What the Southern Ward by-election results tell us about the true size of opposition to the cycleway
As you will all know by now Fleur Fitzsimons is the new Wellington city councillor for Southern Ward. Congratulations Fleur!
The election results show that it was a hard-fought election (perhaps a little too hard-fought at times) with Laurie Foon coming a close second. This was an impressive result for an independent candidate. Vicki Greco came third with a solid bloc of support as expected.
The election had been framed by some as another informal referendum on the Island Bay cycleway. As such it was heartening to see the two most progressive candidates finish first and second. Fleur Fitzsimons and Laurie Foon have both been clear about their support for the Island Bay cycleway compromise solution and were rewarded with 59% of the first preference votes between them (2,155 votes for Fitzsimons and 1,723 votes for Foon). Vicki Greco, the candidate who was most vehemently opposed to the cycleway, picked up 24% of the first preference votes (1,590 votes). By the 6th STV iteration, when it was down to the final three candidates, the split was Fitzsimons 40%, Foon 32% (72% in total) and Greco 28%.
Fleur Fitzsimons (right) & Laurie Foon (second right) finished first & second in the Southern Ward by-election respectively.
Image via Living Wage Aotearoa.
While it's fair to paint this result as a solid 'win' for the progressives a couple of things need to be remembered. The first is that turnout was only 30%. That's low for a local body election but not uncommon for a by-election, especially right before Christmas. While elections serve a necessary purpose in getting candidates elected into roles, they are not random surveys and with such a low turnout the results can't be extrapolated to the entire population. The result is indicative of the entire population, at best. It also needs to be said that although she finished third Vicki Greco has done OK. 1.5k first preference votes is not to be sniffed at and the majority of those votes probably came from Island Bay.
When I first saw that Vicki had secured 1,590 first preference votes I thought that number seemed very familiar. It turns out it's almost exactly the same number of Island Bay residents who voted for the cycleway to be removed in the Island Bay Residents Association's infamous survey of March 2016, which was 1,559. IBRA's survey was another non-random survey, so the result can't safely be extrapolated to the whole population (despite the fact that IBRA tried to do exactly that) but it's interesting that the absolute number of people who 'voted' for the cycleway to be put back in the IBRA survey is almost exactly the same number of people who voted for Vicki Greco in this by-election. Of course, this means assuming every single vote Vicki got in the by-election was from Island Bay so the actual number could be lower.
Another important indicator is the results of the city council's recent consultation on the cycleway which are analysed in this report. There were 1,991 submissions from Island Bay in the consultation, 309 from The Parade and 1,687 from the rest of Island Bay (page 12). This is another non-random survey so once again the results can't be extrapolated to the whole population but according to the graph showing first preferences on page 21 90% of respondents from The Parade and 70% of respondents from the rest of Island Bay wanted a roadside cycleway as their first preference [Note 1], which adds up to 1,458 people! [Note 2].
While all three sources of evidence mentioned above have their flaws and can only be treated as indicative, taken together they provide fairly compelling evidence that there's around 1,500 people living in Island Bay who are actively opposed to the cycleway [Note 3]. That's about 20% of the population of 7,000 or around 30% of the adult population of just over 5,000. For that number to be any higher means assuming that there is a bloc of cycleway opposition who have never spoken out about it. For example, for opposition to the cycleway to be as high as the 80% of Island Bay residents which is sometimes claimed would mean that there are around 2,500 adults in Island Bay who are opposed to the cycleway but who didn't participate in the IBRA survey, didn't make a submission in the consultation and didn't vote for Vicki in the by-election [Note 4]. That simply isn't credible.
However, what's interesting about the 20% number is that although it's a minority it's still a significant minority. As such, it's not hard to see how a group of 1,500 people, representing 20% of the population, could easily believe themselves to be a much bigger number, maybe even a majority. After all, many of these people will be known to each other, moving in the same social circles, connected on social media etc. They will be talking to each other on a daily basis and probably correct in observing that "just about everyone I talk to is against the cycleway". 20% of the population of a community seems like just the right number of people to create the classic 'bubble' or 'echo chamber'. At the end of the day though, it's still a minority and having based pretty much their whole campaign on simplistic, all-or-nothing 'majority wins' rhetoric it's probably time that cycleway opponents accepted that. As previously explained here and here the truth is that the vast majority of Island Bay either support the cycleway or just don't care.
Note 1. It is important to note that the consultation was never set up to be a referendum. Using the first preferences in this way is a bastardisation of the methodology in order to roughly establish the absolute number of people who were 'against the cycleway' if the consultation had been a simplistic first-past-the-post vote.
Note 2. (309 x 0.9) + (1,687 x 0.7) = 1,458
Note 3. There are other sources of evidence but they are even less robust and none of them disprove the theory that the maximum number of Island Bay residents actively opposed to the cycleway is approximately 1,500. For example, 1,365 people signed this petition against the cycleway but many of them will not be from Island Bay. Another example is the 2016 local body elections where anti-cycleway candidate Brendan Bonner got 800 first preference votes and 1,269 votes in total, picking up a large number of 2nd preference votes from Paul Eagle but still finishing a distant third behind pro-cycleway candidate David Lee's 2,475 first preference votes and 3,230 votes in total.
Note 4. 80% of 5,000 is 4,000. 4,000 - 1,500 = 2,500