A voice for change

Councillor Jinty MacTavish, whose suggestion Dunedin City Council should divest itself of fossil...
Councillor Jinty MacTavish, whose suggestion Dunedin City Council should divest itself of fossil fuel investments attracted international attention this year, believes strength of ideas, not weight of personality, should determine policy decisions. ...
A Class Act awardee in her final year at Waitaki Girls' High School, Jinty MacTavish (second from...
A Class Act awardee in her final year at Waitaki Girls' High School, Jinty MacTavish (second from left) talks with (from left) her grandmother Shona Dunlop-MacTavish, Otago Daily Times then editor Robin Charteris and Jinty's mother, Alison MacTavish,...
Dunedin city councillor Jinty MacTavish (left) and former mayor Sukhi Turner listen to the Dalai...
Dunedin city councillor Jinty MacTavish (left) and former mayor Sukhi Turner listen to the Dalai Lama in the Dunedin Town Hall in June last year.
Jinty MacTavish speaks during the Dunedin City Council public forum on fracking in March 2012.
Jinty MacTavish speaks during the Dunedin City Council public forum on fracking in March 2012.

Are hard work and firm convictions in danger of turning Jinty MacTavish into the thing she hates? Bruce Munro asks the young city councillor what she is doing in the limelight she abhors and talks to friends and foes about her growing presence on the political stage.

Thirty minutes before the interview, Jinty MacTavish phones to suggest a better venue.

Could we meet at Potpourri Vegetarian Cafe instead, she asks?

''It would be more fitting, given that I'm the city's fair trade representative,'' the 29-year-old, second-term Dunedin city councillor says.

Details meticulously thought through, in search of the optimal solution. Even when it comes to a cup of coffee.

It is quintessential MacTavish. It is also, if she is reading this, exactly the sort of introduction she will not want to see.

Her reservations about this article have been expressed at times during the past fortnight leading up to the interview.

But here she is, sitting in a quiet corner of the cafe nursing a hot cuppa and breaking chunks off a brioche, a smile and a laugh never far away, even as she harbours doubts about being here.

Those concerns crystallise 90 minutes later when she is asked if there is anything further she would like to add.''

I probably haven't stressed enough that I think, in my role as a politician, one of the really important things is making it about the issue and not about the person,'' she says with quiet conviction.

"And that's what's been difficult about this interview. Ultimately, we are all people around the council table - and I think sometimes people forget that - we're all people with feelings.

"But local government is not really about people around the table.

"I think it's more about the strength of ideas and the importance of those ideas and the validity or resonance that those ideas have.

"I worry that focusing too much on people's personalities or who they are risks losing sight of the ultimate aim, which is having a good debate about good ideas and strategic direction.''

Since Cr MacTavish's election in October 2010, the city has repeatedly witnessed the struggle to enact the ''good debate about good ideas'' process, with the youngest councillor at the table an inexorable participant.

The decisions taken and strategies formulated during the past almost four years are now taking flight, carrying the city to what will probably be a destination many residents had not imagined less than a decade ago.

Cr MacTavish came to the council saying voters were hungry for ''fresh blood and new ideas'' and wanted her to ''not just pay lip service to future challenges, but face them and do something about them''.

Looking back, a standout moment of the past four years was the council's May vote to rid itself of fossil fuel investments, Cr MacTavish, who brought the idea to council, says.

Other council decisions and initiatives which she rates as highlights include halving the time the city will take to pay off the Forsyth Barr Stadium debt, getting traction on a cycleway network and planning public transport improvements.

And in her mind's eye, the transformation has only begun.

The next step, she says, is fostering a flourishing, sustainable and equitable local food-production system.

"Maybe three years ago I saw it more as something we needed to be doing to become more sustainable in environmental terms or in terms of our carbon footprint, but now I just see it as an agenda that is future-proofing our economy, future-proofing our social systems, shoring up our whole city for the future.''

It is a vision Cr MacTavish has championed at every opportunity.

But being out there in the limelight is not her natural habitat.

She recalls that when she was a newly elected councillor, every time the phone rang, she was terrified it might be media wanting her opinion on an issue.

What has thrust her on to the political boards are her convictions and a determination to see their potential realised.

"At a personal level, the challenge I find hardest is being in the public eye,'' she says.

"It's not a complaint; it's part and parcel of the job ... but it doesn't make it any less challenging.''

It echoes comments made by her younger self after a 10-week exchange in Germany in 2001.

"I'm not naturally outgoing,'' the 17-year-old told a reporter.

"But I think it's very important to be outgoing, so I try.''

• Firm opinions and dedication were the air she breathed growing up on a small beachside farm near picturesque Moeraki, 80km north of Dunedin.

"I am always inspired by my parents ... They put a lot of time into community and thinking about how, as communities, we can contribute to the greater good.

"And not just thinking about it. They and their whole community ... are doing some really great stuff.''

Extended family includes Cr MacTavish's grandmother, dancer and choreographer Shona Dunlop-MacTavish, who is in her 90s.

"I'd love to have her energy when I'm her age,'' Cr MacTavish says with a chuckle.

From Hampden School, Cr MacTavish went to Waitaki Girls' High School, where she excelled.

In her final year, 2002, she was head girl, dux, a Class Act recipient and top of her class in German, English and biology.

"She was very caring but knew her own mind,'' her German language teacher, Jackie Grant, said.

"There are some students who stand out. She was definitely one of them.''

She worked as a waitress at renowned local restaurant Fleur's Place to help pay her way while studying for a BSc at the University of Otago.

The science, with its interconnected systems, seems to have informed her view of the world and of her role at city hall.

"Some people say to me, 'But Jinty, those are global issues, they're not relevant to council'.

"I fundamentally disagree with that. We live in a global system.

"If we don't see our city in that global system ... if we don't seek to influence those processes and those challenges which face the world, they are going to have a big impact on our city and our future ... We will be shaped by them; it is just a matter of how.''

In 2006, she saw a bit more of that world at first hand, volunteering with an Oxfam-supported rural development organisation in India.

It was a ''very confronting time''.

After undergraduate studies, she did her master's degree in science communication.

As part of that course she made a documentary film, Lessons from a Melting Icecap, which won Best New Zealand Film at the Reel Earth awards in 2009.

Before taking her seat at the council table she was Enviroschools regional co-ordinator.

Elected on the Greater Dunedin ticket, Cr MacTavish brought her characteristic idealism to the role of councillor.

It contains a perfectionist streak that makes her demanding of herself and has caused frustration with others.

Her first decision was to be a full-time city councillor.

"I've found that for me to feel I am really doing the role justice, it does take all my time,'' she says.

This triennium she is chairwoman of the community and environment committee, chairwoman of the community grants subcommittee, a hearings panel commissioner and, let's not forget, the city's fair trade representative.

About a third of her week is spent reading council papers and researching issues.

Another chunk is spent responding to constituent inquiries, mostly by email and through social media.

Then there are community events to attend and, of course, council meetings.

Her salary, about $62,000 before tax, is ''absolutely adequate'', she says.

The youngest councillor by decades during her first term, intergenerational communication sometimes caused friction.

It underlined for her the value of community input and a diverse council.

''Because 120,000 minds are infinitely better than 15,'' she quips.

The recent mobile trading bylaw is a fitting example.

Public feedback on the draft resulted in a bylaw ''which I think is infinitely better than what went out to consultation''.

''I personally think it is an issue that we only have three women around the table ... I make the same argument for young people, and I would make the same argument for other groups.

''I think we are missing out on some perspectives there, and making council inherently less accessible for a whole range of our constituents.''

Cr MacTavish has sought to learn from the experience.

''It can be frustrating when you come in as a young person wanting to see change and feeling you have a mandate to drive change.

''I've worked really hard over the past three years at understanding other people's perspectives, understanding where they are coming from.

"It was definitely an area I needed to work on, and I'm getting better at it. But I can always improve on that; we can all always improve on it.''

As the coffee cup tide recedes, it becomes apparent she is keenly aware of her own perceived weaknesses.

''I wish that I was better at articulating things, I always wish that ... I'm reminded every day of all my weaknesses.

''We are so lucky in Dunedin to be surrounded by so many talented people ... I could sit at the council table and point out each of my colleagues and say what each is really good at.''

Could she then do the same for herself?

''No, I don't think I can. Other people can do that,'' she replies, glancing away.

There is, it appears, some self-doubt.

''It's not often that I look at my papers for a council meeting and think the decisions are simple and that we'll be able to make calls that are 100% 'right'.

"Almost all options are a compromise, and particularly when the decision is one that impacts directly on people's lives.

''It's not uncommon for me to play a decision over and over in my head for hours, even after we've made it, testing and retesting my assumptions and hoping we made the right call.''

But the tendrils of uncertainty do not seem to reach beyond her role in realising the vision.

Of the rightness of her cause, there appears to be no shadow of a doubt.

Perhaps this is what enables her to be so disciplined and single-minded.

Something has to account for why she willingly largely self-funded a recent six-week European local government study tour.

It is not that there aren't plenty of other things she would love to be doing.

She would like to be a more able musician, a better cook, learn to sail, improve her Maori, renovate a heritage building, create a bountiful garden ...

But she is willing to eliminate anything she considers extraneous to the matter at hand.

''It's one of the reasons I wouldn't want to be a politician forever; because I'm not one to do things by halves.''

• It is her actuated values, and the focus she brings to bear working them out, that is making her a force to be reckoned with.

Fellow councillor Kate Wilson, who was Cr MacTavish's unofficial council mentor in the early days, describes her as ''exceedingly intelligent and ... extremely hard-working''.

''She has influence, not because she is young, and not because she is a woman,'' Cr Wilson says.

''Her influence is because she is well read, considered and ... argues her point well.''

Cr Lee Vandervis acknowledges her hard work - ''I used to think I worked hard, until I met Cr MacTavish'' - and sees her influence everywhere.

Cr Vandervis has gone so far as to describe the current city leadership as a ''McCull council''.

''I believe the council agenda which is nominally driven by the mayor is actually driven by Cr MacTavish,'' Cr Vandervis says.

Mayor Dave Cull says the young councillor is having an impact because of her approach.

''She does the homework, so that when she brings a suggestion to council, it has legs,'' Mr Cull says.

''She gets her head around the facts and the information so that when she makes a comment or pushes a position, it has some basis.''

But she is not doing anything other councillors could not do, he says.

Take, for example, the council's ethical investment vote.

''She went to the appropriate committee, as any councillor can, and suggested they look at the issue.

"The committee decided to get a report on it. The report went to council, which voted on it.''

Cr Hilary Calvert is comparatively conciliatory, given that she and Cr MacTavish are on ''reasonably opposite ends'' of many topics.

On the issue of women in politics, for instance, Cr Calvert does not believe greater representation is important.

''I think it is good to have diversity,'' Cr Calvert says.

''But I think we've got diversity in a different way than boy-girl diversity - a truckie Doug Hall on one hand and a vegetarian greenie on the other.''

She rates Cr MacTavish, however, as ''hugely'' influential.

''I think a lot of the strategies and directions that come to our meetings are, loosely speaking, based on environmental things which, one step down again, are based on issues that Jinty has championed,'' she says.

Cr Calvert believes Cr MacTavish represents one sector of the community.

She wants other voices to speak up too.

''It is important that we have the Jintys of the world who are prepared to put those views strongly, and passionately and well-researched and well-articulated,'' she says.

''And I think the other views need the same commitment from councillors.''

It is a level of influence that risks making Cr MacTavish the thing she hates, a personality better known for who she is than for the strength of her ideas.

However, she rejects the notion of her growing influence.

Perhaps blindness to it is her best protection against it.

She can simply continue to think, listen, debate and work with passion and conviction, as she always has.

A couple of days after the interview, having heard from Cr Wilson that her influence is being discussed, Cr MacTavish gets in touch.

''It makes me laugh to think that anyone may view me as having greater influence than anyone else around the table.

''That's certainly not my experience.

''I think over the past three years we've placed greater emphasis on hearing and considering the full diversity of constituents' views and ideas.

''And perhaps the presence of younger councillors has made it easier for younger perspectives to be heard and considered by council.

''Certainly, that's part of what I set out to do. So if council is perceived to have succeeded on either of those fronts ... that's great news.''

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