Democracy in Action, Waiheke Style

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Angry Mob fun run from the simpsons2.25 PM. Those saying you’d have to be in early were right. The Ostend Hall is filling up fast and there’s over half an hour until this thing is due to kick off. It is already getting warm and stuffy. This hall was never very comfortable with a crowd in and that’s what is rapidly growing.

The board members are already here, milling around looking stiff and awkward. They look like they just want this to be over and I can’t say I blame them. You can already tell that over half the people here have protest in mind and even Denise is looking nervous despite the obvious support she’s getting. Don McKenzie is wearing his Sunday best. In a suit, he looks diminutive, almost fragile. Jim Hannan seems to have aged decades in less than a month. There’s a slump to his shoulders that he keeps trying to straighten and he can’t seem to get comfortable. He sits, then stands, wanders about a bit and sits down again.
Faye Storer is determined to show her professional thick skin. She’s well turned out, a far cry from her low key look during the campaign. The fact that she knows most of the council staff milling about the front of the hall clearly helps.
The biggest presence is Jo Holmes. Jo isn’t wasting any time trying to appear tough. She IS tough. Her outfit, though colourful, seems well suited to the possibility of a bar brawl, and she knows she has a decent number of supporters in attendance. I’m still proud that she’s made it to the board. I may disagree with her judgment over the last week or two and some of you may roll your eyes at this but I’m damned if I’m going to regret voting for her and I’m still sure she’s going to prove herself in the long run.

2.45 and Len Brown arrives with Mike Lee. Their reception is loud and heartfelt. You can tell right away that both of them know that this is going to be different from the other ceremonies that they’ve sat through recently. The new Mayor works the room well and seems energised. Mike Lee seems relaxed and clearly in his element. The hall is now seriously full and I’m wondering why we couldn’t get this many in for the campaign meetings.

By five to three the crowd is still trying to fill the remaining spaces and the mood of expectancy is tangible. There’s tenseness for sure, but a lot of good humour too. A bit like the Roman Coliseum must have felt during a Christians V Lions final.

Council chief Doug McKay looks amazed at the turnout as he begins his opening remarks. The Maori protocol stuff happens with considerable gusto. Then the crowd sits down and waits for the ref to blow the whistle.

As the new board are introduced you can see the way the crowd sympathies lie. The applause for the Gang of Four is light to say the least but as Denise Roche is introduced the uproar must be audible in Onetangi. Looking around I can see there are those who are not happy with the way this is going. I’m sitting next to Tony Sears and his face says it all. Len Brown on the other hand looks like a kid on Christmas day. He hasn’t had this much fun in ages. Doug McKay then returns to his prepared remarks. These are worthy but dull and the crowd seem restless as he waffles on.

Then it’s on to the declarations. Jim Hannan lurches to the podium first and I almost feel pity for the lad. The actual declaration is a limp and bloodless thing to have to read out, full of dry legalese and devoid of any big words or soaring rhetoric. Jim stumbles through it drawing derisive laugher at the word ‘impartial’. He looks like he’d rather be mopping up regurgitated tourist lunches from the deck of the Superflyte during a northerly swell than doing this and you can’t blame him.

Each board member is entitled to have their supporters join them for a photo after their declaration and Jim has to summon his two from the back of the hall.

Jo Holmes goes next and also draws a few derisive snorts as that word impartial is uttered. But the applause is more determined and her supporters make a decent go of it as they line up behind her. Jo really does have some ‘core support’ and they have seen that they need to make their presence felt.

Don McKenzie gets it over with quickly and sits down. I almost can’t watch. Don is a decent and admirable man and deserves to be on the board. That his induction to it has to be under these circumstances is little short of tragic. Let’s hope he can put Faye-Gate behind him and show us his true worth.

The order is alphabetical so we all know who’s up next. The collective intake of breath in the sweltering hall is so intense you can almost feel your ears pop. Denise Roche is called and this time the noise can be heard in Orapiu. For over half the people in attendance to stand behind her is impossible. Yet somehow it happens. Clearly emotional, Denise makes her declaration. She’s not a powerful speaker. She doesn’t have that Toastmasters knack of hammering words home like nails into thick timber. Yet that hardly seems important right now. The clumsy machinations of her rival have turned this woman into the focal point of huge community feeling and she now has a power beyond anything she could have dreamed of.
The rest of the board are expressionless. They can’t be enjoying this yet they made it happen. Just a slightly different approach two weeks ago and Denise would be making her declaration simply and resuming her seat like any of the rest of them instead of standing at the centre of a huge vortex.

Faye Storer cuts straight to it. She rattles her declaration out in seconds to light applause, stands for a few moments with about fifteen supporters and sits down again. If any of this is hurting then she doesn’t let it show. Faye may have made some disastrous miscalculations of late but she has a hide a rhinoceros would envy.

Can it get more intense? Hell yes! That was just the declarations. Now it’s time for the real meat of the business. Time for the new board to elect a chairperson. There will be no surprises of course but then that’s what caused all this. Doug McKay gets the ball rolling. Now you can see that his carefully prepared remarks are of little use and he’s into the realm of politics. Faye is nominated and the heckling begins in earnest. Any other nominations? Denise stands and nominates herself to huge cheers. But the audience’s voice is not what works in this case and she’s not getting any traction where it counts.

Faye Storer it is and the mood is now plain ugly. As she begins her speech the hall begins to empty. Many stay to listen though and there are some who try and match the feeling by catcalling those departing. Which is as it should be. Faye’s speech is businesslike but strangely embarrassing. It sounds like she wrote it the moment she knew she’d been elected and felt no need to alter so much as a word to reflect all the upheaval of the last two weeks. Controversy? Never heard of it. So the platitudes come thick and fast. Moving forward. Challenges that lie ahead. New era for Auckland etc etc….

Finally it stops and its time for Len Brown to speak. What a contrast. No fudging the issue for this Mayor. He begins by removing his tie. He must be glad to. The heat and humidity are now close to unbearable. His speech is heartfelt and inspiring. He has the ability to speak without recourse to the well worn bag of political clichés and it goes down well. And unlike the new chairperson he goes straight to the heart of the debate that’s kept us all enthralled of late. There is division and while that may be healthy for the democratic process it is now time to put it aside and work for Waiheke.
Jim Hannan rises and makes his way over to shake hands with Denise. The rest follow. Does it all seem a bit forced? Maybe too little too late? Time will tell.

Ultimately, Waiheke is better off for what has happened. All too often we go into these elections, choose a board then forget about it for three years. This time was different. We debated, we got involved, we had opinions and we chose sides. We got reminded of how good it is to live in a democracy.

As someone just said, You Had To Be There.

Faye Storer and Jim Hannan at Local Board Inauguration
Faye: "Jim we want you to go up first to hug Denise, if you survive we'll all follow"