Sometimes it seems that council candidates will say just about anything to get elected. But what are they saying (or not saying) when they think no-one else is watching?
Most Wellington City Council candidates are keen to tell us how much they care about Wellington so you might think these are the kind of engaged citizens who make the occasional submission on a council consultation, right? Especially the very important, quite recent and well-publicised consultations. Wouldn't it be good if we could read those submissions, so that we knew what they really think about some of the biggest issues facing the city rather than just what they choose to tell us in bland bio statements, media releases and pre-prepared stump speeches?
Under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act and Wellington City Council's Privacy Statement I asked the council to provide me with the submissions made by all 2019 council candidates on the two biggest consultations they've run this year - Planning for Growth and Te Atakura - First to Zero. Both of these consultations closed in May 2019, which is not that long ago, and attracted over 1,200 responses from the public, which must surely include responses from anybody so engaged in local politics that they intend to run for councillor?
Disappointingly, the answer is not really. As shown in the table below of the 26 new candidates for Wellington City Council only 8 made a submission on at least 1 of those 2 consultations, and only 3 of those 8 made a submission on both (note that incumbent councillors probably get a pass on this because you wouldn't normally expect them to be making submissions).
Note: if any of the above information is incorrect please let me know and it will be corrected.
Note: one of Laurie Foon's submissions was on behalf of the Sustainable Business Network
Top marks to Dr Jenny Condie (running for Mayor & Takapū/Northern Ward), Laurie Foon (Paekawakawa/Southern Ward) and Bernard O'Shaughnessy (Motukairangi/Eastern Ward) for submitting on both consultations and demonstrating the kind of engagement in local issues you'd expect from a serious candidate for council. This might not be a deal breaker for you, and there's lots of other things to think about when deciding how to vote, but you could certainly consider moving these candidates a place or two further up your STV rankings.
Highly commended goes to Conor Hill (running for Mayor & Wharangi/Onslow-Western Ward), Teri O'Neill (Motukairangi/Eastern Ward) and Ray Chung, Michelle Rush & Rohan Biggs (all running for Wharangi/Onslow-Western Ward) for submitting at least once.
As for the other 18 candidates feel free to question them during candidates meetings about why they didn't feel it was important to participate. Again, this probably isn't a deal-breaker but if you already have doubts about any of these 18 candidates then their non-engagement in these consultations probably confirms a low ranking is deserved.
The low response rate also creates a bit of an issue in terms of publishing the responses themselves. It could be seen as unfair to the candidates who did respond to publicise their responses when so many of their rivals won't get the same scrutiny. On the other hand every shred of information we can gather about candidates is valuable, especially when it is, well... candid. These two spreadsheets summarise the candidates submissions on the two consultations and include the aggregated results from all submitters for comparison (note that Ray Chung only made a written submission on Planning for Growth and didn't complete the online questionnaire):
Planning for Growth
Te Atakura - First to Zero
On balance I don't think it is unreasonable for people running for public office to be open to scrutiny and there is a strong public interest argument in knowing their views on such important issues. As it happens in just about every case I think the responses the candidates have given are broadly-aligned with the majority view of other submitters and therefore strengthens their case to be elected. You can review the candidates full submissions here and make up your own mind (note that the First to Zero submissions are all contained in a single spreadsheet as that's how they were provided by WCC).
However, there's one significant outlier. The submission by Rohan Biggs (running for Wharangi/Onslow-Western Ward) on Te Atakura - First to Zero is completely in denial about the impact of climate change [Note 1]. According to his submission he is "not at all concerned" about the impact of climate change on Wellington and doesn't believe that becoming zero carbon should be a high priority.
I've subsequently had a look at what Mr Biggs has published on his website, Facebook page, Twitter account and several media releases and I can't see him being anywhere near as explicit in his beliefs about climate change as he is in this submission. He answers one question on his Facebook page about his lack of environmental policies with this entirely unconvincing and disingenuous response:
Getting clarity on what a candidate really thinks rather than just what they want to tell us was exactly the point of this exercise. Mr Biggs views on climate change are so at odds with the other submitters on Te Atakura - First to Zero that if I was a voter in Wharangi/Onslow-Western Ward I'd be ranking him very low.
As for the rest of them apart from trawling through websites and Facebook pages I highly recommend the following sources of information:
The Spinoff's guide is a bit of a blunt tool as it tends to reward "motherhood and apple pie" descriptions of policies but it is very good for sorting out a short-list of candidates you might vote for and then doing a little bit more research about.
Note 1: this blog has been amended at Mr Biggs request to make it clear that he is not denying the existence of climate change, he just doesn't believe doing anything about it should be a priority.