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Karl du Fresne: Can Wellington rediscover its lost mojo?

I spent a couple of hours wandering the streets of downtown Wellington this week. What a dismal experience.


Actually, it was worse than dismal. It was profoundly depressing. The city where I spent most of my working life looks as if it has lost the will to live.


John Key got into a lot of trouble in 2013 for saying Wellington was a dying city. It seemed a preposterous statement then, but if Key said it today, I could only agree.


Absolutely Positively Wellington? That was the city’s confident – you might say brash – slogan in the 1990s. Now it sounds like a black joke. Ditto the phrase “Coolest little capital in the world”, which is how Lonely Planet (not an authoritative guide, even at the best of times) dubbed the city in 2014.


I’ve banged on about this before, here and here, so I won’t repeat myself. Suffice it to say that downtown Wellington resembles the urban wastelands of North American cities where you venture at your peril.


Lambton Quay on Tuesday was like a ghost town, Willis St only marginally better. Cuba Street, which once had an appealing raffishness, now looks just plain grotty. The CBD as a whole looks and feels tired and moribund.


Everywhere you look, businesses are closed or empty – a state of affairs documented in last Saturday’s Dominion Post. Beggars are ubiquitous, sometimes obtrusively so, and Cuba Mall is owned by derelicts.


Of course the city’s decline can partly be blamed on Covid-19, but the key word here is “partly”.


Many of the public servants and suits who normally patronise the city’s cafes and shops are working from home, and more worryingly may continue to do so even after the pandemic eases. The streets are also largely free of tourists – an absence for which Wellington should probably be grateful, since it would do the city’s image no good if word got out that downtown Wellington resembles the less salubrious parts of Flint, Michigan.


But Covid-19 has merely accelerated a decline that was already well advanced. For years the city has been in the grip of scaremongers and control freaks who used the hypothetical risk of earthquakes as an excuse to declare supposedly dangerous buildings off-limits. Risk-averse engineers, perhaps intoxicated by the power the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes unexpectedly bestowed on them, keep raising the bar. Compliant bureaucrats fall into line.


The Reading cinema complex, which once generated a needed daytime buzz in Courtenay Place, remains closed. The public library and town hall, ditto. Oh, and the St James Theatre too. And now I see that the Michael Fowler Centre, which has already been strengthened once, is getting another earthquake-prone sticker “because more documentation is required to verify the building’s seismic status”. The wording says it all.


These are institutions that collectively help define the city’s identity. As long as they remain closed, Wellington will remain in a state of inertia, if not paralysis. By the time the buildings reopen, it may be too late.


Even the Asteron Centre, an architectural showpiece opened as recently as 2010 and presumably built to state-of-the-art standards, was hurriedly evacuated last year for fear of imminent collapse. Yet the Railway Station immediately opposite, built on reclaimed land in the 1930s, has remained opened for business throughout. Can anyone explain this apparent paradox?


What’s astonishing is that this wretched state of affairs seems to be stoically accepted as inevitable. Perhaps the fact that the city’s decline has been gradual over many years resulted in the people living in its midst not noticing. The frog-in-boiling-water analogy comes to mind. Alternatively, the citizens of Wellington may have been browbeaten into submission and become simply too demoralised to resist.


All of this brings us to the matter of the city’s leadership, or lack thereof. From 1992 till 2010, Wellington had a succession of mayors – Fran Wilde, Mark Blumsky and Kerry Prendergast – who were energetic, capable and ambitious for their city. That was the Absolutely Positively era.


The rot set in under Celia Wade-Brown and since then, things have gone from bad to worse. Wellington in 2022 is cursed with the worst possible combination: a weak, ineffectual mayor and a council of fractious activists, several of whom treat their office as a licence to pursue ideological agendas.


So while the city’s infrastructure crumbles and its social and commercial vitality inexorably wastes away, the council sprays money on pet causes such as cycleways (cost: $334 million) and virtue-signalling gestures on climate change – to say nothing of the comically misnamed Let’s Get Wellington Moving, which has become a synonym for expensive and futile dithering.


A striking example of the council’s resources being hijacked in pursuit of a radical political agenda – one not remotely connected with the concerns of ratepayers – is the proposed three-day wananga (forum) entitled Imagining Decolonisation, paid for by the council and promoted by councillor Tamatha Paul.


Official Information Act requests reveal that this “call to action” – the organisers’ own phrase – will cost Wellington ratepayers $35,000, including $6000 for something called cultural consultancy services. (That rumbling you just heard was the gravy train passing by.)


The quoted cost of the event should be treated as a starting figure because it doesn’t include time spent by council officials. But how the ratepayers will benefit from discussions about what “an equitable future in a decolonised Aotearoa could look like” isn’t clear.


Councillors who had the audacity to ask why the council was paying for an event that Cr Sean Rush described as radical and subversive were brushed off with bland assurances that different opinions could be voiced safely at the wananga and “held with care”, whatever that may mean. But it’s a fair bet that dissenting voices would have been firmly excluded had councillors Rush and Nicola Young not started asking awkward questions. That was obvious from a council official’s acknowledgement that the postponement of the event due to Covid-19 would enable “wider participation”.


Whether the event will go ahead now that its true nature has been exposed (no thanks to the mainstream media, which have obligingly ignored the controversy) remains to be seen. In the meantime, there are important questions to be asked – such as, can Wellington rediscover and reclaim its mojo?


It will have an opportunity to at least make a start at the local government elections in October. What the people of Wellington must do is elect a mayor and council who reflect the priorities and aspirations of the city at large rather than those of a vociferous minority.


That won’t be easy, because Wellington is home to New Zealand’s greatest concentration of woke zealots. They are well organised, ferociously committed and have the support of a broadly sympathetic media, many of whose journalists are of a similar ideological persuasion.


The Left has made an early start. Tory Whanau declared herself a candidate for the mayoralty in November and has been energetically promoting herself at every opportunity. Whanau has no local government experience, but the fact that she’s a former chief of staff for the Green Party provides a clear pointer to the type of mayor she would be. It will also ensure the support of the impressionable young and the idealistic New Left from the inner suburbs.


She certainly doesn’t lack self-assurance, judging by a lavish photo spread in Capital magazine (what was that I said about sympathetic media?). But Whanau as mayor would be a disaster – a guarantee that the city would continue on its present wayward course, albeit even faster.


The question is, who will stand against her? Speculation centres on former deputy mayor Paul Eagle, now the Labour MP for Rongotai. Eagle was generally well-regarded on the council and would have almost certainly been mayor by now had he not been seduced by the lure of Parliament in 2017. But he hasn’t enjoyed a high profile as an MP and might well be tempted to return to local government.


If he does, and stands as an official Labour candidate, he would presumably have the backing of the Labour Party machine, which would help counter the inevitable social media blitz promoting Whanau. And while party involvement in local government is not something to be encouraged, Eagle as mayor could at least be expected to counter the malignant elements who now hold sway around the council table.


Whoever wins the mayoralty will need to be bold, decisive and visionary, because Wellington is a city that has tragically lost its way. Whether it can get its bearings again is in the hands of the voters.

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