Little mood for change in Rotorua

Phil Campbell

In Wellington in August, 2013, a mood for change of mayoralty in Rotorua was sensed by a prominent MP. “A sea change,” he said, “Rotorua will have a new mayor”.

For the first time since the reforms of 1980, a sitting mayor in the town was in imminent danger of losing his seat. A square transformed into a circle: three months later Steve Chadwick overthrew Kevin Winters, ending three terms of conservative leadership.

The forces who had supported Kevin had now moved behind Steve. A voter tsunami suctioned Kevin from his seat. Within a year, though, community unease was evident as under Steve Chadwick’s leadership Rotorua allowed Te Arawa (which does not represent all Maori) a voice around the debating chamber.

Today, the council is more or less an MMP makeup. For along with Te Arawa voices (they can debate but not vote), spaces were allowed for representation for rural and lakeside sectors.

With the last two sectors given gravitas seemed acceptable, some were aghast Maoridom, Te Arawa in particular, was given special treatment. A precedent had been set in Marlborough where Maori – a much smaller population base – had been given seated around the table.

There, though, a pastry white European table had been elected annually and Maori had no voice or representation. Accommodation was needed and met. A voice, but no vote, but at last Maori could be heard.

In Rotorua, locals had no difficulty voting in such as Trevor Maxwell, Merepeka Raukawa-Tait or the late Maureen Waaka (formerly Miss New Zealand as Maureen Kingi) or Janet Wepa or Glenys Searancke with Maori husbands.

It seemed a placatory gesture, though these councillors were voted no because of their Maori connections but because of the strength of their individual personalities. From 2013, too, Maoridom had another champion – Steve Chadwick whose husband John (who died suddenly in 2017) was a Maori barrister.

The Te Arawa Hearings of 2014 were a landmark in local body politics. Before they began, a campaign of dread was launched by a group led by academic Reynold Macpherson. The community was galvanised by his rhetoric, his disdain of co-governance though he could quote Maori connections from his upbringing in the upper North Island.

Steve Chadwick and her supporters (what Reynold even today refers to as ‘bloc’), emboldened by an Environment Court ruling provision must be made for Maori representation, pressed ahead.

Te Arawa, dissatisfied at a subcommittee decision not to win a voice around the debating chamber, took the council to court. It cost the community a bundle, around $1 million for an opinion which stated Maoridom must be accommodated.

That one issue began a strident campaign for the Macpherson group, which eventually morphed from a Pro-Democracy group to the Rotorua District Residents and Ratepayers group. With Te Arawa now officially around the table, the RDRR (jokingly referred to as the Rarderars) group found fertile ground elsewhere.

As with all councils, the local order was not without its local problems. The RDRRs railed at vanity projects, legacy projects, infrastructure works which had been neglected for years if not decades for which the current administrations shouldered the blame.

It orchestrated placards on private property, letters to the newspapers (now one daily in Rotorua, a community having closed in June last year) and meetings etc. In the words of Groucho Marx – or was it George Bernard Shaw? – whatever it was they were against it.

When challenged online once some time back by a former councillor Mike McVicker, Reynold Macpherson replied as if in justification that he was in Opposition.

Three years ago, Steve Chadwick’s vote was reduced by 22.7 per cent; the group supporting Reynold eroded the vote of all sitting councillors, apart from Merepeka Raukawa Tait (25.3 per cent) and Tania Tapsell (8.7 per cent), interestingly both Maoris. Yet, others with Maori connections (Trevor Maxwell down 22.9 per cent and Janet Wepa dumped) indicated a dissatisfaction with performance rather than racial trenchant opposition to family/whanau background. Glenys Searancke had also retired.

Over the years, the council has been described in correspondence as being led by a tyranny, a corrupt practice and a regime with constant references to the Mayor and her ‘bloc’. Were they really all or any of these epithets?

The bar raised a level two months ago when a two-word sentence ‘End corruption’ appeared on the RDRR website in its platform. Simply, the sentence was loaded. Legally, it meant from the state of Rotorua is rotten, is on the take from the top to the lower reaches. Call in the SFO (which has never lost a case), the Police (not Sting’s) and Audit NZ.

Seriously, who could believe it? And where is the evidence?

RDRR has had much about which to gripe – the $40 million Lakeside improvement project, the problems faced over out-sourcing the running of the Aquatic Centre, the overblown symbol by the roundabout at Te Puia, repairing earthquake damage to such magnetic structures as the Bath House and the Sir Howard Morrison Performing Art Centre and, did we say, the Lakeside improvement …

The voting papers are out. Returns are trickling in and it is only a trickle. Some have blamed apathy and or inertia, others point to a desultory mail service.

A poor turnout is envisaged; no one can point why. Yet, compared with say 50 years ago when halls could be packed, attendances at meetings have been reasonably encouraging, even if the population today is twice that of five decades ago.

Whatever the result next Saturday is though, it’s likely – not for the first time – the public will get it right.


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