Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
Matthew Scott

Williamson sparks up the east

Former Pakuranga MP Maurice Williamson (centre) with current Pakuranga MP Simeon Brown (right). Photo: Facebook

So goes Howick, maybe so goes the city – it’s another fixture to watch in the results for next week’s local body election in Auckland

A political old hand returned from the dead, the former head of a political party, two incumbents and a man who wants to use robots to turn Auckland around: the contest for the two council seats from Howick has some real heat to it this time.

With current mayoral polls showing Aucklanders could be craving a step away from the centre-left mayors of the past decade, there could similarly be an echoing ripple of changes to the team of councillors.

In wards like Franklin and Albert-Eden-Puketāpapa, some change is a foregone conclusion due to the retirement of Deputy Mayor Bill Cashmore and councillor Cathy Casey respectively.

But in Howick, nobody is retiring, and incumbents Paul Young and Sharon Stewart still have their hands up for the job.

It’s the re-emergence of former Pakuranga MP for the National Party Maurice Williamson into the political spotlight that could spell change for one or the other of those incumbents.

Williamson held portfolios like minister of customs, small business, statistics and building and construction in John Key’s government and took 60 percent of the vote to become the MP for Pakuranga back in 2014.

However, he resigned as a minister in 2014 after what Key called a “serious error of judgment” - contacting police to talk about the ongoing domestic violence charges of Donghua Liu, businessman and National Party donor.

He left Parliament after the 2017 election, and since then he’s been in Los Angeles, serving as the consul-general for New Zealand.

Williamson’s main platform is reining-in Auckland spending, saying ratepayers and taxpayers have been treated as “open-ended ATMs”.

“Something must be done to stop this juggernaut,” he said. “It’s simply wrong to keep accumulating debt to pass on to future generations.”

Williamson said in his candidate statement he plans to work tirelessly to restore accountability measures to local government if elected.

A centre-right position from a veteran politician with a history of popularity in the area could mean the end for one of the incumbents.

Howick Ward candidates for council (from top left clockwise): Paul Young, Sharon Stewart, Damian Light, Morgan Xiao, Maurice Williamson and Bo Burns. Photos: Facebook

There’s Sharon Stewart, who gathered the highest number of votes in the 2019 election with almost 20,000, and takes a similarly centre-right position, opposing co-governance and intensification.

She's running as an independent but has appeared on marketing materials with Williamson, forming a de facto ticket with a united stance on issues like pulling back council spending.

Coming second in 2019 was Paul Young, on just under 17,000 votes. Compared with Stewart he could be considered centre-left, although he isn’t endorsed by City Vision or the Labour Party.

This time around he’s running on an independent ticket of his own design with new candidate Bo Burns.

Burns has served a term on the local board, and if elected to council wants to make sure the governing body has a strong relationship with local boards.

Williamson could be a challenge for the new ticket - although Young remains optimistic about his chances.

“I believe most people understand who they should vote for,” he said. “I think I have confidence about that... even our team's slogan moving forwards not backwards. I’ve got confidence with all of my team.”

He had a few criticisms to level at his opponents, questioning Williamson’s past controversy around the Liu case, which saw him stripped of his portfolios, as well as the veteran politician’s decision to come back to politics.

“This job is not for retirement, it is to move the city forwards, not just for the next three years,” he said. “I respect him - but what has he done for East Auckland for the last 33 years? Why do we still have problems like traffic or the Eastern Busway delays?”

When it came to Stewart, he said she had a track record of shooting down any suggestion that came across the council table.

“We need the right people on the table, the people who are not always against, against, against,” he said. “She’s against everything, but has no solutions ...”

But for Young, who has been in the seat since the by-election following Dick Quax’s death in office back in 2018, this has been one of the most significant and difficult campaigns he has ever faced.

“This is my number eight election in the last 12 years and this is a very meaningful election but also my most dirty election ...” he said.

Every time he has run, his signs have been targeted in some way. This time around, his head was cut out from his hoardings, along with other Chinese candidates like Morgan Xiao.

Young is from Taiwan, but has been in New Zealand for 33 years. He says the treatment has worsened every time he has run.

“People say I’m with the CCCP - I’m Taiwanese,” he said. “Aotearoa and in particular Tāmaki Makaurau is my home, to have this kind of treatment is unfair.”

Chinese candidates defaced on hoardings in East Auckland. Photo: Facebook

Howick is a particularly diverse part of the city, with a just under 50 percent Asian population - the largest ethnic group in the ward.

Despite this, only a quarter of the candidates running for council or local board from the Howick ward are Asian.

Xiao is also running for council, on the ticket ‘Robots Save Auckland’ - the idea of using AI to automate and optimise the rollout of council services and save money.

“It sounds fancy but it brings advanced robotics into government departments and industries, such as police, fire stations, hospitals, libraries, information centres, traffic system and more, to effectively increase public security and service quality with low cost and with much less needed labour,” Xiao said. “This policy is supported by robotic academics at Auckland University (NAO institute), which we believe can really fix Auckland's problems.”

Xiao agreed with Young that the Chinese community were underrepresented in local politics.

“My personal opinion is, the New Zealand Chinese community is seriously underrepresented in the discussion of public affairs, no matter in Parliament, councils or on media,” he said. “According to the population ratio, New Zealand should have five Chinese MPs and two Chinese Auckland councillors, but we only have one each. And discrimination is one of the reasons.”

Controversy has swirled around Xiao in the past, with Newsroom reporting the Labour Party distanced themselves from the candidate back in 2019 after he made strong pro-Chinese government arguments in his writings.

Meanwhile, Williamson isn’t the only contender with work experience in Wellington. Rounding out the ballot for what is a hotly-contested ward, former United Future leader Damian Light, who’s running on a platform of improving financial accountability, getting the Eastern Busway to an end point, stopping the sale of parks and making sure East Auckland is heard at the council table.

He takes a pragmatic approach when describing what he can offer the ward, saying that despite his past with United Future, his background is ultimately in business.

“What makes me a little different, I'm not a professional politician,” he said. “While I've been involved in politics for a while, I've earned my money in working in commercial organisations.”

Light has held management or board member positions at AsureQuality, KiwiRail and East Auckland Tourism in addition to a decade with United Future, where he took over as party leader to replace Peter Dunne in 2017’s general election.

But Light said he’s always had a passion for the local, and has been frustrated watching the performance of the Super City over the past decade.

“They mashed it all together with all these promises of savings and efficiencies and better governance,” he said. “There’s the potential there, but in my view the Super City has been extremely disappointing and in the first 10 years they have wasted all of those opportunities.”

Light said he would bring more strategic long-term thinking into council, where he characterises current spending as “a bit of a lolly scramble”.

“Council just seem to just be blindly fumbling along and then when they ran out of money they carved huge chunks out of services and racked up debts,” he said.

It leaves a bit of a challenge for newcomers with big ideas showing up in council. Light offers better leveraging of strategic assets like the port or airport to swell revenue streams, but admits there will be definite challenges for whoever gets in.

Out east, he said it’s transport that’s playing first and foremost on the minds of the people he’s been speaking with.

While the Eastern Busway is on the way with construction expected to finish in just under two years’ time, Light said east Aucklanders want more options.

“That will help a lot, but it’s only one project and locally we need some transport options as well.”

Light said a more proactive and active kind of communication from council would help people understand what the infrastructure rollout looks like, as well as increase voter engagement and turnout.

With a population nearly the size of Hamilton, the two councillors selected by the people of Howick ward have the task of representing a significant section of the city, as well as the roles and responsibilities that will call them over the Tāmaki estuary into the rest of the city.

With a robust cast of contenders for the two seats, it’s one race to watch when the results begin to trickle in from Saturday.

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.