Finance Minister Bill English has made a rare intervention in Wellington local body politics backing his sister in law for Mayor.
But he says he has done so because he believes she is the best candidate.
However in doing that he has ignored one other candidate with long National Party connections and another who is being backed by the Wellington Chamber of Commerce.
Speaking to a fundraiser last week for Jo Coughlan, who is married to the Minister’s brother, former Federated Farmers CEO, Connor English, the Minister said he wasn’t supporting her because they were related.
“It’s because I think that she’s the best candidate for a city that needs this kind of candidate; someone who understands growth; someone who understands communities and someone who understands families.”
But even so, that such a senior member of the Cabinet has publicly endorsed a Mayoral candidate goes against National Party practice.
Though Ministers have been involved in setting up the Auckland Future group, senior Ministers like the Prime Minister and, ironically, Mr English, have said nothing in public about their preferences for the Auckland Council elections.
Mr English’s endorsement also cuts across the campaign of Councillor Nicola Young, who is also standing for Mayor.
Ms Young is part of a National Party dynasty. Her father, Bill, was MP for Miramar and one of her sisters, Annabel Young, has been a National MP while another, Rosemary, is married to Max Bradford a former National Minister.
She says she is not seeking endorsements from National Ministers that she is standing under on her own record as a Councillor.
And on the Council, she has established a record as one of the more free market, low spending Councillors particularly with her opposition to a move to pay all Council members a “living wage” – a move in which she was eventually supported by Ms Coughlan.
But the situation is made more complex by the candidacy of the Mayor of Porirua, Nick Leggat, who is also standing for the Wellington Mayoralty.
Mr Leggat has been (up till now) supported by the Wellington Chamber of Commerce even though he has been a member of the Labour Party.
He is also said to have the support of some property developers, in particular, Chris Parkin, a hotel developer and former Councillor.
This has given him a big campaign funding chest which has seen him direct mail Wellington ratepayers and erect large billboards round the city.
But POLITIK understands there is now pressure on the Chamber to move its support to Ms Coughlan, particularly now that Mr English has publicly endorsed her.
The fact that Wellington employment lawyer, Peter Cullen, the president of the Chamber, was at her $100 a head launch tends to confirm that.
Mr English said that what was needed was leadership in local Government that understood that it was a good idea for an economy and a city to grow.
“We’ve seen in Auckland that where Councils don’t make that choice those with the lowest incomes pay the price when housing gets more expensive, when jobs are too far away from where they live – that is bad for families,” he said.
He said that Auckland was now an Asia Pacific city which was generating its own momentum and Christchurch, now rebuilt, was a low-cost city but though Wellington could take Government for granted it couldn’t take anything else for granted.
It needed to consider what would happen if it had two Mt Victoria tunnels and a four-lane highway from the airport to Levin.
“We’d love to spend more money here if you would just let us do it,” he said – a reference to the Council opposition to a flyover at the Basin Reserve cricket ground which would have paved the way for the second tunnel through Mt Victoria.
“It’s amazing how much more we get done when the Government understands what the Council is on about, and the Council understands the Government,” he said.
“We’re going through that in Auckland where we’re getting a lot more done now that we understand each other a lot better,
“In Wellington, we just don’t really know
“The Government is here, but it is not of here.
“But it wants to be more of Wellington.”
Mr English said a growth oriented Council could support a Government proposal to “spin out of Government’ some functions and privatise them so they could become export businesses.
“We’ve got some of the best Government services intellectual property in the world,” he said.
“And when we go and sell it, it works.”
He said that though the Council couldn’t do that itself, it could create e a climate where it could happen “but with the current leadership, it won’t, they’re against privatisation.”
By themselves, Mr English’s comments are relatively non-controversial, but the message was not lost on the guests assembled at the Wellington stockbroking office for the fundraiser; vote for Ms Coughlan and you get her brother in law as well.
How that plays in the wider National Party is open to conjecture, but it is possibly going to create some ripples.