Dave Cull is LGNZ’s new president. The mayor of Dunedin talks with Ruth Le Pla about his background as handyman, TV presenter and author, and how he handles criticism of local government.
Local Government Magazine: Okay, let’s start with your background: political studies, furniture maker, carpenter, TV presenter, author of books on DIY, icebergs and weather, and mayor. Have I got that right?
Dave Cull: I’ll give you a bit of a run down so you can see how I segued from one thing to another. I did work in the construction industry – not in any highly skilled way. I’ve worked with property developers. I worked as a carpenter in Britain. And as a result of that I got a job as a presenter on a DIY TV programme.
They wanted someone who could talk and swing a hammer at the same time, I suppose. That was down in Dunedin and that was the start of about 20 years of presenting. I took a break when they stopped production in the provinces. Then I got some research, and then finally presenting work with TVNZ. That was the start of, I guess, 15 years of home shows and various other things: I was on Maggie’s Garden Show, Home Front, Open Home. Most of them were around housing, architecture, that kind of thing.
How did all that follow on from political studies?
There wasn’t any connection, really. Political studies taught me how to think. But the TV work segued into writing and through that period I wrote extensively, whether it was columns for newspapers or magazine articles. I’ve also written about 12 books on various things.
Right, so you’ve written about DIY, icebergs and the weather…
I became a writer initially around housing, design, architecture, DIY stuff. I worked with the National Kitchen and Bathroom Association and wrote a book on kitchens. A good friend of mine is a publisher so we came up with another couple of ideas. One was Central Otago wine and then we went out into other subject areas as they came along. The [Antarctic] iceberg sailed up the coast [of New Zealand in 2006] so we did a joint effort with the Otago Daily Times. They did the photos and I wrote the text. I wrote a couple of training manuals for the joinery ITO. Some of it was contract work. Some it was just, “oh that’s a good idea, let’s do it”.
Do you get writer’s block?
I’m a better writer now than I was. The first time I was asked to write anything was for The Listener. When it appeared I just about didn’t recognise it. I realised they’d greatly improved it and that taught me that you should always appreciate your editors.
Did presenting come naturally?
You learn to come to terms with your nerves. But it certainly stood me in good stead in my current role as mayor because, in the first instance, you’re more comfortable talking to a crowd and, second, you’re not afraid of cameras.
How did you imagine your future when you were leaving high school?
I had absolutely no idea. I started with a law degree. Let’s say it just didn’t entrance me.
So you switched to political studies?
I think I was already doing one unit so I just carried on and majored in it.
How have these very different parts of your past shaped who you are and what you’re doing today?
They fed into it but they didn’t provide all of the basis for how I think and my values because it’s a continual process of learning. I’ve learnt an unbelievable amount in the time I’ve been on council as mayor. I had reasonably strong values but because I didn’t know exactly how local government worked I didn’t have particularly clear views of what it should do. But, certainly, what I learnt once I got in built on what I’d learnt in other spheres.
So many people comment on the complexities of local government. Is that your experience?
I’ll give you an example. This term when the new Dunedin City councillors came in, we got six new councillors out of 14. We ran a very comprehensive induction programme and it contrasted greatly with the measures that were taken to induct me in 2007.
We were three new councillors when I came on. We were wheeled around the building to various departments and shown and told what those departments did. At no stage did anyone tell us what we did. That whole relationship between governance, and the management and operational side was just absent.
So we’ve made a really big effort with our newbies this time. That relationship between the role of governors and the management / operational arm is still the critical one. It’s the one we all wrestle with.
Do you still do DIY? If the handle fell off your office door would you fix it?
Well, if the door knob fell off this office door I probably wouldn’t have time. But, yes, certainly at home I still do the odd thing. But my wife is very clear when there’s anything major to do I don’t do it because it would take too long.
That’s always been the case. When we bought our house about 20 years ago I said, “it’s got a wonderful outlook and all-day sun”. And Joan said, “oh but the bathroom”. And I said, “oh yeah we’ll have to put a new bathroom in”. And then she looked at the kitchen which was in three rooms, and I said, “oh no, we definitely need a new kitchen”. So we knew we had to spend quite a lot of money on a big upgrade.
Joan said, “I agree to buy this house on two conditions. A, that we do it up and B, that you don’t do it.”
What was the attraction of working in local government?
As much as anything, it was the opportunity. I’d been interested for a few years but my work meant that I commuted to Auckland a lot. When my presenting work was replaced by writing, I could do that from home – although I must say I haven’t done a hell of a lot of that. Once I dived into local government I grabbed it with both hands.
Was it the idea of giving back? Were there particular issues that you wanted to address? Or particular people that said, “come on, give it a go”?
It was a bit of all that and a bit of “if you’re going to have opinions about this why don’t you do something about it?” I’ve always been interested in things. I’d be discussing with acquaintances and I might have strong views on something and people would say “well, why don’t you… you know, instead of just talking about it?”. Presumably, they thought I had something to contribute, too. I was encouraged by that. But, yeah, it’s actually about doing rather than just pontificating about something.
Local government people often say they’re between a rock and a hard place. They consult too much / they don’t consult enough. They spend too much / they don’t spend enough. How do you respond when, say, at informal social events people criticise the work that your council does?
Our council consults considerably more effectively and comprehensively now than we used to. We’ve developed a strategic framework over the past five or six years with just eight major strategies. Before that we used to have 50-something of them.
Those have been built with the community. In the environment case, we did it with Ngai Tahu as a partner.
So, I say to people the direction of the city has been worked up with the community.
This comes to a head on subjects like cycleways. We’ve got a constant vociferous minority who bemoan the loss of a single car park because you’re putting a cycleway in to keep people alive on bikes. They keep saying “There are only a few users, you’re going to spend millions of dollars and no one’s going to use it, blah, blah…”
I always go back to them and say that for every annual plan for the past five years, the vast majority of submissions have been about cycling in some form and encouraging us to make it safer and put in more cycleways.
So, I’m quite confident that the prevailing view from the community is “we want more of this particular service, please”.
Does that go down well?
It depends on the person. We’ve even got one councillor who argues that the people that make submissions on the annual plan are the more confident people. They’re more set in their views and we should ignore them and listen to the silent majority – which I’d have to say is a tad difficult given they don’t say anything. He is of the view that since he knows what the silent majority believe then all we’ve got to do is listen to him.
You referred to your values earlier on. Are you able to articulate what they are?
They’re around equity of opportunity in a community. Differences in opportunity really have a potential to split a community. If people don’t feel they have a stake and if they don’t think the community is inclusive of them why would they worry about it? That’s not just expressed in not voting; they become kind of alienated.
Mayor John Carter from the Far North, maybe Meng Foon from Gisborne and Steve Chadwick [from Rotorua] will talk to you about a class of people that have separated themselves out completely from the community.
There are probably bits of that all over the country and I don’t think Dunedin is by any means the worst but I’m conscious that a community has to be inclusive.
How would you describe your style of leadership?
I’m probably not the best person to answer that. I’m not dictatorial. I sometimes don’t say what I believe is the case right up front. I’m not afraid of my opinions but in a decision-making situation in a council meeting, if there’s a fairly important issue that we’re deciding on, I will often be the last to speak even though I’m chairing the meeting. I want the conversation to reach a consensus without it being rammed down anyone’s throat.
How would you rate your abilities in Te Reo Maori?
I’m very inadequate. I don’t speak Te Reo but I think it’s important to show respect. So when you use it, it needs to be meaningful and reasonably well pronounced.
That’s part of a bigger thing. New Zealand needs to develop its persona as a Pacifica place. Te Reo Maori is the language of the place so it’s important to start with that, with the indigenous – the first people – expression.
You spelt out your priorities as president in a recent column in the magazine. Is there anything you’d like to add?
There were two priorities that I expressed in my speech at the AGM. The first being that we need to continue to ramp up our assertion of our sector, certainly vis-a-vis central government, and actually lead on some things.
And that first one will only be effective if we achieve the second one, which is better engagement between national council and the wider membership.
We’ve got a work plan that we inherited from last year. But the two extra issues that have come to the fore are climate change and water. They’re connected. They impact hugely on communities and councils’ activities in communities. That impact will only grow.
Those two connected areas of policy development are going to be ramped up over the next year.
I note that it’s not just LGNZ that’s identified this. We’ve had the recent report from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. If you just think about climate change alone, the Environmental Defence Society has come out with a statement, Generation Zero has done a huge amount of really productive work, there’s the Climate Consensus Coalition Aotearoa [initiated by the Wise Response Society].
It’s just one grouping after another, one stakeholder after another, saying this is really important. So it’ll be important for LGNZ to see where the alignments are and where the consensus is right across the community as we work on this. It may be we take a lead role but it certainly won’t be a sole role, that’s for sure.
When I was at the LGNZ Symposium on Freshwater in Wellington earlier this year I was struck by the number of different voices included both as presenters and in the audience. Farmers, scientists, environmental lobbyists… all sorts of people having equal say. LGNZ seemed to have partly shifted its role there to a gatherer of different voices as opposed to just its own voice. Is that an accurate observation?
I think that’s true. Council has a role as placemaker in a community. If you take economic development as an example: it’s not just about giving rates relief to businesses or giving them free land. It’s about working with the stakeholders in your community to make the whole place attractive to people to come to, to put businesses in or whatever.
The council certainly can’t do that on its own but it’s the only entity that can facilitate that.
I wonder if, at a national level, it’s a not dissimilar situation and we play a not dissimilar role. You’ve got Federated Farmers, the Iwi Leaders Group, scientists, pressure groups. But maybe local government as a sector is the only one with the ability to say, “Look, our communities are the ones affected by this. We need to take a facilitative leading role”.
How will you measure your success as president of LGNZ? Do you have clearly defined aims?
No, I haven’t quite got that specific. I’m conscious that it’s not Dave Cull saying, “This is what I believe we should be doing.” It’s national council which represents all the zones, all these sectors, and hammers out our position on something. Then it’s my job to articulate that and to communicate that with central government.
And it’s national council’s role to articulate that back to the members and get buy-in as well.
Not everyone is always going to agree. If you look at the subject of water, there are plenty of instances where the interests of, say, a district or city council are at odds with those of a regional council.
Urban stormwater quality is a good example. We all want the same outcomes but it will affect us all quite differently, and we’ve got to find a path and address the issues together. It’s not about who will be the winner.
This article was first published in the October 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.