Tuesday, April 04, 2006

My Day in City Hall - Meeting the Mayor

The position of Mayor of Hamilton is held by 40 year old Michael Redman. A highly successful Hamilton-based entrepreneur who has had no involvement in politics in the past. Whose motivation to become Mayor was born from a disenchantment with the previous regime. Could such a politically inexperienced person possibly handle such a political position? Recently, I met with the Mayor in his 9th floor office overlooking Hamilton city and tried to find out what makes this ‘politician’ tick.

Upon meeting the Mayor his greeting was warm but guarded. Possibly this was a man that in 18 months in office had realized that reporters are somewhat of a double-edged sword. At the beginning of the interview when this exchange took place I became worried:
CG: In previous interviews is there any question that you haven’t been asked that you wished had been asked?
Mayor: I always take the view that any question asked is a question too many…
CG: I’ll just go now then.
Mayor: Yeah thanks.

Fortunately, this exchange was followed by a hint of derisive laughter which stopped me from putting my tape recorder and bottle of wine away (something that Ian Wishart seems to use with effect) and battle on.

The Mayor went on to explain that “I not into this self-promotion and wearing your heart on your sleeve…”. It seemed from the outset that this is Mayor who has come from business meaning business.

The Mayor is firm in his ‘Mike Hosking’ position that people are free to and in fact should scrutinize his work as Mayor but when this “crosses the line” into the Mayor’s family life this is too far. I then crossed off all the salacious questions from my list and realized that there was nothing left. Rather than finish the interview I pressed on.

The old staple perhaps?
CG: Why did you want to become Mayor?
Mayor: Well the motivation began as a negative motivation, that I was just so angry and frustrated about Hamilton underachieving from a civic point of view, because on the positive side we realized that there was so much potential. So you either sit at home, disengage and complain or you do something about it.

So the Mayor began his ‘political’ career in much the same way as the Legalize Marijuana Party and Guy Fawkes began theirs - with a real fire…excuse the puns.

Is it really possible that Hamilton is run by a ‘non-politician’? So how does the Mayor see his position? He said, “I read every report that goes to every committee …I don’t go to committee meetings and the committees have been structured around people who want to be there and are interested in those topics and those committees make decisions and I am never there putting my oar in, I not there voting and trying to influence others how to vote because I trust those committees, that with good information from staff, with an understanding of what the recommendations are they will make a good decision.

When it comes to the University the Mayor is somewhat of an important person. He is an ex officio member of the University Council. Which isn’t bad going for a boy who left school with only School Certificate and never undertook tertiary education (apart for a couple of history papers taken as a hobby).

I asked his thoughts on what universities mean now and will mean in the future. The Mayor presented a dualistic idea on what he thought about the relevance of universities. He said that “I am increasingly hearing from parents…’we don’t want our young son or daughter just to go to university and come out with a meaningless degree that they are not qualified to do anything in particular’. So that’s a challenge for the sorts of qualifications and the relevance of those qualifications and some of the career choices that are linked to those qualifications more so than the relevance of universities.

Being quick to change hats back to representative of the University and Hamilton’s Mayor he added “Universities are critical in our society and in fact this University in particular, its success, its credibility internationally, its success with research and teaching qualifications is critical to our region’s success.” Changing hats again to the Chair of the ‘Mayor’s Taskforce for Jobs’ he added “…there’s no doubt there are people coming out with qualifications that render them largely unemployable”.

The Mayor’s experience on the hustings on campus were somewhat troubling for him, as he recalls speaking to students and “…they could tell you what they didn’t like, they couldn’t really tell you what they wanted. When they did tell you what they wanted, often it was just completely unrealistic and not well thought through – but most importantly they would always finish the conversation by saying ‘but we don’t care anyway, as soon as we’re qualified we’re leaving anyway’” The Mayor also said that outside of the campaign “I don’t see students at public meetings, I don’t see them making submissions to our plan...”

In a rare admission from a politician, sorry, Mayor, he said “…as a city we do it poorly, we don’t do the youth/student thing well at all.” Strangely the Mayor took this attitude and situation as a challenge and was quick to point out the formal processes for students to use to sway the Council but the Mayor who tends not to sugar-coat things said that students need to step up or “they will come away without any runs on the board.

The NZ Breakers (who are 9-23 this season) whom the Mayor used to part own, is a subject that is very close to the Mayor’s heart. When he speaks of them his eyes alight with a passion that only talking about the District Plan seemed to come close to. He said of them “Of all of the things I have achieved The Breakers is the one that fills me with most emotion because it’s about human, challenge and endeavour and heartbreak, you can’t beat it, nothing beats it.” (The feeling that is.)

When I asked the Mayor if he was a competitive person he answered without hesitation in the affirmative, however, he was quick to qualify the answer with the following “…how you win is really important so you don’t do things that compromise you and your values to win. When you do win how you behave when you win is as important as when you lose, in fact, more important.

Of course a competitive person cannot win all the time (unless you are an Australian swimmer), so how does the Mayor deal with losing? After providing the ‘Politicians Handbook’ textbook answer about learning from your mistakes etc. the Mayor provided an insight into his psyche when said “Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age but I get no great satisfaction in watching other people lose…and I probably did once.”

On a relating sporting field or track as the case may be the Mayor has made headlines recently with his personal crusade to bring the V8 motor racing to Hamilton. Also the World Rally Championships will be based in Hamilton this year. Surely this will make Hamilton the bogan/boy racer/petrol head capital of the southern hemisphere? Not according to the Mayor “…street racing in Adelaide is glamorous, street racing in the Gold Coast is glamorous, it’s glamorous in Monte Carlo and you can’t say just because it’s in Hamilton it’s  bogans. But we have to make a concerted effort that we pitch the event at the upper end of motor racing not the bottom end.

The Mayor does not see tourism as a major focus for his administration as he said “Events is it. Tourism for me is a secondary consideration.” The Mayor has taken a gamble that setting Hamilton up as a giant convention centre and race track will pay off in the future. Although the Mayor was quick to identify why people might spend time in Hamilton. The Mayor seems to hope that the growing list of annual events in Hamilton and promoting Hamilton as an events city, will give some of the 40% of Hamilton that is under 25 a job choice in the hospitality and events industry in the future.

In respect of the Mayor’s view on the District Plan if he could make one macro change and one micro change he would “…[raise] the bar on the responsibilities of people to take into account the impact they are having on other people…” and one micro change that he would make is to protect the existing character of neighborhoods.

As research for this interview I discovered that the Hamilton Library publishes the books that the Mayor is reading. In stark contrast to George W Bush, “My Pet Goat” wasn’t on the list. I did notice that on the list were “Stupid White Men” by Michael Moore and “Leadership” by 9-11 New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The question begged ‘do you see yourself as a ‘stupid white man’ or a Rudy Giuliani?’. The Mayor chose to accept the inevitability of the situation and said that while the public might always perceive him as a ‘stupid white man’ but on the scale of stupid…..that he was a person who would be “remembered as a person who de-politicized the role of Mayor”. The Mayor feels that his greatest loss in becoming Mayor is that of his anonymity. It seems that this Mayor would rather have people remember his outcomes than his ‘personality’.

The Mayor is not a charismatic politician. In fact after the interview I wondered if he really was a politician at all. The dictionary defines a politician as “One who seeks personal or partisan gain, often by scheming and maneuvering”. The Mayor said  “The campaign billboard that I launched with and stuck with through the campaign was ‘I can’t stand politics, so I am standing for Mayor’ ”  It seems that the Mayor is putting this into practice and the ideals of JFK, when JFK said, “Mothers may still want their favorite sons to grow up to be President, but... they do not want them to become politicians in the process”.

Michael Redman intends to stand for re-election next year and would contemplate a third term.

A more candid shot of the Mayor

Hamilton Mayor Michael Redman