The tyranny of distance is both a blessing and a curse for New Zealand’s smallest local authority. Chatham Islands mayor Alfred Preece tells Ruth Le Pla how his council has big plans for its small population.
I’m not quite sure what’s going on in the Chathams but when it comes to civic duties they seem pretty good at shoulder- tapping each other. If the council website is anything to go by, the Chatham Islands Council is a hotbed of nominating and generally shoving each other to the front of the queue.
Deputy mayor Jeffrey Clarke says GM Owen Pickles nudged him to stand for office. An un-named “retiring councillor” approached Keri Day to see if she would consider putting her name forward. And the Chatham Islands Enterprise Trust office ladies once ganged up and dobbed in Ron Tuuta to become a councillor when he was their acting CEO.
When we meet, mayor Alfred Preece tells me some of the website information may be a bit out of date but that doesn’t wipe out the general theme of enthusiastically volunteering other people.
Alfred says he’d been less than keen when the previous mayor Patrick Smith had asked him if he’d be interested in standing for council. Growing up as one of just two boys alongside five sisters – “it was like having five extra mothers”, he says – Alfred remembers helping shoulder the extra workload on the family farm while his own father dedicated 30 years to council, including 17 as county chairman.
“I saw the time it took so I certainly wasn’t enthused about being a councillor,” says Alfred.
So when Patrick met him one day prior to an election in the late ’90s and said, “how about standing for council?” Alfred, naturally went, “No… I’ve always told my family I wouldn’t do that.” (Something he says his wife will remind him of on a number of occasions.) And then he joined up.
“It was time for me to do my share,” he says.
Alfred is talking with me in the dark wood-panelled Wellington boardroom of Civil Contractors New Zealand which I’ve made my office-away-from-home so I can intercept him on one of his periodic visits to the capital.
Alfred won’t be drawn on whether it’s just natural island modesty not to be seen to push yourself forward. I think he may be a bit of a tease, anyway. He’d told me on the phone he’s pretty casual. So I hadn’t expected him to turn up in a suit so well cut and subtly elegant that he looks like a model.
Still, he doesn’t strike me as having too many airs and graces. He says he “doesn’t subscribe” to wearing mayoral chains. There aren’t any, anyway. “And it would be pretty risky wearing chains around the Chathams,” he says, “I’d certainly get some remarks.”
Later he sends me a photo of his “office”, as he calls it, whose far-away cliffs and expansive sky are so breathtakingly beautiful I can’t get them out of my mind. Who wouldn’t want to live in such a stunning place?
Even before he became mayor, Alfred had worked out the Chathams needed to have someone on the ground in Wellington when he couldn’t be there himself. So one of the first things he did was hop across to Wellington for “a good conversation with the prime minister”.
He flew back home having bagged none other than Chris Finlayson, our current attorney-general, as the unofficial minister for the Chathams. Chris’ role is to be “a very strong voice and advocate” for the Chathams. “And believe me, it’s been a very good relationship,” says Alfred.
“He’s a tireless individual. He’s been our go-to person for all our infrastructure stuff as well as dealing with a whole range of other day-to-day issues. Whenever I call him, rest assured I always get a response within a day and in some cases he’ll call me back straight away regardless of what the issue is.”
It was an early run on the board for New Zealand’s smallest local authority which is located in such a remote part of the country that simply making some things happen can require enormous effort.
A Chatham Islander born and bred, a young Alfred’s trip to board at St Pat’s College Silverstream on the mainland used to involve driving across the island from the family home in Owenga to Waitangi, then getting in an army truck to cross the (presumably shallow) lake to get to the Bristol Freighter on a grass landing strip.
“That was just the normal way of travel,” he says. “We had no roads round the top end of the island in the early ’60s.”
Geography plays such a significant part in islanders’ mental make-up that Alfred says he spent most of his time when holidaying in the Cooks recently checking out their port and waste management systems.
“The Chathams is really a Pacific island,” he says, “and in many ways we have more similarities with other Pacific islands than we do with many councils in New Zealand.
“We’re 800 kilometres away from mainland New Zealand so we’re not like Barrier or Stewart Island that are really close by. We do suffer from the tyranny of distance: there’s no doubt about that.”
That tyranny plays out in the numerous infrastructure issues around transport and energy, communications and water supplies that the Chatham Islands Council faces. So it’s perhaps no surprise that infrastructure lies at the core of the Chathams’ to-do list.
Right up there on top of the list is the long-overdue need for a new wharf rather than the longstanding patch-up, make-do structure. For without the protection of a breakwater the current set-up eats away at pretty much every other aspect of the island’s economic development as ships arriving in rough weather have to wait offshore before unloading.
And there are plenty of projects to choose from. The airport would be a prime candidate, for example. Originally built for Friendships, the runway is now neither long nor strong enough for modern aircraft.
“Air Chatham’s old Convair planes have been loyal and reliable servants to the Chathams for quite some time now,” as Alfred puts it, “but like most things there must be an end-date somewhere in the future and while all the heavy equipment is on the island we’d like to lengthen and strengthen that runway.”
And while all that’s going on, why not throw in a bit of a rebuild for a small hydro scheme at the same time? (Although, as Alfred says, council has been reluctant to count its chickens before getting the main work at the port over the line first.)
And so the head-spinning to-do list goes on: wastewater, landfill, recycling, broadband, a mobile network… the last of which will “change everything”, says Alfred, and be a blessing and a curse all of its own.
For the mayor of the Chathams quite likes to be able to walk out his door in the morning thinking “no-one’s going to bother me for three or four hours”.
“I can see a lot of frustration setting in when the phones start ringing,” he says. “But I guess that’s life. That’s progress and we have to adjust to it.” Alfred remains hopeful his council will be able to get some schemes over the line pretty soon. He says he’s blessed with a good management group and a great team of councillors who are definitely not there for the money.
“They’re there to see positive progress in the Chathams… to the point that we’ve never actually been to a vote on any issue in my term.
“I’m particularly proud of that. That’s due to the council as a group. We disagree on things – don’t get me wrong. But we tend to spend a lot of our time in our discussion phase coming to some sort of consensus,” he says.
“I listen from time to time to some of my mayoral colleagues on the mainland and think I’m really lucky here.”
“Sometimes,” he says, “democracy does manage to get things right.”
This article was first published in the June 2015 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.