Turns out it only took the Prime Minister describing it as “dying” to kick into overdrive Wellingtonians’ pride in their city.
Mayor Celia Wade-Brown dismissed the slur as evidence that John Key needs to get out of the Beehive more, while the Dominion Post pursued it from every angle until the PM eventually allowed that he meant to say “extremely vibrant”.
The conclusion was that the PM’s comments were off the mark for the “coolest little capital”, viz Vogue (online-only, in case you’d pictured Anna Wintour herself peering over her sunglasses at Havana Bar’s tapas menu), Lonely Planet and various Tolkien fansites.
But the toughest criticisms to field are the ones that we know to be at least partly true and it’s testament to how close to home the PM’s comment hit that it’s been over a year and we’re still going on about it.
More than any other city in New Zealand, Wellington has a story it likes to tell itself and others. Millions are spent every year on marketing the city to the rest of the country and the world, and that tends to revolve around its coffee and cafes, its movie industry in Miramar and its reputation as the arts and culture capital. But to paraphrase Wellington City councillor Jo Coughlan, speaking at the first Moxie Session to be held in the capital city, “we have a reputation … that’s ours to lose.” We’re sure of our identity and how it sets us apart in New Zealand and internationally. But is it deserved?
Many of the venues that made up our “vibrant nightlife” have closed down, including Mighty Mighty, surely the institution most often cited in write-ups of Wellington. Many of the best cafes and restaurants today are the same as they were 10, if not 10 years ago. And if the public service sector is at the heart of the city, you could say – as the Beehive focuses its attention north (or south, as Christchurch rebuilds) and the threat of job cuts continues to loom – that it stopped beating long ago.
There’s plenty to love about Wellington, and it’s by no means one of economist Shamubeel Eaqub’s “zombie towns” (it was acknowledged at the time that, with high unemployment and slow growth, the Hutt and other parts of the wider Wellington area are closer to that eventuality, though it’s hoped proposed amalgamation will reinvigorate the region).
But to accept the narrative we’ve always had – that you can’t beat it on a good day, and every day is good – verges on complacency. That seemed to be the general consensus of the session, which was attended by both cheerleaders who felt that the only way for Wellington is up, and people who were clear that, if it weren’t for work or family or life otherwise getting in the way, they’d have left long ago.
Simmonds Stewart partner Andrew Simmonds was one of the latter. He said there was just “more energy” in Auckland, while Wellington had become stagnant. “If we stay where we’re at, we’re not going anywhere.”
Repeatedly, Auckland was described as an up-and-coming, dynamic city with an idea of where it wanted to be and a plan for how to get there. Plus many remarked that it was gaining on Wellington in areas we’ve always considered ourselves to be ahead in, like the arts, hospitality and entertainment. As Simmonds Stewart solicitor Lucy Luo, who recently relocated to Wellington, said, “Every time I go back to Auckland, it’s gotten a little bit cooler.”
Of course, it’s not a case of either-or. But Auckland is already big and it’s only going to get bigger, and in Jo Coughlan’s experience that means it captures most of central government’s attention. It makes it all the more important for Wellington to have vision. Hers includes foreign investment and job creation to boost GDP per capita, with an upcoming Hilton Hotel and convention centre the first development of several either planned or proposed.
Though not all her fellow councillors agree with her, Coughlan thinks Wellington would benefit from 100,000 new Wellingtonians, most likely from migration – so how do we attract them here?
Luring more international students to our universities was floated as an option but prompted questions about the role Victoria, Massey and the other tertiary education providers play in the city: how might they be able to collaborate with the private sector, instead of “freeloading” from it? Employers in the room said higher education didn’t seem to add much value to their hires, and in fact universities’ persuading promising graduates to carry on with study depleted their already small pool of potential employees.
But educators said it was difficult to prepare students for the workplace – “without becoming trade schools,” remarked Victoria University management lecturer Dr Richard Norman, who has been researching the city’s knowledge economy – when the very nature of work is changing all the time. Plus the funding model for tertiary education keeps universities looking inwards, with academics forced to “publish or perish” instead of engage with their community.
Not that the universities were the only organisations accused of holding Wellington back. Central government and the public service sector in general – its cumbersome size, its lack of urgency, its generous signing bonuses and salaries, its wilful rejection of aesthetics – were identified as contributing to a general absence of entrepreneurialism and energy in the city. (Or at least outside of the ‘tech precinct’ of Xero, Orion and Trade Me, and the Miramar movie industry.)
“If we want to compete globally, people need to understand we need to put the foot on the gas a bit more.” Siobhan Bulfin, founder of the health tech startup Social Code, was talking about her experience of New Zealanders’ tendency to keep “island time” but the warning just as well applies to the comfortable, if not complacent workplace culture that many believed to be blanketing the Beehive and extending over the rest of Wellington.
The capital city needs to be more collaborative, more cohesive, more competitive, more creative – but what that might look like,and how we could go about achieving it, wasn’t so easy to agree on. Is it as simple as building a new Hilton, or extending the runway, and waiting for the 100,000 to come? As Moxie Sessions founder Hayden Glass suggested, we need clear outcomes to aspire to before we can start breaking them down into actions, like improving infrastructure. If there is a sense of aimlessness in Wellington, the absence of such an action plan might be what’s behind it.
But it’s not too late for the city. Even if Wellington’s not on the cutting edge or the cusp of greatness right now, with leadership and vision, it easily could be. “All it will take is one or two ideas,” said Rik Athorne, Head of Design Studio at Weta Workshop. “That will make this city what it needs to be – a couple of wins.”
Elle Hunt recently moved from Wellington to Sydney, where she is deputy audience editor at Guardian News & Media.
The Moxie Sessions is an internet economy discussion group held once a month in Auckland. Its purpose is to bring together a group of interesting folks from across the economy to talk about how New Zealand can take advantage of the internet to improve its economic performance.
Thanks to Alcatel Lucent and ng Connect for their generous sponsorship, which helps to make the Moxie Sessions possible.