There were a few astonished voters on Saturday afternoon, scratching their heads not just at Jim Boult’s victory, but at the margin of votes over his competitor, Nik Kiddle. If the Wānaka Stakeholder Group’s (WSG) membership numbers were anything to go by, the vote should have been a shoe-in for anti-airport Kiddle.
But it wasn’t just at the mayoral level where the votes indicated satisfaction with the status quo. Wānaka Community Board (WCB) incumbent, Ed Taylor, campaigned on a strong pro-growth, pro-airport platform and he was returned to office. Barry Bruce and Chris Hadfield, whilst not as vocal about their support as Taylor but still openly pro airport, also got voted onto the WCB.
Taylor said his decision to campaign as pro-airport was easy. “It wasn’t a strategic decision at all. I was hearing from lots of residents who support the development of a jet-capable airport. Many were too afraid to say much publicly but all wanted to congratulate me on being so clear on my stand. One 90-year-old resident even drove out to the airport just to meet me and ‘shake my hand’ because he wanted to let me know that I had his support. To me it’s all about diversifying our economy and looking to attract new and sustainable jobs in fields such as general aviation, education and technology and I know that having a direct air service to New Zealand’s economic base, Auckland, is important to achieve that.”
For Mike Regal, owner of Radio Wānaka who was so outspoken in his support for the airport he was blocked from the WSG Facebook page, the vote could be construed as a vote for the airport, however it could also indicate that many people aren’t engaged, don’t care and perhaps “have no idea the WSG even exists.”
“What became clear to me, is that every client I spoke to said, ‘we’re quite happy for airport and jets as long as it’s done properly.’ I couldn’t find one client who was anti airport or in support of WSG. So I think in terms of the vote, is it ‘for’ the airport or is it because people simply don’t know, don’t engage or don’t care about the airport, I am not sure. The WSG would have you believe the whole community was involved in the debate but the vote proves otherwise. I think the WSG was just having a conversation with themselves,” said Regal.
For Taylor, the issue of a "silent majority" was telling. “I believe there are a lot more people in favour of expanding Wānaka airport than those against would give credit for. I was a bit miffed at some comments from airport opponents who claimed to be speaking on behalf of the people of this community. Yes they do speak for many people but there are also many people who don’t agree with them and especially with some of their recruitment and online tactics.”
Regal elaborated that he is not opposed to the WSG, and that they are entitled to their democratic opinion. “But what I oppose — and this is what happens in Wānaka — is that small lobby groups can take so much share of the voice and then they dominate the argument and claim to represent everybody. It is a democracy and groups are entitled to have their say, but what they’re not entitled to do is to hijack popular opinion and claim to represent everybody when they don’t. And with social media it’s so much easier to do that.”
Taylor adds, “I think everyone just needs to ‘cool their jets’ on the issue. We have some good planning documents coming out next year including the Queenstown Lakes District Council spatial plan and the airport masterplan. Let’s wait until then and then have a community debate about what happens going forward.”
For Michael Ross, chair of WSG, Boult’s victory represents the breadth of issues facing the district, rather than just one. “People were voting on a range of issues, and the airport was only one of those. We've got a new set of councillors in place and we look forward to engaging with them,” he said.
In regards to Kiddle’s defeat, Ross doesn’t believe it was his airport opinion that lost votes, but his position on the visitor levy. “It might be that Nik's public stance on visitor levy has had an impact — but there's no way to analyse this,” he said.
When asked if the vote for Boult gives a mandate for the airport to proceed, Ross disagreed. “The process to date has been fundamentally flawed from the outset, and continues to be so. Mr Boult even added elements to that process as part of his election campaign, without the agreement or support of his council. Wānaka deserves full and proper consultation on all matters relating to the airport, and that is clearly not the Mayor's intention.”
So what now for WSG? Will they wait for the assessments, the spatial plan and the airport masterplan to come out before more campaigning?
“We're still preparing to lodge legal proceedings, having only just received a copy of the Wānaka Airport lease towards the end of the election campaign — just as voting began. We'll comment on this in detail soon.”