Interview: Mayor Nick Leggettby David Cohen
Porirua Mayor Nick Leggett became a councillor at 19 and took the top job at 31. And his friends say he’s getting better with age.
Anyone strolling around the Pataka Centre in Porirua this summer stands a reasonable chance of bumping into the country’s youngest mayor. Nick Leggett, a dark-eyed 33-year-old, enjoys getting out among the local punters – twice as many of whom voted for him in the last municipal election than his nearest rival – almost as much as he dislikes being cooped up in official meetings. On this graceful lull of a warm afternoon, however, inside the artsy hub he thinks of as an essence for the new Porirua, the soft-spoken Leggett seems oblivious to any familiar faces milling around the centre’s trendy cafe. This is because our conversation has drifted to a subject he dislikes even more than official meetings: the well-documented tendency of his political party to dissolve into internecine quarrels when it ought to be out winning elections.
His Worship sighs and buys an extra moment’s thought by taking a long sip of coffee. It would be stretching a point to say the once Bunteresque Leggett resembles a gym instructor these days, but thanks to an $18,000 gastric-band procedure two years ago, he cuts a comfortable enough figure – on almost any subject but this.
“I think,” he eventually says with a puzzled frown, “the Labour Party tradition is made of up different strands. You know, on the one hand you’ve got the working class, and then there’s a middle-class intelligentsia – the first tending to be more socially conservative and the others sort of more liberal. That can create tensions.
“But beyond that,” – another sigh – “I don’t fully know how to answer that question. Labour’s always spent more time arguing among themselves. It’s true. Not just here in New Zealand, but in the UK and Australia, too. I don’t know why that should be. But I do know I’m getting really sick of it.”
Politically speaking, few things would give Leggett a greater buzz than seeing Labour, the party he has dedicated his life to serving, replicate nationally the kind of success he has managed to achieve in Wellington’s most colourful satellite city. When he looks at the parliamentary wing of his party, though, he sees a leader, David Shearer, occupied mainly with leadership issues. This is so, he says, even though Shearer has “a unique ability to capture people’s imaginations”.
“Okay, maybe he hasn’t done it yet, because of his background and the sort of things he’s been involved in internationally. [Maybe] we’re yet to see that sort of transformational kind of vision for New Zealand. He just hasn’t had an ability to deliver that yet. And maybe some of what we see happening around him has something to do with that.”
It is hardly surprising he feels strongly about the subject; he has a long political memory. In 1993, when he was starting out in the game, he starred as a teenage son of David Lange in Fallout, a slightly rhapsodic docudrama written by one-time Listener columnist Tom Scott about the fourth Labour Government’s anti-nuclear legislation.
The party, of course, later suffered its own internal meltdown. So did the young actor during the year of his onscreen debut, for actively supporting Mike Moore in his doomed quest to hang onto the Labour leadership against an up-and-coming Helen Clark.
Leggett was 10 or 11 when he first met Moore, then the party leader, albeit one who could make time for a school interview with a pipsqueak fan. “We’ve kept a loose association ever since,” Leggett explains, “because I always liked his brand of politics – he’s very much feet-on-the-ground, great with people and not afraid to lead thinking in terms of internationalism and trade and those sort of things. I found him somebody who continually provokes thought. He doesn’t always do it in a way some people, particularly within the Labour Party, necessarily like. But I think he’s an undervalued New Zealander.”
As a wide-eyed Leggett tells it, some of Clark’s supporters are only now getting around to forgiving him. In 2013, though, they may need him a lot more than he needs them. It has even been suggested that at some date in the distant future when the Labour Party looks for another leader, it should spare more than a glance in his direction.
After all, Leggett won the Porirua mayoralty in a landslide. His ability to muster this kind of popular support has so far eluded even some of those who are mentioned as other natural Labour Party leaders-in-waiting – Andrew Little, for instance, who, despite being well-regarded in some quarters, has been notably unable to win a popular constituency.
But, says Nicola Young, a long-standing friend of Leggett’s, “they don’t trust him”. She suggests that at least part of the suspicion lies with Leggett’s background in commercial property. “This is someone who knows how to fill out a GST return. He understands commercial realities. And he doesn’t live in la-la land.”
No, he lives in Porirua. Or perhaps, as Leggett might put it, Porirua lives in him. But which Porirua? There are at least a few of versions of this multi-ethnic city of 52,000 inhabitants, located 20km north of the capital and comprising the pricey swathes of the Kapiti Coast and the manicured lawns of Whitby as well as the busted-down neighbourhoods in the eastern city.
Those neighbourhoods are Leggett’s stomping ground. His paternal grandparents, Eric and Myra Leggett, arrived in Porirua in the early 1950s as part of the state-house generation that settled in Cannons Creek; Myra remains in Mungavin Ave to this day.
His father, Ross, broke the family mould by attending university, before going on to teachers’ college, where he met his future wife, Ursula. Nicholas would be the first of the couple’s three children. “Despite having grown up in a state house, Dad actually had all those opportunities that we’d like to think are sort of Kiwi opportunities, and because of that, Porirua was very much a launching-pad for our family.”
The kids were raised Catholic. “I still regard myself as one,” Leggett says today, “but not necessarily with all the beliefs that go along beside it.” Interestingly, the largely Anglo-Saxon family also traces its lineage to at least one forebear from St Vincent in the Grenadines, from whom he claims to have got his slightly dusky looks. Of Caribbean stock? “Yeah,” he grins, “it sounds a bit exotic – please feel free to go with that.”
The kids were also raised Labour. During the 1980s, Ursula juggled mothering and primary-school teaching with working for Labour MP Margaret Shields. At home, Nick read Diary of the Kirk Years by the former PM’s private secretary Margaret Hayward – it was on the family bookcase – and found an early hero. Indeed, Hayward would later be among Leggett’s political science tutors at university, and he actively supported her when she ran for Labour in Rangitikei in 2002.
“I suppose Kirk’s vision about basic needs, rights to education, right to health and the right to a job sort of stuck. And I admired the fact that he was someone of no education who could rise up and be prime minister.” To Leggett, that kind of upward mobility is “fundamentally a great thing about this country”.
In 1998, aged 19, he experienced that mobility for himself when he was elected to the Porirua City Council. It was a transition he has described as moving from the classroom to the boardroom, and he remained on the council for three terms before successfully contesting the mayoralty in 2010 as one of nine candidates.
He wasn’t the youngest person ever to become a New Zealand mayor – that distinction belongs to Norman Kirk, who became mayor of Kaiapoi in 1953, aged 30. But as Leggett likes to point out, he may be the youngest to have won the mayoralty of a city.
The 2010 election also turned out to be a watershed moment in Porirua for left-field candidates. Among the other newly elected councillors was a gang member turned youth educator, a 19-year old rookie and a 32-year-old who described herself as a mother of four.
“The great thing about local government,” Leggett says, “is that you’re not bound by those silly, sometimes artificial differences between parties. My councillors are every shade of political spectrum there and 99% of the time we work together well. You have Labour and National party supporters sitting alongside each other and agreeing because, you know, that’s the way we work … to make this an exciting place to live.”
His prescription? “Growing the economic base of the city, widening the number of job opportunities and providing for people here; making Porirua a destination where people come and want to locate a business, want to work, want to live. I think we’ve got a unique position within the region as well – we’re kind of central; we’re 20 minutes from Wellington, Kapiti, from the Hutt Valley; we have the youngest population of any council in New Zealand and we’ve got a beautiful harbour and superb natural environment.”
Like most liberals, Leggett believes these advantages can best be capitalised on with judicious political intervention and taxation. But he believes in the benefits of enterprise as well as governmental largesse – and in the need to sell this kind of prescription with a degree of charm or at least empathy. After selling commercial property for six years with Colliers International, how could he not?
“He’s improving at it as he goes,” notes Josie Pagani, another friend and fellow Labourite. “He’s growing in confidence, getting better and better at articulating a social democratic voice on the left.” In particular, Pagani says, Leggett seems to have arrived on the scene “with a John Key-type quality”.
Which is to say efficiently grammatical, unpretentiously effusive, the kind of guy you feel you’ve always known.
This year, the young mayor will need all those qualities in abundance as he concentrates on both running a city and preparing the way for what he believes will be the “inevitable” transformation of Wellington’s municipal silos into one Auckland-style supercity.
“I really do think it’s inevitable,” he says. “And I think that there is a view that Porirua could just sit back and go ‘Eew!’, and be the victim, and sort of snipe from the sidelines. But I’d much rather we were involved in sitting at the table trying to work out what’s best for our city and what’s best for the region, and so that’s what we’re trying to do.”
With this in mind, the council commissioned, along with Greater Wellington, the Geoffrey Palmer report into local government, although it has not yet taken a formal position on the possible merger of all Wellington councils.
But should it happen, according to one popular speculation, Fran Wilde would probably seek, and win, the first-term mayoralty of any such new entity, and Leggett might step up as her heir apparent for the second term.
For now, says Nicola Young, “he is what he is – that’s his strength”. Faults? “He probably lives the job too much,” she says after a moment’s thought. “And I think he needs a partner, not just for all the obvious reasons but also because politics is a lonely business.”
Leggett agrees. “I’ve had relationships, you know, lots of dabbles here and there. And I’m still open to the idea. It’s just finding the right person.”
Leggett brushes a bit of imaginary cigar ash off his shirtsleeve and smiles apologetically. “Being a 33-year-old male, a mayor of the city, you can’t spread it around, you’ve got to be conservative about that sort of thing.”
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