The politician's a Prentice

Suzanne Prentice.
Suzanne Prentice.
She sang about a funny face, but she has her serious face on now and her hat in the ring contesting the Invercargill mayoralty. Hamish McNeilly talks to Suzanne Prentice.

Suzanne Prentice is going to town.

Just a day after announcing she would take on Tim Shadbolt for the Invercargill mayoralty, the 51-year-old is heading into the southern city - not to campaign but to do a spot of shopping.

Top of her list is getting a copy of her opponent's 2008 biography, A Mayor of Two Cities, hopefully to gain an insight into the maverick mayor.

The Art of War this is not, but it is the battle of Invercargill nonetheless.

Prentice announces her candidacy this week.
Prentice announces her candidacy this week.
On one side we have Shadbolt, equal part politician, entertainer and campaigner, a man who has spent a lifetime treading the line between disaster and success, all the time sporting that trademark grin. On the other we have the Invercargill-born-and-bred entertainer who has been performing since the age of 12.

• Singer of note

Apart from her enthusiasm, which is considerable, Prentice is giving away few clues about precisely how she plans to topple the high-profile Shadbolt, who first served as Invercargill mayor from 1993-95 and has served since 1998.

She agrees her opposite is something of a Teflon customer, with any mud seemingly sliding off, but senses his recent campaign to oust his deputy mayor may have changed that.

That though is Shadbolt: voters will want to know what she stands for. Prentice quickly runs through the perennial checklist for the political aspirant.

"Honesty ... fairness ... reliability ... consistency ... hard work."

When asked to be more specific, she says she "doesn't want to give too much away", although the entertainer entertains the idea of putting a roof over the city's main shopping street, and attracting more events to the city.

First she has to win.

Prentice, who has been in the public eye for almost four decades, says her mayoralty bid is shaping as her "biggest challenge yet".

Challenging, because while she may be a household name with a long list of achievements in the entertainment arena, her curriculum vitae where politics is concerned looks a little light. She counts two terms on the Invercargill Licensing Trust (ILT) - including the last term as deputy president - as her political experience.

In both trust elections, Prentice came out on top, in 2007 attracting 2500 more votes than the next highest polling candidate.

Prentice denies she is banking on her celebrity alone to win her votes.

While she concedes having a recognised name, compared with say the third candidate - Invercargill grocery assistant Carl Heenan - will help at the ballot box, having the city's best interests at heart is the key to winning over voters, she says.

That famous name will in fact appear as "Dalton (PRENTICE) Suzanne Lena" on the ballot paper - her married name, which comes usefully, in ballot paper terms, early in the alphabet.

In the 2007 ILT election, "Dalton (PRENTICE) Suzanne Lena" won 11,960 votes under the first past the post electoral system.

In the election the same year for the Invercargill mayoralty, which is a geographically larger electorate than the ILT catchment area, "Shadbolt Timothy Richard" won 15,627 votes, more than 12,400 votes ahead of his challenger.

Southern Institute of Technology journalism tutor Phil McCarthy says Prentice will have to run a great campaign to topple Shadbolt "but has a shot".

Shadbolt's image has been tarnished by his failed attempt to unseat his deputy, but he still appears to have the support of Invercargill voters, McCarthy says.

"I think he will win but it will be close."

At Monday's press conference to announce her candidacy, Prentice talked not only of the "distractions"of Shadbolt's tenure, but emphasised her roots in the city.

"I consider myself to be a true Southlander - my heart and my home are in the city and my family have a long and proud association with Invercargill."

Her decision to stand follows Mayor Tim's unsuccessful attempt to oust his long-serving deputy, Neil Boniface, another ILT board member - a brouhaha sparked by Mr Shadbolt's concern that he was notified late of a drink-driving incident involving the Invercargill City Council chief executive. Mr Shadbolt was in Mongolia at the time.

Prentice says the scandal tarnished the city.

She says she could have happily stayed on the board of the ILT, which is credited with helping turn around the city's declining population by supporting such projects as fee-free Southern Institute of Technology courses, "but the ILT doesn't have the same problems as council".

"All I want is what is good for the city ... (the voters) should be given a choice. If they decide to stay with the status quo I have a life outside of this."

Prentice says her friends and family are behind her, including her policeman husband Stephen Dalton, who served with the Armed Offenders Squad at the time of the Aramoana tragedy, and her Invercargill-based children Blair and Andrea.

Her mum and former manager, Rose Prentice, also "thought I should go for it".

"She thought I would make a good mayor."

And, she says, so too do the public.

Since announcing her decision Prentice has been inundated by calls of support from "Auckland to Invercargill", including from current city councillors, although she is unwilling to divulge names.

Nor is she willing to comment on who is assisting her with her campaign, apart from her personal assistant and campaign manager, Margot Hishon.

A committed National Party supporter, Prentice says she has never been asked to stand in Invercargill for the party, but was approached to stand for New Zealand First in 2000.

"It was nice to be asked," she says diplomatically.

With the local body elections still six months away, Prentice says she will still be performing her Kids for Kids concerts around the country, right up until the October election. The World Vision-linked initiative aims to raise awareness of underprivileged children around the world.

Regardless of what happens in the election, she says she is unwilling yet to bring down the curtain on her career and in what might be a New Zealand first for a mayoral contender, she may even record a new album in the new year.

Cool, calm and collected throughout the interview, Prentice doesn't even bristle at a reference to her being pigeonholed by many as a country and western singer. She is quick to put the record straight that while she sang country songs early in her career, she sings a wide variety of music, and name-checks Barbara Streisand, Celine Dion and Fleetwood Mac, among others.

Her years in entertainment do provide an example of her ability to upstage a more established act.

The story goes that Latin crooner Julio Iglesias got his nose out of joint when support act Prentice received a better review and promptly wanted her off the bill.

Prentice brushes off the incident with the professionalism of someone used to the spotlight, and demurs that she is not a person to "seek the limelight".

Her career as an entertainer, she reveals, was not even her preferred vocation.

"I wanted to be a policewoman," but her 1.55m height (a little over five foot) prevented her from enlisting.

All the same the former bodybuilder who famously shed 35kg to compete in a national championship claims "I pack a great punch".

Prentice describes herself as an ordered person and a "perfectionist", traits she hopes will enable her to restore respectability to the Invercargill mayoral office.

"Being from Invercargill has never been a problem for me, but I have always had to fight from the word go."

Let the battle begin.


• The first thing she would do as mayor: Contact the council and get them moving in the same direction.

• The main function of the mayor: It is to portray the city in a proper light, and make the residents feel good about their city.

• What she would spend ratepayers' money on: Improving the infrastructure of South Invercargill and perhaps creating events that piggy-back off other southern festivals such as the Queenstown Winter Festival.

• Rates rises: I don't want to promise anything I can't deliver.

• Super-cities: It is an interesting issue and I will be watching to see what happens in Auckland. It (amalgamation) is something that needs to be looked at.

• Boosting the city's population: No set policy at this stage.

• Mayoral credit cards: I think they are necessary . . . but not for personal expenditure.

• The current mayoral car (a $63,000 Chrysler 300C V8 sedan): I would want something spacious, gracious not ostentatious.



> 1958: Born in Invercargill on September 19 to Bob and Rose Prentice. Has two brothers, Len and Brett.
> 1970: Attends the Invercargill A&P Summer Show, where her mother convinces the then 12-year-old to enter the talent quest.
> Early '70s: Performs the song Funny Face on the talent show New Faces, and appears on the show The Entertainers, winning with the song Love is Like a Butterfly.
> 1975: Becomes a professional singer at the age of 17, and performs nationally and overseas.
> 1977: Marries Stephen Dalton.
> 1980: Her son Blair Dalton is born. He now works as an Invercargill police constable.
> 1981: Performs before the Queen at the Royal Variety Concert in Auckland.
> 1984: Named New Zealand Entertainer of the Year.
> 1988: Her daugher Andrea Dalton is born.
> 1995: Visits India with World Vision. Awarded an OBE in the Queen's Birthday honours list for services to music.
> 1995: Begins working for Kids for Kids, which aims to raise awareness of underprivileged children throughout the world. To date she has performed before 450,000 children and performed with more than 300,000.
> 1997: Her handprints and name are placed in concrete at the Hands of Fame in Australia (they are also represented at the New Zealand Hands of Fame, in Gore).
> 2000: Begins a fitness programme and a year later enters a body-sculpting competition.
> 2002: Receives the Paul Harris Fellow Award in 2002, the highest honour awarded by Rotary International.
> 2002: Her book One Day at a Time is published.
> 2004: Is elected to the Invercargill Licensing Trust board; becomes deputy president in 2007.
> 2004: Her book Keeping it Off is published, detailing her battle to lose weight.
> 2008: Receives the NCMA Country Music Legend Award.
> 2009: The Variety Artists of New Zealand votes her top female vocalist.


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