Esther Whitehead's QLDC mid-term report: The good, the bad and the ugly

by Esther Whitehead - Mar 12, 2024

Esther Whitehead is a Queenstown Lakes District councillor for the Queenstown-Whakatipu Ward

It’s mid way through the term in local government and I reflect on where we are at both inside and outside of council.

In my zero-spend campaign to run for councillor in the last election, I asked all four mayoral candidates ‘What could possibly go right?’ with them at the helm. It sounds tongue in cheek but the reason I asked this is because of the numerous and interwoven issues surrounding local government as it grapples with the aftermath of Covid, the devastating impacts of climate change, a shambolic sway of central government priorities and the rise in mistrust. It seems not much can possibly go right!

We now all operate in a permacrisis (more on that later). Don’t doubt that it’s tough being in governance in the public sector - the only constant is being between a rock of shrinking resources, and a hard place of rising demand within a tumultuous sea of increased expectations and mistrust. This is not temporary, this is our new normal. 

Disclaimer: I am not condoning any poor practice of the Queenstown Lakes District Council, I’m simply describing the landscape our current challenges sit within. I am also fully aware of what I signed up for and what I am accountable for. There is no simple remedy to resolve all of our current issues this term; it’s an every day task that we plug away at.

At the time I ran, like any of us, I didn’t know who would stand for mayor, or who would get elected - that’s democracy, right? When you’ve demonstrated community leadership and workplace leadership outside of the camp, you hope you can bring that leadership into council, but as soon as I stepped into the local governance role in council I found it to be like I was speaking a different language, not quite understood on the same wavelength. Though I feel like the language barrier is breaking down slowly.

In my experience, trying to lead in the space of governance is more challenging than leading change in an executive role. Once you’re part of council, you work with people at your side, you can’t simply lobby for change as you may on the outside and you don’t have the freedom that you do on the outside. It would be really easy to be the hero of your own story and throw everyone else under the bus, but the role of a councillor is to debate and disagree but show respect and try to influence and build some level of consensus. You can be an activist on the inside but it’s a different type of activism and it has to work with others, not against, otherwise, it’s a fruitless task.

I wanted to drive culture change at the QLDC, I knew that when I was elected and spoke about how it was the internal processes that needed to change, but when and how exactly does culture change happen? There’s not a point in time where you say - we have reached our goal. Activism takes the shape of tiny and slow (often tedious) questions/processes which need to be continually pursued or altered. Tenacity and resilience are qualities needed in this role and a thick skin to boot (though I don’t have one). We also need very human and empathetic qualities. I reflect today and ask the question:

So what’s the good, the bad, and the ugly of Costa del Living, Lakes District?

The good in the hood

Kind neighbourly communities - people helping each other. The Tāhuna I see is filled with people who want to give, who support, who help one another. There are leaders amongst us who’ve always had this at the heart of what they do. To this day, I still volunteer, I take my elderly friend to do her weekly groceries, I start charities, I work to build partnerships with organisations and our council, and I help people, from visitors to locals. I see others doing the same; I am surrounded by the ‘helpers’ - the people that support a better Tāhuna and do something about it. I see council staff doing the same. This is a good place, filled with good people, generally living co-operatively and we have to keep a perspective of that.  

The good, specific to the council

Improved processes: slowly, internal processes of our council are improving. This has been through challenging the status quo and thinking longer term. There is likely very little evidence of this yet. In most cases this term, we’re still dealing with many legacy issues from the previous term(s) that we are still burdened with but may yet overturn. 

Improved transparency: all council workshops are now open for the public to attend. This was agreed by our current council to offer transparency to the community, which the community has asked for. There is so much at stake when the community can’t witness transparency of processes, so this is a first step.  Feel free to come along; check the website to see what workshops are on.  In the Quality of Life survey, many respondents stated that they didn’t feel heard by the council and that they wanted transparency on our processes and decisions. We’ve made this change (which many, including me, have wanted for a long time) so that trust can be built.  I asked the media "How was your first workshop?”, they replied “It’s quite hard to report on”, and I thought, that’s because it’s tedious, it’s not made up of soundbites and ‘secrets’, it’s a discussion of improving processes and policies. There is rich discussion with councillors doing their job well, only time will tell how that’s witnessed. 

Engaged and informed community: (some, who keep being engaged even though they don’t feel heard or listened to), I thank you, you work hard to be involved, and you offer constructive contributions. I hope that by the end of this term, I will have played a part in helping you to feel heard and that I have supported your contribution through my advocacy.

The not so good in council

Decisions still have to be made, and I try to be honest about the difficulty of being certain about the rightness/success/failability of any decision. None of us can be. We can ensure that good process has been carried out well under the Local Government Act. Making decisions is done from many different mental frameworks; I tend to be a values-based decision-maker, but oftentimes pragmatism or compromise has to rise to the fore. Idealism in and of itself doesn’t work in local government - there are far too many competing priorities.  

There is much room for better decision-making by using agreed decision-making methodology across council governance, and leadership, something I (and others) have advocated for (and is currently being worked on). This is crucial to our rapidly growing organisation and community and was discussed in an open workshop last week.  

The other ‘not so good’ is that councillors are paid about $45K per annum to do a role which requires huge capability and huge capacity. Some have both, some don’t, but if we expect good governance then we need to challenge the remuneration framework that the Electoral Commision provides for elected members. When a CEO is paid ten fold that of a councillor, there will likely be an imbalance of power and status (even though there shouldn’t). I am fortunate to have a good job alongside my councillor role, and therefore I can afford to be a councillor, but, it does mean I am limited in my capacity. For us as a society, this structure of remuneration doesn’t enable equitable representation or for professional development within our governance roles, particularly in regions where there is a small ratepayer base but a large visitor population. This district has all the same issues as the big growth areas but councillors are not remunerated like the large rate paying base yet still have to do the same job. 

The bad

What is a permacrisis? Economic volatility, environmental degradation, increased weather impacts, political polarisation, growing wealth disparity, social media toxicity. Yes, it’s a permanent but changing set of crises which keep rolling over and interrelate in different ways. This is our new normal globally as well as locally.

Perhaps with these issues we can understand why compassion is required in our leadership styles as much as decisiveness. It’s great to be decisive, to be sure and assertive with our views, but in a permacrisis, the precise course of action is even more challenging to decide upon. The changing nature of the permacrisis requires open mindedness, adaptability and flexibility and mistakes will be made.  Seeing others' views and understanding the drivers, and not falling back to a culture of rigidity and animosity is where we are at right now. We are in a transitional phase in human history. If we don’t see it this way, we may think it’s just others being difficult and incompetent, but the bigger picture tells us a different story. It’s more than mere incompetence in each locality…we’re seeing the same pattern everywhere.

As our world goes through profound changes, so the public sector and its leaders do too. Transitions are difficult, there is a tendency to cling to the old because it worked before and is often the only framework we know of, such as banks' lending/borrowing/investing criteria. We can no longer be so certain that what worked in the past will still work in the future. Too much is changing and too rapidly. This is bad!

How we respond 

It’s been recognised that those who operate on great certainty of themselves and their views, may think themselves more capable than they actually are (think Trump), equally those who show some uncertainty may be brighter than they think. Let’s not confuse certainty with fact, especially in a time of societal transition.

A current and proactive model of local government doesn’t exist beyond what we bring to it in the form of leadership, our reforms haven’t yet happened and policies sway back and forth. In the last Labour government, so much was up for reform, (and I found that exciting - a reimagination of our societal structures, legislations and policies that may be more fit for purpose for our mokopuna) and it’s been simply too much for some. What we have now is a repeal and stripping back of anything that looks like 21st Century thinking (crikey - even tobacco and gun laws!). Our models don’t grapple with this new era in human affairs dependent on a limited biosphere, so although many didn’t like the idea and the roll out of proposed reforms, we now remain in a new era but with regressive thinking. I can guarantee this won’t lead to success either! 

The downright ugly

A climate of animosity.

Cultural entropy - this could be described as 50 percent of time being spent on trying to co-operate through complex problems but getting bogged down on people not policies. Cultural entropy has been around forever. The Greeks knew about toxic culture or 'toxikon pharmakon' – the lethal poison that the ancient Greeks would smear on the points of their arrows. Yelling, eye-rolling, keeping people on the outside of information etc. A toxic culture is fundamentally anti-democratic, it’s when ally-ship, ’us and them’, start to take precedence over analysis and good decision making, this is what’s known as the tyranny of the majority. A council can become reactive to the divisiveness happening in community discussions but ultimately it has to rise above any climate of animosity - open workshops help that - holding a mirror to ourselves is a good thing.

So, where has all this mistrust come from? It’s partly from scrutinising poor practice and not getting answers, but It’s also so much bigger than this town and its council. We have witnessed a rise of incivility globally and locally. It could be described as part of the permacrisis I’ve already talked through. I would say that it’s being exacerbated by the breakdown of a ‘social contract’ that we all thought existed, what we grew up anticipating in terms of our societies, communities, infrastructure, facilities, jobs and opportunities, our rights, our expectation of prosperity for our loved ones. For humans, a comfortably livable planet starts to spiral away the more it heats up and there is a corresponding and diminishing quality of life.

The tectonic shift of globalisation, climate impact, displacement of people, constant environmental degradation;  this has created fear, despair and confusion without a type of programme for how we’re going to deliver for this ‘thing’ that looks so different to how we imagined it.  Which is why it’s so tempting to ‘get back on track’ or ‘Make Aotearoa Great Again, MAGA’. Many don’t think of this as the effects of climate change coupled with an economic permacrisis, they think of it only as incompetence. Alongside all this we have the rise of individualism and consumerism of personalised media, and this barrage of cultural influences no longer support the democratic systems that once may have functioned better than they do today.

For the past 40-50 years, we’ve been like frogs in tepid water, and now we are slowly being brought to the boil, and we’re simmering away. It’s ugly! We need political upstanders, we need to foster civic values and this involves a need for the revisit of civic education all but lost from our society today.  Toxic culture is eroding our sense of belonging, of community and of our wellbeing. Our capacity to tolerate, collaborate and innovate together is undermined by the rising incivility of those who just can’t manage their behaviour.  Think carefully about who may stand for these roles in the future. Think carefully about how we could support those who we believe are the ‘right’ people. 

The future

In council, some of us push for more, for co-production and citizens’ assemblies, where your participation is part of actual decision-making, where authority is shared. Some of us are there because we feel like you.  Will we be there for long though? Is it worth it? Do we make a difference? When you step into a role such as a councillor, you don’t step in lightly. I wonder who steps in next term.  With permacrisis as the modus operandi - we have to invest more in those that want to lead the community and offer support to those who can. Division and animosity will not lead us out of crisis, only deeper into it.

Keep respectfully questioning, a decision on Manawa will be the next hurdle, and one which will be fundamental to our community’s sense of belonging and being heard. Thank you community! 

Disclaimer: There are many good, bad and ugly examples I could offer. I decided to keep it high level but I am happy for you to contact me.

Main image (Supplied): Queenstown Lakes District Councillor Esther Whitehead.

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