Lessons from small town politics and custodianship

In the past few weeks the township of Wanganui, NZ has witnesses the departure of the executive director of its marketing & promotion arm, Wanganui & Partners. It appears from ‘the results’ or ‘the direction’, that said the executive director was simply overwhelmed by the task, but you have to question, just have capable are the standard bearers. Who is questioning the quality of the board of Wanganui & Partners? Or just how committed are they to the role? Are they their for the money? Are they there to ‘do a good deed’? Why are they inclined to ‘pick failures’.

Let us judge by their recent decisions. My interest in this topic arose after some of the executive director’s earlier decisions came to my attention, the details of which are below (see Facebook link in references).

David Matthews: “The rural sector needs to see value for the money it puts towards Whanganui & Partners”.[i]

Farmers are not alone in this respect. The city constituents who bare the burden for 93% of the rates spend should see benefits as well, but instead, they are paying very high local government rates for their ‘high-end’ location, only to have an empty town centre, as well as the burden of a statutory enforcement order to upgrade their buildings for safety reasons, when those buildings bear no risk if there are no people coming to town.

Whanganui Rural Community Board’s chair told a recent Whanganui District Council meeting that farmers contributed to 7% of the economic development rate but “so far today I don’t believe we’ve had bang for bucks”. [ii]

That is probably more value than constituents generally have got out of Whanganui & Partners.

David Matthews: “I’ve got my doubts about this – whether Whanganui & Partners can come up with something for us as farmers”. [iii]

Isn’t this the problem of ‘collective’, compulsory levees, you are obliged to pay even though you can perceive no value in the spend? Whether you consider it extortion, or mindless irresponsible engagement, it ought to be the burden or responsibility of the ‘extorters’ to convince you that there is value in this process.

For farmers to get a ‘direct benefit’ there would have to be a local branding strategy. The problem for farmers is that, there is probably no ‘local benefit’ in differentiating Wanganui beef or lamb from the rest of NZ in global markets. Unless of course there was a Wanganui entity that chose to target a specific market for beef or lamb, and focused its resources upon that ‘small single market’, whether it be ‘Singapore’ or ‘Guam’. You don’t have to bite off the world to market your product, you just need to own a small part of it. Wanganui could in fact leverage off the greater profile and recognition of NZ in those markets. Educated markets like Singapore make more sense that less educated markets because ‘regional knowledge’ of NZ, let alone Wanganui, is relatively poor. A lot of people think NZ is part of Australia, and Australia has a stronger marketing presence. I don’t think people in Wanganui know that because they have not lived in Asia. They don’t realise that Asians don’t study geography in school. Hell, they often don’t even know their own cities, or travel around them.

David Matthews: “It’s all very well having the British High Commissioner here and say how much they love our beef and lamb. But they’ve got to get more for my beef and lamb than what (Hastings Rural Community Board chair) Peter Kay can get for his in Hastings”. [iv]

This is a problem of collective identification. NZ collectively already gets a benefit from being identified as ‘Kiwi’, but there is scope for a sub-branding strategy. Hence ‘Wanganui’. Rod Bannister developed a logo for ‘Nui Pride’ that begs adoption for a marketing strategy. There is grassroots initiative in this town; but there is ‘top-down’ indecision and ambivalence.

David Matthews: “There’s that much technology that is coming out all the time, that is making farming easier and more efficient. To me Whanganui & Partners have got to pull a rabbit out of a hat here”. [v]

I don’t see a role for technology here unless it was ‘in-store’ and allowing customers of a grocery chain to sign up for some in-store promotion. Would the grocery chain allow a meat producer to have that market power? Perhaps for a price concession. If Wanganui can but out the middleman and sell direct to the customer, that would be a strategy, but the middleman has possibly already gone. This is relatively new outside of markets and it might not have good conversions. The ‘story’ might be too hard to sell. The right strategy is likely just a ‘quality-price’ story.

Councillor Helen Craig said the district’s economic development agency needed to be given time but it was something council should be keeping an eye on. “I think that they have been struggling with the rural sector and how to corral that and how to make a difference. I think it’s something we should be watching. It is a specialised area. How that is managed successfully and how we put enough resource into it specifically in that area and see an outcome – I think that’s the challenge”. [vi]

Here is the problem. Yes, it is specialised, but actually the problem is that the farmer is far removed from their product. They are not seeing the product in a broader context. They are gazing out to sea, looking at the beautiful blue sea, seeing it as some dangerous threat, rather than identifying a safe part of it which they can handle. When you don’t attempt to bite off more than you can chew, the challenge becomes manageable.

Whanganui mayor Hamish McDouall said two businesses that council and Whanganui & Partners had been in discussions with were rural businesses. “So perhaps the value is yet to be seen”. [vii]

That just strikes me as a ‘leap of faith’. More trust in non-performance. It is noteworthy that council elections are just over a year away (12th Oct 2019). This can be an issue council deals with today, or it is an issue which will still be a leap of faithnext year.

Whanganui & Partners GM Philippa Ivory updated councillors on its recent activity, just days before she resigned after just seven months in the job. It had bought research company to talk minimum of 500 businesses “to find out what their challenges might be”.

If this organisation is to be run by ‘outsiders’, then you have to wonder ‘what is the role of its board of directors’. For oversight? Surely you want a ‘rural perspective’, but you have to wonder why they can’t come from council, or a better resourced ‘regional initiative’ under the Manawatu regional umbrella. Should Wanganui produce be sold under a Manawatu brand? Given the confusion over regional nomenclature, aka Manawatu-Wanganui, perhaps not. But it might be reasonable for them to play a role in actually administering the role, even if they had concurrent or complimentary goals and initiatives. It might actually offer ‘economies of scale’ and make for more compelling marketing campaigns.

Whanganui mayor Hamish McDouall: “We’re looking at succession planning, we’re looking at hiring challenges and generally what Whanganui & Partners can do as an economic development agency can to assist”. [viii]

I recall the council and the Chamber of Commerce were talking ‘succession planning’ 5 years ago without results. Not just in the commercial space, but politically, in terms of the quality of councillors. At the time, business was struggling with a lot of ‘non-business people’ on council, and the impact this was having on council oversight. Fortunately, the Wanganui District Council has a great CEO now, though you have to wonder if he is going to leave soon, because this group of councillors is not bringing out the best of him. One gets the sense he is merely attempting to ‘tick off achievement boxes’. The question is whether his ‘accolades’ or ‘targets’ were set by himself, or developed by council in order to ‘make a good impression’. Ask yourself, if you were trying to impress people, would you prioritise waterworks, or would you fix pathways that are far more visible? Perceptions matter to politicians. That is the nature of extortion rackets.  In small towns, the quality of popular candidates sinks to a new low. Every 3 years, a small town is destined to end up with deadwood, and you can’t retrain deadwood, yet this appears to be the strategy. Making irrelevant people useful. What’s happening is that the council ‘extortion racket’ is used as a ‘measure of the good’. Council money is used to generate a hive of activity and the councillors are organs of that illegitimately-harvested money (aka rates). It is a lot of money in a place like Wanganui, and when the size of your housing block is regulated by government, you have to wonder whether they really understand the needs of constituents, and whether they are so invested in the interests of residents.

Whanganui mayor Hamish McDouall: “There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence about business being shut because children or grandchildren don’t want to take over what the parents have built. We want to make sure that’s true and if it is we want to help them”.[ix]

There is often little value in what the previous generation has built. With council extorting money from the community and wasting it on expenses outside of the city, in the hope of seizing upon a strategy, that people can believe in for another 3 years, it won’t be long before its another 5 years, and people deposed for another group of mystic faith gurus.

Philippa Ivory, the GM of Whanganui & Partners, told councillors its new website would be launched at the organisation’s public forum on the Tuesday, but this didn’t happen and by that time Ivory had resigned. [x]

A website!!! This is hardly the US Health website. The bigger issue should have been – why is a crummy website the basis for a marketing strategy? A website. That won’t engage people. Certainly not the right people. This is silly thinking. The custodians of Wanganui are a group of blithering fools with no life experience. They look at technology the way children look at the stars. They could only be there because their parents have a lot of land in or around Wanganui. That is my 1st explanation; or they are people who know have to placate or fake niceness, and have garnered a role in the city, simply because they know a lot of people. Yes, a close 2nd must be that ‘they don’t sleep around’, and they know a lot of people, because they went to school in the town and they have donated enough money to get noticed, even if it wasn’t their money.

Whanganui & Partners board chairman Myles Fothergill said there were other things being worked on but “a lot of these things are covered by confidentiality agreements”.[xi]

And yet the results are the only concrete evidence we have. You can sell next years achievements ‘next year’, if you get the chance. Where are the results today for the last 3 years? Why did it take so long? Why are any of these people still here? The problem is they all know each other; they are all friends with each other. They are there ‘because of each other’. This is the nature of deadwood. That is how it coagulates.

Whanganui & Partners board chairman Myles Fothergill: “There is other stuff, tangible rocks, that we can hopefully get over the line”. [xii]

Have you ever heard such nonsense spill from a person’s mouth? Tangibles you ‘hopefully get over the line’. By definition ‘tangibles are achieved’; they are not contingent. So you see, the problem here goes to the board level. There appears to be a lack of critical engagement at a board level. This isn’t just an executive problem. The problem goes to the very top. It lies with the board of Whanganui & Partners. Perhaps the board members don’t know the right questions to ask. Maybe they don’t want to offend people in their community because they are ‘such good friends’. You know the culture. Its the same as for ‘small town police’ that only gives speeding fines to ‘outsiders’ speeding through town.

Whanganui mayor Hamish McDouall agreed and said while there had been a lull for 18 months there was renewed interest in businesses setting up in Whanganui. [xiii]

Interest isn’t ‘results’. Everyone thinks Wanganui has ‘potential’. Potential is realised when you have the right people as custodians. The problem is that executive and custodial responsibility in Wanganui is ‘way to politically-driven rather than competence-driven’, and this is a grave failing for small towns. Unless they look to outsiders to appoint leaders from to these roles, then they really have to look to greater regional marketing initiatives beyond Wanganui, i.e. Manuwatu is actually doing a far better job. There is potential for local marketing; but you do have to have the right people driving the process. There is just too much deadwood on the surface. It begs the question – what is lirking under the surface. I have indicated that Rod Bannister is a local character with initiative. Where is the team? Where is the custodianship? The responsibility?

Whanganui mayor Hamish McDouall: “I would love to tell everybody but the commercial sensitivity and the desire of other councils to try and attract those businesses to their place means that we need to keep a lid on some things…Let’s hope we keep landing a few”. [xiv]

Once again the council, of Wanganui treatment plant fame, is hiding behind commercial privilege. Where are the results from this organisation going back to its inception? When was there ever reason for hope? All we have seen is a recovery in the population, and that had nothing to do with the council. i.e. It was the property market recovery or asset inflation, as well as some ‘statutory spending’ of museums et al. Surely the recipe for restoring ‘Wanganui Pride’ doesn’t lie on ‘national government subsidies’.


[i], [ii], [iii], [iv], [v], [vi], [vii], [viii], [ix], [x], [xi], [xii], [xiii], [xiv] “Farmers need more out of Whanganui & Partners David Matthews says” by Zaryd Wilson, Wanganui Chronicle, website, 27th Aug, 2018.

“Whanganui and Partners needs to be accountable, new chief Philippa Ivory says”, Wanganui Chronicle, website, 7th Feb 2018.

My comments from 7th Feb 2018 on Facebook with constituents of Wanganui, including the former mayor, Annette Main.



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