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Patrick Crewdson - schoolboy, Auckland

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

I bet you'd like to read a profile I wrote for journalism school. Wouldn't you? Huh?

It’s the city council equivalent of a Mexican standoff. His pistol drawn, Manukau’s mayor of 21 years, Sir Barry Curtis, is ready for his last stand. To his right, staunch adversary Dick Quax is flanked by his gang of toughs: new city-wide ticket Peoples Choice. Quax’s cat-like blue eyes are fixed on the leader he calls “the Robert Mugabe of Manukau City”, a man he says rules without consultation or accountability. To the left stands ambitious four-term Otara councillor Len Brown, two barrels trained on Quax.

The pundits are calling this election Curtis’ toughest yet. It’s the first time two sitting councillors have challenged for his job. His opponents say the winds of change are blowing. Some say those winds are whispering the name of the challenger from Pakuranga: Dick Quax.

“The citizens of Manukau really only have one choice for mayor this coming October,” wrote one Howick resident in the Howick and Pakuranga Times last month. Dick Quax: “a champion for freedom, transparency, and accountability” and the only real opponent to those “crowding the left corner”.

After one term on council, the former Olympian and Sports Hall of Fame member says the time is right for his mayoral bid. He’s experienced but not entrenched; part of the solution, he says, not the problem. That “freshness” is an advantage over Brown, Curtis’ heir apparent, who Quax dubs “Little Barry”.

With his smooth voice and even tone it’s likely that if Quax were finishing a career in athletics today he’d be tapped for a cushy broadcasting job. He chooses his words carefully – pausing significantly when asked difficult questions, especially about his party political affiliations. He is much more animated when discussing policy (or sport) than when talking about himself.

In Peoples Choice, he has a vocal and well-organised campaigning machine. Chairman Hamish Stevens publicly enlisted Quax – a supporter and financial donor since the ticket’s inception – via an open letter in July. He believes the pro-change vote has aligned itself behind Quax.

A survey conducted by the ticket in early August showed Quax leading Curtis in the wealthier eastern suburbs and nipping at his heels in Manurewa, Papatoetoe, Otara and Mangere. Technically, the poll’s high margin of error – 12.5% – should have rendered it almost meaningless, but that didn’t prevent MP Richard Prebble predicting a Quax victory in the ACT party’s weekly newsletter.

Prebble’s soothsaying may be partly wishful thinking. Quax is a party member and was a list candidate at the 1999 and 2002 general elections. He says he won’t be standing for parliament again in the future, but ACT would surely love to see one of its own wearing the chains of office in New Zealand’s third largest city.

Onwards to part two