Party politics or independence? YOU DECIDE

As the 2022 local body elections draw closer, candidates will be weighing up whether to pledge their allegiance to a political group or stand as an independent. Tina Law reports.



Stuff NZ Newspapers


Running under a Labour ticket did not go too well for Kelly Barber during a recent by-election in Christchurch. The Waitai/Coastal-Burwood Community Board chairman was one of the favourites to win the race for a seat around the Christchurch City Council table, but he finished a distant fifth, mustering just 547 votes. Independent candidate Celeste Donovan won the Coastal ward byelection with 1654 votes. Weeks after the crushing defeat, Barber says he is surprised at how many people told him they would have voted for him had he stood as an independent. ‘‘Perhaps I should have run as an independent,’’ he says. ‘‘Perhaps I should have run on my merits as a person and not associated myself with a party.’’ The experience has left Barber questioning the value of political party affiliation, or even aligning himself to a group like People’s Choice, which is synonymous with Labour in Christchurch. Even though Barber stood under a Labour ticket, People’s Choice paid his $8245 election expenses. Barber thinks he would have done better without that backing. ‘‘You put yourself out there and give it your best shot. The result is the result, and you either learn from it or you don’t. ‘‘I think if I ran again, then I will run as an independent.’’ In Christchurch, the 16-councillor city council is dominated by two political groupings: the Left-leaning People’s Choice has seven councillors, including deputy mayor Andrew Turner, and the Right-leaning Independent Citizens has three councillors. But increasingly this term, independent councillors Aaron Keown and Phil Mauger, who is standing for the mayoralty in October, have voted with Independent Citizens councillors. Six city councillors, including Keown and Mauger, call themselves independent. Mayor Lianne Dalziel also stood at three mayoral elections independent of any political party, despite being a former Labour Cabinet minister. She believes the mayor needs to represent the entire city and work with everyone, regardless of political affiliations. But she sees a role for political groupings in local government. ‘‘I’ve got no objection to people running in groupings that identify particular policy platforms.’’ Standing under a banner can help people get elected, especially newcomers, she says. ‘‘Name recognition is a big thing and when you have new candidates being aligned, it gives you an element of recognition.’’ There is, however, no room for Wellington-level politics in councils, Dalziel says, and she has little time for block voting. ‘‘The people of Christchurch deserve us to debate the issues without that politicisation. ‘‘When you sit around the table as a councillor you have to determine for yourself as a councillor whether this decision is in the best interests of the city and Banks Peninsula.’’ Dalziel says she sees block voting in the council chamber. ‘‘I’m being very even-handed in this. If Independent Citizens tell you it’s only the other side, then I can tell you that is not the case.’’ Both groupings deny they blockvote. They say they are people with similar values who often end up voting the same way. Both also strongly deny being influenced by national-level politics. Sam MacDonald, an Independent Citizens councillor, says the group’s constitution states it will not tell its members how to vote. ‘‘Our values are aligned, but when push comes to shove it’s not like we are whipped into voting a certain way.’’ MacDonald is a paid-up member of National, and while he says he has always been upfront about that, the party has no bearing on which way he votes. In fact, he is not happy with the National Party’s support for housing intensification. People’s Choice chairwoman Michelle Lomax also disputes there is any vote predetermination amongst its councillors. They will talk about the issues with each other, but that is no different to what other councillors do. Christchurch’s Labour MPs also have no say or sway in how People’s Choice councillors vote, she says. The Three Waters reform is a prime example of People’s Choice councillors butting heads with the Labour Government, she says. All city councillors are against the Government’s reform model. There are many benefits to standing under a political grouping, Lomax says. Without the support of People’s Choice, she could never have afforded to run for a seat on the Waikura/Linwood-CentralHeathcote Community Board. She is not alone. Taking on a campaign by yourself is a big financial risk, she says. Candidates can spend up to $20,000 on their campaign. At the previous election, in 2019, successful candidates spent as much as $19,695 (Mauger) and as little as $1791 (Cr Melanie Coker). The average spend of successful candidates was $5844. Not only does People’s Choice provide financial support, it has people who know how to run a campaign and a voluntary workforce to help put up hoardings and deliver pamphlets. Lomax believes People’s Choice has become a target for criticism, but says that is a side effect of its success. However, the machine was not so successful at the Coastal ward by-election. A win was considered important for the grouping. It would have meant People’s Choice occupied half of the 16 council seats. During a public meeting hosted by Labour’s Christchurch Central MP Duncan Webb in July last year, deputy mayor Turner outlined just how important a win was. He said his dream was for Barber to win by such a margin that those thinking about standing as independents this year would consider joining People’s Choice instead. Lomax says the group is naturally concerned about how badly Barber did, but it is hard to know to what extent the result was particular to that campaign. ‘‘I do not think that was reflective of the general sense across the city.’’ Turner has been widely tipped to take a tilt at the mayoralty this year, especially since Dalziel is standing down. ‘‘It’s obviously something I’m considering carefully,’’ he says, ‘‘I have not made a decision.’’ If he does run, Turner, a staunch supporter of People’s Choice over the years, says he will do so without any political affiliation. Turner echoes Dalziel’s comments, saying he believes the mayor needs to be independent and able to work with all councillors and needs to be a representative for everybody in the city. Mauger has already declared his intention to run for mayor as an independent. He would like all councillors to be independent. There is no room for party politics in local government, he says. Lomax argues Mauger’s alliance with Independent Citizens this term points to disingenuous behaviour. But Mauger says he has voted against Independent Citizens councillors and alongside People’s Choice members numerous times. That is the beauty of being an independent, he says. Cr Tim Scandrett has been described by some as the council’s only truly independent councillor, and he strongly believes in his stance. He has even turned down ‘‘no strings attached’’ offers of financial help with his campaigns, because he wants to keep ‘‘squeaky clean’’. He admits his stance can be a lonely place at times. ‘‘There is a saying in politics that your only friend in politics is a dog and I have a pet dog.’’ Supporters of political groupings say they make it easier for people to understand a candidate’s view. But Scandrett says it is not hard for people to figure that out with the independents. Cr Sara Templeton agrees. She says she was relatively wellknown in the community before standing for the council, so people already knew who she was and what she stood for. Templeton is an independent, but is also a Green Party member. However, she points out she did not stand for the Green Party, it did not select her to run, and she was not accountable to it. ‘‘I don’t like the idea that people think that I can’t think for myself. I don’t want there to be any confusion.’’ Political groupings allow people to get elected who might not otherwise have stood, she says. ‘‘I’m not saying we should have them, but I think there is a place for them.’’ Dr Jean Drage, a political scientist specialising in local government, says people have told her they did not vote because they did not know enough about candidates. There is an argument that standing on a political ticket instantly gives voters information about the candidate, she says. But people also prefer councillors to be accountable to them, rather than to a political party. Drage says she has never really made up her mind as to whether political parties at local government level are a good or bad thing.