Why our next QLDC mayor needs to come from Wānaka

by Peter Newport - May 22, 2024


As Crux readers will know, we don’t always enjoy the most cordial relationship with the Queenstown Lakes District Council.

What most readers sadly don’t realise is that as journalists we are big fans of good local government. It’s local and therefore the government side of things should work much better than central government from Wellington.

It's fair to say that the QLDC has not done a good job of governing and does not show many signs of being truly local.

Local means being part of the community and reflecting the wishes of that community.

As managing editor of Crux I’ve been lucky enough to have had an exciting and challenging career all over the world as a senior journalist with the Australian and American networks as well as the BBC in London.

Therefore, when I say that the QLDC is the least transparent and most difficult organisation I have ever encountered I am actually comparing them to Australian federal and state governments, to Downing Street in London and even the National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States.

The problem lies in the recent past of Queenstown.

Up until around 10 years ago the council really was expected to be an extension of the Dunedin and Invercargill power brokers who came here and often made a fortune.

It did not take a rocket scientist to figure out that there was money to be made here in the mountains – from tourism, food, wine, property speculation, hotels and even human curated adventures like skiing and bungy jumping.

Now, though, Queenstown and Wānaka are different. The fortunes have been made - for better and for worse.

The thousands of people that come here now are mainly looking for a quality of life - not a very large fortune. Money matters, obviously, but the crazy, and brutal, pioneering days are over.

Many parts of Queenstown and Wānaka have already changed to reflect that new, very large population base. It’s exciting. The new residents want a good life in paradise and are prepared to work very hard for the privilege.

But the top managers at the QLDC seem determined not to enter this brave and more open new world. In fact, we could argue that the QLDC through excessive defensiveness and self interest has gone back in time.

They embrace a corporate culture as if our money is somehow their money, but they are insulated from virtually all forms of accountability. Our part time councillors can hardly win against a stone wall of rules and bureaucracy that is designed to preserve the jobs and salaries of these top QLDC managers – including the chief executive.

Even the mayor seems to always represent the old pioneering days of secrecy, the quest for large fortunes, and victory by stealth and strength – not democracy.

Our mayors, after all, get elected with the largely hidden support of business interests and PR people who all have a vested interest in the old days continuing if not for ever – then as long as possible.

But now the wheels are well and truly falling off this council. Chief executive Mike Theelen has spent somewhere between $200 and $300 million of ratepayer’s money on a variety of failed, speculative and badly managed projects. 

That amount of money, for such a small body of ratepayers, is obscene. In private enterprise he would have been shown the door years ago.

Mr Theelen's now off to Europe for a ratepayer funded study trip mixed with some personal days off. His salary over the years has increased in direct proportion to his consistent and dramatic failures. His large communications team happily call black white, and day night, but somehow expect to be taken seriously. 

The answer: A mayor from Wānaka. Someone not connected with the 'get rich quick' culture of the past and someone who actually believes in, and practises, open, democratic and local government.

Wānaka's culture is not perfect - but it's a lot better than Queenstown's. 

We can't wait.

Advertise with Crux Advertise with Crux