Fran Wilde: Queen of Wellington
Joseph Romanos talks to Wellington Regional Council chairwoman Fran Wilde about her days as a journalist, the Homosexual Law Reform Bill and how Wellington has changed
What do you recall about your first election campaign?
It was 1981. I was running for Labour against Ken Comber, who held the seat for National. It was the year of the Springbok tour and the protests. That helped National in the rural areas, but was useful for me in Wellington Central, and we had the biggest swing to Labour in the country. I was young and reflected the demographic of the electorate – people were hanging out for change. We ran a huge campaign and knocked on every door in the electorate. I had three young kids and was very grateful for the women who rallied round and looked after them and helped maintain my household while I campaigned. I had one suit, which I wore every day!
You were part of the Labour Government that brought in sweeping changes. Do you wince when you think about that now?
It’s easy to overlook how bad things had got under Muldoon. The country was a mess and Roger Douglas made some bold decisions. Where Labour went wrong was in not acknowledging after a while how much people were hurting, not slowing down the change. Things like selling the railways and Telecom really hurt New Zealanders.
You became famous for introducing the Homosexual Law Reform Act. You must be proud of that.
I am. It was truly reviled by some people. I received death threats and incredible abuse. I was very worried for my children. I had no idea how nasty it would get. It was a tough battle getting it through, and the numbers were not that clearcut. We had to stay on top of the issue for 18 months.
You have three adopted children, so your adoption reform campaign, enabling adopted people and their birth parents to contact each other, was very important to you. In hindsight, has that been a good idea?
Yes. There is the odd story of heartbreak and angst, but overall it has been a good thing. There are hardly any adoptions these days. Those there are are open.
Why did you quit Parliament to become Wellington mayor?
As the member for Wellington Central, I was trying to find a good mayoral candidate. After a while it dawned on me I should have a go. Labour had lost power and looked like they’d be in opposition for some time. So I went for the mayoralty.
It was a time of change for Wellington.
Yes, the Absolutely Positively Wellington slogan came in. It was a brilliant slogan, conceived by Saatchi and Saatchi, and encouraged Wellingtonians to feel good about their city. It’s still just as relevant today. Wellington is now the biggest domestic tourism destination. That would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.
The bypass came in on your watch. Any thoughts on that?
It should have been trenched. Opponents of the bypass thought we would never build it if it wasn’t trenched, but we had to have it. It’s ugly though, a big hole in the middle of the city. Of course, the project wasn’t supposed to stop there. It was meant to push through towards the airport.
What did you think of Kerry Prendergast as a mayor.
Brilliant. She did an enormous amount for Wellington.
What about Celia WadeBrown?
A very astute woman. But she’s in her early days as mayor and is still getting to grips with key areas. Her challenge will be balancing the expectations of her supporters with the practicalities of the job. Why did you push so hard for the Wellington stadium?
It was an economic, rather than a sports, necessity. We didn’t want Wellington missing out on major events. We needed that facility. It has far exceeded the initial business plan. But what a battle it was. We really had to battle to get it through. There was some emotional opposition, people with fond memories of Athletic Park.
Before you became a politician you were a journalist, weren’t you?
I worked for The Evening Post, as a general reporter. I loved it. Being in a newsroom was very exciting. My father and brother were journalists. Where did you train? I’d been to university and was in the first intake of the Wellington Polytech journalism course [ now the Massey University course]. We were brought together one day by the head tutor and told if we didn’t take the course more seriously, it could be cancelled forever. After that we did try harder.
Now you chair the Wellington Regional Council. How important is the regional council?
It’s vital, but we don’t have a lot of fights, so we don’t get the sort of publicity the city council gets. The regional council is populated by practical doers.
Should Wellington go the super-city way?
One voice, in Auckland, currently speaks for one-third of New Zealand’s population. The other two-thirds are represented by 78 organisations. The danger is that Auckland will have such a strong voice other areas will be swamped. Wellington doesn’t need an Auckland super-city model, but there has to be some rationalisation of resources. We need to get our act together.
Fran Wilde: ‘‘The Wellington stadium has far exceeded the initial business plan.’’