictability.

The dam

But returning to the dam, its fate lies entirely in the hands of the HBRC. How will the actual decision-making unfold?

At this juncture, the environmental implications of the project are strongly debated. The Wellington-appointed Board of Inquiry (BoI) won’t make its decisions until April. The BoI must decide whether to award consents to the HB Regional Investment Company (HBRIC) for the dam, and separately, whether to approve the water quality and allocation plan proposed by HBRC for managing the Tukituki catchment.

With respect to the latter, the BoI decision is final. With respect to the dam itself, once the consent conditions have been made clear, HBRIC will decide whether to recommend further HBRC support for the scheme or not.

During that process, the financing and economics of the scheme will come under its most intense scrutiny, both by CHB farmers potentially interested in the scheme and by the community at large.

At this point, the economics are barely understood, and certain to be contested, as are the fundamental operating assumptions regarding the productive capacity of the Ruataniwha area, which underpin the project. So murky are these issues that Mayors Yule and Arnott demanded earlier this year that an independent financial/economic risk assessment be completed. The HBRC has publicly committed to commissioning an independent and objective review, so that councillors are not entirely dependent upon the advice of HBRIC, which now acts as a promotion voice for the project.

HBRC has also committed to a yet-to-be determined public consultation process before it makes any decision.

Environmentalists, iwi, skeptical business leaders, and some unconvinced CHB farmers make up the vanguard of those questioning the dam. Strongest support comes broadly from the CHB community, some farmers elsewhere in Hawke’s Bay, farming/irrigation/dairying lobby groups, and contractors eager for the construction work the project would bring.

Four new regional councillors – Graham, Barker, Beaven and myself – have already suggested that the issue is so huge in its financial and environmental risks and ramifications that it should be decided by referendum. Other regional councillors – and indeed other elected officials around the region – will eventually need to take a position as well.

Leaving aside the nine regional council-lors, where does the community stand?

No one really knows. Based on my own recent campaigning, I would say public opinion is up for grabs, with a minority (30-40%) already for or against, and a majority (60-70%) unsure and persuadable either way.

Interestingly, if a referendum does occur on the dam, that question might find itself on the same ballot as regional amalgamation.

Amalgamation

Amalgamation as an independent issue peaked back in August, when the Local Government Commission (LGC) came to the region to take the pulse on public opinion, hosting public forums throughout the Bay. Convinced that substantial support for the proposition existed, they went back to Wellington to determine precisely what reorganisation scheme to propose.

So far, there has been nothing to indicate that the LGC will not embrace and recommend in November some form of full regional amalgamation, combining all five current councils into one unitary authority.

But in any case, the Commission is expected to put forth its ‘preferred option’ before Christmas. Once that happens, public debate, submissions, summer barbeques and all the rest will revolve around a choice between that option or simply maintaining the status quo.

All parties to the debate are unified in supporting a region-wide referendum on the issue, so there is no doubt that one will occur, most likely in mid-2014.

At that point, the leading political champion of amalgamation will be Lawrence Yule, while Bill Dalton and Stuart Nash will vie for political leadership of the opposition. At the fringes, mayors Peter Butler and Craig Little will rally opposition in their communities.

The best-organised community support for amalgamation will come from A Better Hawke’s Bay, chaired by Rebecca Turner. That group will need to reach beyond its business and ‘establishment’ roots and engage the broader public.
It’s not clear what the opposing campaign vehicle will be, although it is certain to be rooted in Napier.

Having signaled his retirement from parliament, it will be interesting to see the role that an unencumbered Chris Tremain will play. Tremain has consistently spoken of the need for reorganization, but also of the requirement that the people decide by referendum. Once the LGC has tabled its recommendation, it will seem difficult for Tremain to remain ‘impartial’.

And what is even less clear is whether and how other community voices will speak up. Over and over one hears nearly uniform whinging about the dysfunction of local government from business and community leaders. Yet all have been reluctant to ‘go public’, fearing political retribution from councils opposed to reorganisation.

Groups like the Chamber, Business Hawke’s Bay, environmental groups, Mäori leaders and entities, and sport, creative/cultural, and community service organisations routinely relate to councils across the region – and all have their frustrating stories to tell. For organisations like these, and their leaders, 2014 will be ‘gut check’ time as we all face the prospect of reorganizing for the future.

And then there are the ‘little’ issues – revitalizing our urban centres, coastal protection or retreat, a closed rail line, adapting to climate change, demographic change, visitor promotion, healthier homes and children, violence on our streets and in our homes, maintaining high quality amenities and day-to-day public services, meager job prospects. All before your favourite council.

So yes, local body elections might be over, but the serious politicking is just beginning.

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