Wellington mayor Justin Lester: Capital fellow

by Guyon Espiner / 10 March, 2017
Justin Lester: “There is no job description.” Photo/Hagen Hopkins

Invercargill boy Justin Lester fell in love with Wellington as a teenager, but the road that led him to the capital city’s mayoral office was no easy one.

I wasn’t expecting tears. Real, running-down-your-face tears. Ones that leave you unable to talk. Ones that come from not having talked about something enough. That was a big surprise, there in the small, sterile, 70s mayoral office of Justin Lester.

I’d seen him in the campaign for the October elections and had not been overly impressed. He didn’t leave an impression at all, really: he seemed like just another thin-lipped, talking-points politician with a smart suit and a passable haircut. I knew nothing of the brave and moving back story I’d get later in the day.

We missed our first engagement: Lester congratulating graduates in Civic Square. We dodged a bullet there, I grumped to photographer Hagen Hopkins. I was enjoying his company as we searched in vain for a parking space – 3000 have gone since the quake – and reasoning that this might be the most interesting ­conversation of the day. I was wrong.

Fly on the wall

Later, the press secretary ushers me into the mayoral office, where I get a seat at the big table. It’s been set up as a fly-on-the-wall thing: the mayor at work. I sit across from Lester and next to two council officials. To his right is deputy mayor Paul Eagle. He’s the opposite of Lester: large, gregarious and full of bluster. Management speak punctuates his patter.

Today’s topic is the mayor’s housing taskforce. This work will form the basis of his policy announcement – made just last month – to add 750 new social and ­affordable homes to the capital over the next 10 years. But the documents I’m given today have little detail or even meaning. I’m handed a one-page graphic of coloured circles, some of which overlap. There is something called a Housing Affordability Continuum. It looks like the failed act of a deranged juggler.

Eagle is excited. His head swivels around as he talks about one-stop-shops and arrowheads. The city is amped. Gagging for it, he says. Former sportswriter Joseph Romanos sits to Lester’s left. He’s benched the byline nowadays and is chief adviser to the mayor. He’s reassuringly bedraggled in a shirt and tie that don’t enjoy each other’s company and confines his ­scribbling to the odd nugget of common sense.

Lester is drinking tea and taking copious notes in a hardback book. Thankfully I’ve missed most of the meeting and now we’re off to inspect a building collapse near Parliament. We’ll come back to the office in very different circumstances later in the day. But now that we’re on the move, my impression of Lester gradually begins to change.

Lester after the earthquake. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

He has offered us a lift but there’s no mayoral car: he’s gifted the $60,000 car allowance to the city’s arts budget, so we squeeze into a tiny Mitsubishi electric from the car pool, the same model as the one Romanos was driving when he and Lester were involved in a head-on collision with a truck at Makara in late January.

The mayor is our chauffeur as we drive up to check on the demolition of 61 Molesworth St, an apartment block wrecked by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Kaikoura in the first few ­minutes of November 14.

“There is no job description,” Lester says. “You can’t learn how to respond to an earthquake.” He’d been in the job just over a month when the quake hit. “I was at home asleep. It had been a long ­campaign and I said to my wife that night, ‘I’m looking forward to things settling down from tomorrow on.’ Then, just after midnight, the earthquake struck.”

Lester is largely viewed as having done a good job leading the city after the quake ­shattered nerves and battered buildings. He was everywhere: on Twitter, on radio, on Facebook and on message.

“I knew I just had to get the best information and make sure it was widely communicated and let people know I was looking out for their interests,” he says. But in the following days, when the earthquake gave up its secrets and cracks appeared in buildings, the questions began. At the top of this list: had Lester put business confidence before safety and opened the CBD too soon?

“No. I don’t accept that. I could have closed the whole city but it would have needed to be a catastrophic impact and serious risk to public safety and human life.”

Expert advice

He says he made the right decisions based on expert advice. “One day you’re criticised for opening the city up too early. The next day you are criticised for having a cordon in place so people can’t access their properties. That’s just the nature of the beast. If you are making a decision to evacuate the CBD, you have to be prepared to relocate 25,000 people and thousands of businesses.”

Despite being just weeks into the job, the 38-year-old says he never doubted his judgement. “Some people started second-guessing themselves because of front-page stories saying the CBD had opened too soon. But we just asked the same ­questions and got the same answers. Is it safe? Yes it is. Was I worried? No. But I was cautious, and I still am. I’ve touched wood 1000 times since November 14.”

The challenge now is preparing for next time. The code requires buildings in ­Wellington to be three times more resilient than those in Auckland. Nearly 600 earthquake-prone buildings need ­strengthening over the next seven years. But the council’s books are in good shape. Debt ($346 million) is about 84% of ­revenue of $451 million. If that sounds high, ­Auckland Council runs at about 230%.

“There is a short-term blip in ­confidence,” Lester admits. But the city has been “absolutely humming” for the past year and he expects the hit to be short-lived.

“The head offices for the most part are [filled with] born-and-bred ­Wellingtonians. They are not going to up sticks and move. The corporate offices that drifted north in the 1990s have gone for the most part. We are growing local businesses now. There is a new wave of Wellington businesses – Datacom, Xero, Trade Me, Powershop, Flick – and they are resilient.”

Besides, the idea of earthquakes in Wellington is hardly new. “We might have another earthquake tomorrow and it might be a 9 and we would see catastrophic failure of buildings and risk to life. But we had that risk on November 13 and on November 12. We’ve had that risk for 100 years.”

Lester is from Invercargill. So why are we now sitting in his mayoral office in Wellington? Well, love, ­actually. He had the experience many of us had coming from the South Island. I had it in 1993, when I came from flat, ­stultifying ­Christchurch to study journalism in ­Wellington and found the intense, condensed city exhilarating.

Lester felt the same. “I grew up in Invercargill and hadn’t really left the South Island. We were playing a football tournament in Napier and we came in via Wellington and I was just astounded. There were skyscrapers! It was amazing.

“Lambton Quay: what a beautiful street the way it bends from the Beehive all the way down. Cuba St. The bucket fountain.”

The teenager had a crush. A few years later, there was a summer road trip in a Bedford van. He went surfing in Lyall Bay and watched the first one-day cricket international played at the Cake Tin (Roger Twose scored the winning runs against the West Indies in January 2000). Now, he was in love. “I thought, right, that is where I want to live when I finish uni.”

They are happy memories. But what about earlier, growing up? I’m trying to get a sense of where he’s come from, but I’ve blundered into sensitive territory.

“Dad left when I was about five and he died when I was 11.” And three boys, so your mum had her hands full? “Yeah, hard. Incredibly hard. Dad didn’t pay maintenance. He wasn’t ­terribly ­responsible in terms of his fatherly commitments.”

Did he feel different from the other kids? “Not really. Lots of them were from split families on low incomes. There was the freezing works and Tiwai Point, but much of that closed down so there was a lot of unemployment.”

Then I really blow it by saying his mum must have been proud when he won the mayoralty. “Yeah, she had a hard life. It is more the fact that no one really stuck up for her, acknowledged what she did. And I blamed her.”

And then he’s crying. He’s sorry. Why? Did you blame her? For what you missed out on? “Yeah.” Silence. “I blamed her that we didn’t have a father. That we were living with her. That we didn’t have any money.”

Lester with mum Dianne Whitty in 1999.

Paper round

In December 1990, the new National Government announced that – because of a fiscal crisis and the bailout of the BNZ – they were cutting benefits. Lester had a paper round so he’d get the Southland Times for free and read it cover to cover.

“The media sentiment of the day was that if you were a beneficiary, you were a bludger. I could see Mum wasn’t, because she was trying. But she was broken. You could see it. She was a proud woman and refused charity but she was broken, depressed and anxious. I felt bad because I blamed her.”

I don’t know what to say so I just default back to my non-question, that his mum must have been very proud to see him become mayor. “Yep, yep,” he says. “Yeah. Sorry. Coming from Invercargill and having two brothers, you don’t talk about these sorts of things, so I’m not used to it.”

More tears and silence. Then: “The only time I have actually probably talked about it. When my brother. He got married. He’s a couple of years younger than I am. And, yeah. He broke down in tears.”

We’re not very good at talking about these things, are we, I offer. “Yeah. So on election night with Mum. I had never said to her.” How thankful you were? “That I love her.”

He changes the subject and we chat for a while and then he’s back, composed. Was it this experience that shaped your political values? “It stems from there,” he says. “Being in a state house. Dad passing away. Mum bringing us up by herself. That experience through the Mother of All Budgets. That made a deep impression on me.”

Lester also saw a deeply divided city. “There’s two sides of the tracks. In North Invercargill you’ve got leafy green trees and in South Invercargill you’ve got ­tumbleweeds and concrete mass and no investment. It looked different. The buildings were falling down. I realised then it all came down to political decision-making.”

Young Justin quickly learnt the value of money. “I’d get up at 5.30am to do the paper round. It was a sense of economic freedom. We had no money and then all of a sudden I was getting $24 a week – $50 if I filled in for someone who was away. To me it was an incredible sum of money. I’d come home and mum would be impressed and I’d have enough to buy a bike.”

He took extra jobs – a milk run and shifts at the supermarket. Most of it was hard work but he did get a lucky break at school when a special teacher insisted he go to Southland Boys’ High School, a much better prospect than the local school he was destined for. “It was beyond my comprehension. Mum didn’t have a car. We didn’t drive so I had never been to that part of the city.”

With wife Liz and daughters Harriet (left) and Madeleine in 2015.

Seeds sown

If the political seeds were sown in those years, they didn’t begin to sprout until he went to university. Mark Peck, the ­Invercargill Labour MP, was an early ­influence. Bill English, elected to ­Parliament in 1990, also impressed. “Here was this incredibly successful Southland lad made good.”

But he wasn’t about to be led into the National Party? “Sometimes people describe me as philosophically muddled because I run a business and yet I’m Labour. For me, the two go hand in hand. I see Labour as the party of ideas, prepared to reform and not happy with the status quo. National are doing a great job and they’re competent managers, but my criticism would be, if you have got this enormous political capital, then surely you can do more.”

Watching Helen Clark at an Otago ­University debate in 1999 sealed his fate. “I saw her in person and felt this ­enormous respect and I joined up straight away.”

To the obvious question about whether national politics beckons, he says he’s going to run for mayor again in 2019. If he does another three years from there, his daughters will be 12 and 10 and he’ll reassess. We’re back into sensitive territory but this time Lester brings us here, not me.

“I’m conscious that I didn’t talk enough to my brother. I want to be able to spend time with my girls. One of the deep regrets I have got is my brother coming down to see me at university and” – his voice breaks again – “and he was upset. He’d gone awol basically and he hadn’t known how my Dad died. And he was like, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ But it wasn’t my place to say.”

Inevitably I ask. What were the ­circumstances? “He committed suicide.” There’s not much you can say to that. I just come back to my earlier banal ­observation about men in this country aren’t good talking about stuff. ­“Shocking,” he replies.  “It’s interesting. I’ve had friends from Form 1, Form 2, Form 3 who I have never talked about any of this with. We just don’t know how.”

Getting his hands dirty

Lester’s work ethic and skill with money took him a long way. With his business partner, James Irvine, he set up the Kapai takeaway-salads chain in 2006. There are five stores now, including one on Auckland’s Queens Wharf. He got his hands dirty and can prove it. He remembers my order from 10 years ago. It turns out he was doing that while also using his law degree to work in public policy. “When I said I used to serve you at Kapai, I had a day job but during my lunch break I’d chuck a T-shirt on and work because I enjoyed it.”

Lester saw a gap in the food market. “When we first moved back to Wellington, it wasn’t much more than McDonald’s. Sushi was just getting under way but it was mainly pies and sausage rolls.”

The salad bar turns over about $3 million a year but being frugal was a hard habit to break. “My wife would describe me as a supreme tight-arse.” Are you still? “I don’t spend any money on myself but I happily spend money on other people.” What’s your biggest luxury? “Socks.” There is one family car but that belongs to wife Liz, who until recently worked as a senior property ­manager for Bob Jones.

“I’ll buy nice suits but I recycle casual wear. I’ve still got an op-shop puffer jacket vest that my brother gave me in 2000. I get it out every now and then and people say it’s really cool.” His business allows  Lester to say, “We’re comfortable. The mortgage was paid before the kids were born.”

Being mortgage-free before 30 is not bad, given where he started out. He is happy about that but especially proud of something else. “I bought a home for Mum, too. She had never owned her own home.”

This article was first published in the March 11, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.


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