Credit: Original article can be found here
Sean Rush had a simple reason for standing as a Wellington City councillor: to bring unity around the council table.
“I didn’t realise just how ambitious such a campaign pledge would turn out to be,” an amused Rush told Stuff through characteristic laughter, as he reflected on a rocky year and three-quarters of his inaugural term.
For the charismatic Eastern ward councillor, this tumultuous stint could well turn out to be his last – although he has not ruled out standing again – and it is probably not hard to see why.
Far from achieving unity, Rush was part of a council that was subjected to an external review earlier this year following a series of public and private disagreements among some of his colleagues.
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Looking back, Rush, an experienced oil and gas industry lawyer, said he knew immediately after settling into his seat in October 2019 that he may have bitten off more than he could chew.
“When I first met my new colleagues, I wondered what I’d got into,” the always candid councillor said, again breaking into laughter.
“In fact, I joked with the mayor that I can predict what oil company executives want, but I’ve got no idea what these people are up to.”
Rush has since prided himself on building ties and finding common ground with his fellow councillors, and has built a reputation among many of his colleagues for being open-minded on a number of issues.
“I went about surreptitiously figuring out who they were, and looking past the politics and looking at the person, and started building some bridges,” Rush said.
For example, Jill Day has young children, so does Rush; Rebecca Matthews championed disabled people’s rights, deafness is prevalent in Rush’s family.
“So you take the politics out and look at the person. And I think that’s been, I suppose, my highlight, is being able to reach across the table and to listen.
“You need to get over yourself. We need to get over ourselves.
“And we need to realise that politics is about compromise. There’s no place for intransigent positions. And we need to be flexible.”
Wearing his heart on his sleeve
There has certainly been plenty of politics.
Perhaps the most enduring memory of Rush’s tenure, rightly or wrongly, is the moment he turned his back in protest as several councillors sung a waiata to support establishing iwi voting rights on council committees.
Rush later said he regretted the move, and was protesting the “ambush” from his colleagues more so than the proposal itself, which was tabled by Jill Day, one of two Māori councillors.
Rush voted against allowing the notice of motion to be tabled on the day, but voted in favour of establishing iwi seats when the proposal was put to councillors again earlier this year.
“I’m not comfortable with it being described as a change of position,” Rush said.
“We had one vote on it and I voted a certain way [in favour]. I had raised concerns around the legality of it previously, and as a consequence I wanted to be clearer about that legality.
“And in the end, although I had legal advice to say that it probably could be challenged, it wasn’t strong enough for me to actually take a position on it.”
Rush is an energetic councillor, unashamedly still learning some of the council processes, and often breaking the ice by joking with colleagues or making comments to the media.
“He always wears his heart on his sleeve,” said mayor Andy Foster.
Rush represented New Zealand in gymnastics at age-group level, winning a silver medal in the high bar with a score of 9.9 at an under-16 competition against Australia in Christchurch in 1984.
“Whether you agree or disagree with it, you know what he’s thinking.”
Rush is a member of the Whaitua Te-Whanganui-a-Tara committee that is helping to manage land and water resources in the Wellington region.
He said the group had adopted a te ao Māori approach, which had made him realise that iwi and the wider Wellington population had similar goals.
“In the end, whereas the iwi will describe their goals as being able to access mahinga kai, which is to be able to get seafood and freshwater crayfish all that sort of thing, I want my kids to be able to play safely in the water.
“We’re not worlds apart here.”
Rush said he had urged Day to push for a Māori ward for Wellington a year ago, but Day held off until new rules came into effect upholding council decisions to establish Māori wards.
“I said, ‘We’ll beat the petitioners. I guarantee you’.”
Rush also turned heads following what were perceived to be inconsistent votes on the council’s spatial plan, a blueprint for accommodating tens of thousands of new residents by enabling taller buildings to be developed across the city.
He voted to reduce protected “character” areas in inner-city suburbs, but supported retaining central city building height limits.
He also voted against proposals to extend the walkable catchments in which six-storey-plus buildings would be permitted.
Rush said removing central city height restrictions would have been “reckless”, while there was no evidence supporting plans to extend the development catchments.
The wildcard councillor
In a council that is often split down the middle, Rush’s vote can often carry extra importance, and there is always intrigue as to which way the sometimes unpredictable councillor will go.
“He always comes to the council with an open mind, which I maybe don’t always do myself,” said Rebecca Matthews, a Labour Party councillor.
Rush, 52, was born in Napier and went to St John’s College, before gaining a law degree at Victoria University in Wellington.
He subsequently worked as a legal consultant for energy and infrastructure firms, predominantly in London but also in Dubai and Calgary.
He was a lawyer for Canadian oil company Petro-Canada for 10 years, before becoming a partner in a London law firm.
Rush also spent two years as a legal advisor for English Partnerships, a national regeneration agency that led the redevelopment of the vast Thames Gateway area.
The father-of-two moved to Wellington with wife Kathryn in 2012, setting up his own law firm in the capital and running for the council in 2019 backed by the centre-right Wellington Party.
But despite being a right-leaning councillor, there is often no telling which way Rush will vote, and he has won favour with many of his colleagues for being able to change his position.
“He’ll sit there and think deeply about issues, and sometimes he’ll change his views on things,” Matthews said.
“We both have a bit of a sense of humour, and don’t take ourselves too seriously.”
Fellow left-leaning councillor Tamatha Paul, an independent, noted Rush’s support for iwi representation on the council and maximum investment in the city’s cycleways programme.
“I really respect his ability to change his mind and to listen to people,” Paul said.
“He’s not stubbornly idealogical, and I’d say he’s my favourite right-wing colleague for that reason.”
Another Labour councillor, Teri O’Neill, also praised Rush’s flexibility, though placed a small caveat on that trait.
“I think he’s very clever, and most of the time he can anticipate what way popular public opinion is going to go.”
Matthews added that Rush appeared to “enjoy the element of surprise”.
“You can sometimes get more credit for changing your mind than for being strong on an issue all along.”
O’Neill praised Rush’s advocacy for the pair’s Eastern ward, and said he had “knocked it out of the park” as a member of the Wellington Water committee.
For Rush’s part, he said: I’ll never rule out something that one of my colleagues says just because it doesn’t sound right.”
Winder report ‘missed the mark’, Foster ‘targeted’
Rush said the independent review into the council’s governance, completed by former Local Government New Zealand chief executive Peter Winder, had missed the mark.
“I didn’t feel that he really nailed it, the root of our problems,” Rush said.
“I think the root of our problems are political, and we should just front that.”
When asked if there had too much politicking among councillors, Rush turned to a rugby analogy (rugby is in the blood – cousins Xavier and Anna-Leah played for the All Blacks and Black Ferns respectively, while sister Erin also played for the Black Ferns).
“I’m a rugby player, and whatever my captain says, I go with it. And we talk about it off the field later. And I don’t think the mayor’s being given a fair go.”
He said Foster was a “genuine bloke who’s interested in Wellington”.
“And I would just like us all to get behind him.”
Foster did not want to comment on those allegations, but said he had “certainly appreciated Sean’s support”.
“Sean has always been very positive, whereas I think sometimes others haven’t been.”
Rush, who signalled in May he was ready to step away from his role as councillor, said he was undecided on whether he would stand in next year’s local body elections, but did not want to “waste” three years by not building on what he had learned.
The role was “quite a drain” on his family – wife Kathryn and his two children, aged four and seven.
“But I got into this, I’ve made a lot of progress. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, too, let’s not forget that it’s a learning process, for sure.
“I think the effort that I’ve put in to start building those bridges and getting to know the Wellington political network … that’s a journey that I’ve only really just started to do.
“And I think I’ll be a much better politician in a second term.
“For me, what I was really looking for was to take the collective wisdom that I know sits around the table, put aside our personal agendas, political ones, and to come up with really good decisions.
“And actually, we tend to do that, but we do it through a process that really leaks a lot of blood,” Rush said, again breaking into laughter.