Tell voters the truth: a cautionary tale of politics in the Hutt Valley

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Politics is in turmoil internationally – think Brexit and Trump. Voters are feeling ignored, downtrodden and powerless to do anything about their situation, and reluctant to act anyway.

Party machines and political consultants tell candidates to stick to the message – that is simple slogans, nothing that might upset their current target constituency.

Polls, media and commentators often seem to be getting their predictions wrong, and trust in political institutions, in politicians and in the media that supposedly keeps them honest is declining.

The “revolt of the ordinary people” against political elites who have run things for decades is an important factor in the surprise results in elections recently.

One of the more interesting local election contests recently took place in Lower Hutt, where four-term city councillor Chris Milne switched wards deliberately to take on another councillor, Max Shierlaw, who was so difficult to work with that it was affecting the ability of the council to operate effectively.

Milne was first elected to the council in 2004, after earlier running as an ACT Party candidate

for Parliament. Losing his seat in 2007, he won it back in 2010.

He represented the Central Ward, which comprises the shopping and better residential areas of the city, although he and his wife Jan and their family had lived in Normandale on the western hills above the Hutt River since 1981.

The Western Ward elects two councillors: Max Shierlaw and Margaret Cousins were the incumbents and both were standing again.

“I’d found Max’s behaviour so dysfunctional that I decided that I was not prepared to continue to be on the council with him,” Chris Milne says. “Taking him on in an election was the only way to address the problem: telling the voters what was really going on was the only way to get him voted out.

“No one thought I could do it, but I did, by talking directly and honestly to voters.”

Milne won, topping the poll with 2,272 votes: Cousins was second on 1,731 and Shierlaw missed out – third on 1,367.

We asked Milne if he saw himself as part of the same political phenomenon as Brexit and Trump.

“One thing that Brexit and Trump have in common is that the campaigners were not afraid to speak directly to voters in terms that reflected their daily experiences.

“In Britain, this was immigration and loss of cultural identity. In the USA, it was the hollowing out of middle-class opportunity and economic well-being.”

In Normandale, Maungaraki, Belmont, Kelson and the other suburbs of the Western Ward, it was about how Max Shierlaw interacted negatively with others, about how no one spoke out about it, and about how it wasn’t reported, said MiIne. “For many years Councillor Shierlaw had traded on his reputation as someone who held others to account and was prepared to speak out on issues. But for many councillors, council staff and leaders of a significant number oflocal organisations he was, unbeknown to the public, their bete noire.”

Milne considers the media silence part of the problem.

“The media is thoroughly complicit in the web of misinformation. Rather than publish hardhitting stories about candidates, they report PR-generated events and other irrelevant sideshows.”

“You would think that it would be of interest to the media that a sitting councillor, and chair of a council committee, was without doubt a serial complainant and litigant? I’d seen it reach the point that the council’s relationship with key external agencies and other councils around the region was at risk. Apparently, it was of no interest, and was not publicised.

“I’d found that one school board received 21 complaints about the administration of the school, and threats to sue the board chair.

“Another school board was subjected to several years of complaints to multiple government agencies, chewing up staff time, budgets and morale, and damaging the reputation of the school.

“Both schools enjoyed very high ratings from ERO, so I was satisfied the complaints were vexatious

and unwarranted.

“The complaints even extended to an Invercargill school principal, Sky TV, and various councils in the Wellington region.

“The response was silence from the media, councillors, boards and, in fact, everyone.

“Would other councillors speak out? No. Not just in the Hutt but in fact seldom, if ever, anywhere.

“The fourth estate were well aware of all of these issues, but never reported them. Other councillors knew.

“But, crucially, voters didn’t know and, unless prepared to become private detectives, could not know.”

A key tactic was a handwritten letter Milne sent to every household in the ward explaining in great detail the problems generated by their councillor Max Shierlaw.

In the letter, he wrote of a “pattern of destructive and divisive behaviour” that had “undermined the internal culture of our council.”

Milne said that “After repeated warnings over online misbehaviour, Mayor Ray Wallace ordered the suspension of Shierlaw’s council email account.”

Milne challenged voters to Google “Max Shierlaw” and “complaint”.

In Milne’s own election pamphlet, headlined The Man with a Plan, he wrote, “This year Western Ward voters will get the chance to choose between two out of three sitting councillors. One of us will have to go.”

“Voters learned, although it was never reported in the media, that Cr Shierlaw had resigned as a trustee of a key council trust after he failed to work constructively with the board and undermined one of council’s key projects.

“The Trust’s trustees didn’t say anything. Other councillors didn’t say anything. The general view was that nothing could be done because the people of the Western Ward kept electing him. What do you expect from Western Ward voters when there’s a conspiracy of silence from those who have a duty to the public to tell the truth?”

Milne’s letter blew it all into the open. “I asked whether this was the sort of person you’d want running your city.”

Milne backed up his statements about Shierlaw with a ratepayers’ pledge, which he and nine other candidates for council signed, promising not to vote for any rates increase “above inflation plus growth in the City’s rating base,” and “not to allow debt to rise beyond a prudent level.”

His pamphlet stressed his and his family’s long association with the city and with various community groups in the western hills, and included endorsements from local identities.

“Hardly anyone believed I would win. It was simply too risky to tell the truth, to likely be labelled a trouble-maker or not a team player; and people told me this was simply not how voters would want to see a campaign conducted.

“My intuition was the opposite. I believed that voters would reward someone who busted through the silence and told it how it was.”

Late in the campaign Chris received a phone-call from a voter. The voter explained that they had all the candidate brochures and flyers on their dining table, the voting handbook with candidate profiles and the voting papers.

“The voter asked if I could please come around and help them decide how to vote. “I don’t know why I’m calling you,” he said, “except that your letter is the only authentic piece of information to come through my letterbox.”

Milne’s straightforward, tell the truth, approach worked. He topped the poll, and ousted Shierlaw.