Grey District's retiring mayor Tony Kokshoorn, the accidental author

by Clare de Lore / 24 April, 2018
Tony Kokshoorn

Prince William with Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn and his wife Lynne Kokshoorn during his visit at Shantytown on March 17, 2011 in Greymouth. Photo/Getty.

Grey District's long-serving mayor, Tony Kokshoorn, has announced he will retire from politics next year to spend more time with his family.  

Back when Kokshoorn was dealing with the Pike River Mine disaster, he found solace in writing a history book. From the Listener archives, we present Clare de Lore's 2016 profile on the mayor who faced many challenges during his 21-year career in local government. 

‘I became an accidental author’

Tony Kokshoorn was one of those kids who could never settle down at school. He says a teacher gave him a glowing reference and told him to “just go away and get a job”. Kokshoorn took the advice and the reference and has never been out of work in the decades since.

Kokshoorn, 61, admits the “ants in his pants” that blighted his progress at school are still present, but he harnesses his energy in business, local government and fundraising for the community. A successful car dealer and newspaper proprietor, Kokshoorn has been the Mayor of the Grey District since 2004. He was propelled to national prominence when the Pike River Mine disaster claimed the lives of 29 miners and contractors in 2010. 

His plain speaking and advocacy for the West Coast earned him not only national recognition but also awards, including 2013 Communicator of the Year from the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand.

He credits his success as a businessman and politician to family, his community and lessons learnt in his Catholic upbringing. He and wife Lynne have four children, aged from 36 to 21.

To what do you attribute your resilience in the face of the long-standing economic challenges facing the Coast and the tragedy of Pike River?

I went to a Marist Brothers school. I was Catholic, I had good morals instilled by my parents and my school and they have stuck with me. Hard work was always in me right from the time I was six or seven, collecting scrap and junk metal, picking blackberries, anything that might make me a quid. I had that Dutch gene in me; I was industrious and stubborn like a lot of Dutch. I had good work ethics and I always wanted to work for myself. My brother and I have been self-employed for 40 years and I can seriously say I have never taken a day off work as in sick leave. I snapped my Achilles tendon last year playing a charity game of basketball. They took me off in the police car to the hospital with the snapped Achilles, they plastered it up, and I rang my wife and got her to take me back to work a couple of hours later.

Does that “never say die” attitude make you hard to live with?

Probably, but you’d have to ask my wife. She is a coal-miner’s daughter from Runanga and she wants the Coast to go ahead, so she knows I am trying to do the right thing. I am a full-time mayor – I come to work at 8.30 religiously, on the dot, and I go home at 5.30 on the dot, probably the last person out the door here. I work at night and I work weekends. That is what mayors have to do these days. If you want to be effective, you have to be focused, because you’re competing against other towns and cities around New Zealand, and especially provincial New Zealand, which is struggling.

Has Catholicism stuck?

Yes, I still go to church and I think it is important. Christianity has waned in New Zealand, but I think the rules you learn as a Catholic, as a Christian, really, hold you in good stead. There are a lot of distractions out there.

Did it help during Pike?

Without a doubt, along with my family and the wider community in New Zealand. This was the first time a mining disaster of that magnitude was seen on television screens in a serialised manner. It brought a lot of pressure – for example, through the media – but that didn’t bother me. It was my job to front up. What it did also was it got New Zealand behind us and the outpouring of support was incredible. It humbled us on the Coast. The way that New Zealand said to us, “You are not doing this on your own.” They set up trusts, offered support, there was $8 million for the families. It just shows you the great community spirit in this country.

Do you worry about Auckland’s dominance in economic affairs?

You have a two-tier New Zealand these days – you have Auckland and the rest. I don’t hold that against Auckland – it’s a fantastic city and we need to support Auckland, as it’s the powerhouse of New Zealand – but there is a tendency to forget that provincial New Zealand is contributing a lot and needs help, especially in the big-earning tourist industry. It is booming, supplying $600-700 million a year in GST alone, yet the infrastructure spend for those tourists is being pushed onto local government. That is putting a lot of strain on ratepayers in provincial New Zealand.

The past five years have been the perfect storm. We’ve had not only the Pike River disaster, but the Christchurch earthquake really put tourism through the floor, then the massive lay-offs with the commodity crash of coal. Solid Energy went into receivership and that will be sold off and we have had those massive repercussions – more than 1000 jobs lost in coal mining alone. When you are talking about only 16,000 jobs on the West Coast, that is a big hit in a short period of time. What we are trying to do is concentrate on the environment; it is one of our best assets. We need to diversify from the extractive industries to sustainable industries to take us into the future. We are doing that and we have been for quite a while. We have had some major success stories. It has been hard and it has been painful and it has taken a lot of change. Provincial New Zealand finds change hard to accept, but it has been a big joint effort by residents, the council and all the stakeholders.

Kokshoorn

Kokshoorn taking a midwinter fundraising swim in a swollen river in Blackball in 2016.

What are some of the Coast’s success stories?

We realised change was coming and we can’t sell ourselves as a tourist town if we put effluent into rivers and if our drinking water isn’t good enough – all those sorts of things that were swept under the carpet for a long time. Over the past 10 years, we have put $47 million into new sewage systems and we now have the highest-quality drinking water in New Zealand. By doing that, we can say that environmentally this is a good town, instead of seeing signs that say, “Don’t swim in this river.” Our new stadium opens on August 20. If we want to attract people to Greymouth, we have to lift the standards of the attractions we have. We have built that and we are going to piggyback off Christchurch with their building of new stadiums. There is big money now in conferences, and with the TranzAlpine [train service], we are going to tap into breakout conferences, overnight. We can use the stadium for that, and from a sports point of view we have the facilities now for national tournaments in tennis, netball, hockey and swimming. There are big dollars to be earned from sports tournaments and conferences, so we are working on a strategy. With our cycling and walking tracks, we also have a point of difference from the rest of New Zealand.

You say you’re not a reader, but writing a book helped you cope with Pike River. How did that come about?

I became an accidental author (The Golden Grey: West Coasters 1860 to 2010). I was always interested in heritage and I was down at History House, our little museum here. I photocopied a few photographs of shipwrecks, then I thought I would do some more. I decided I would do a book on shipwrecks, but then when I had compiled enough, I was so excited, I kept going. I was like Forrest Gump, but after about 500 pages I had to stop and print the darn thing. I found that it was sort of therapy for me. I could go home after Pike – it went on for years, the repercussions – and doing my research into the book took my mind off [the disaster]. All the proceeds went to the Greymouth Heritage Trust – about $60,000. The book helped me get through it better. It was therapeutic, and I could get lost in it.

Do you regret not developing a reading habit?

Because I have been restless and find it hard to sit still, I was never able to sit down and read a book; I don’t have that concentration. Later in life, I found when agendas came along, I picked up those skills, but I am a slow reader because I haven’t been a reader since childhood. My advice to people is to start your kids reading young. I have ants in my pants. I accept that, and I harness that energy in a way that does good for people. I have energy to burn. Over 20 years, I have raised over $30 million for West Coast charities, project after project. I pride myself on going from one to another. After a few years, you work out the people who give. The givers keep giving, the non-givers don’t, so you have yourself an arsenal of givers. You don’t put pressure on all the time; you choose when to ask. Then you have the wider funders, the Lotteries [Lottery Grants Board], who everyone goes to. If you set a goal, it is amazing how you can get the money.

What’s your most recent fundraising effort?

I did a fundraiser recently for cancer – a midwinter swim in Blackball. I am in this bloody river, which is in flood, it was pouring with rain and it was so dangerous. There were about 30 of us and I am in this bloody river with an umbrella trying to bloody keep dry. It’s all good fun. I tend to measure risk as I go, and the secret is that if you do jump in and find you can’t float, get out and stay out. Sometimes you have to cut your losses and that is just life. I take risks, but I measure them. 

This article was published in the August 20, 2016 issue of the Listener. 

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