'Needed to walk away': Ex-councillor John MacDonald

Former Queenstown tourism leader John MacDonald’s been a prominent councillor for the past four-and-a-half years, and a staunch advocate for better local health services. After announcing his resignation so he can cope better with his Parkinson’s condition, he talks to PHILIP CHANDLER about his highlights on council and how he feels about pulling pin

Life can be cruel.

Take John MacDonald, one of Queenstown’s most active and influential councillors.

Still only 63, he last week resigned to better manage his Parkinson’s condition.

The same person, before getting elected five years ago, had just got over a long cancer battle.

Add in a couple of earlier run-ins with melanoma and, as he says, ‘‘it’s been a shit run, to put it bluntly’’.

MacDonald originally left a ‘‘deteriorating’’ family farm near Methven to settle in Queenstown in ’86 — ‘‘[Prime Minister] Mr Lange and his high interest rates brought that to a screaming halt’’.

He’d latterly got into tourism at nearby Mr Hutt as a driver and ski guide for tour companies, and came to Queenstown as local manager for tour company Guthreys Pacific.

About a year later, he bought Danes Shotover Rafts, in the heyday of rafting, with then Dunedin-based investor Eion Edgar — ‘‘we settled it literally just before the ’87  crash’’.

MacDonald owned the company for eight years, the last three in partnership with THL.

In that time he also got into tourism marketing, initially as chairman of the Queenstown
Winter Marketing Group.

He had nine years on the board of the then-Queenstown Promotion Board, including three as chairman, during when it changed name to today’s Destination Queenstown.

After bailing out of rafting he got into tourist publishing.

With his Whyte Waters Group partner they were into everything from skiing and in-flight magazines to hotel-room publications, a DQ product directory and real-time booking

Through a contact, the company even designed Wellington Zoo’s logo.

MacDonald’s publishing innings came to ‘‘a bitter end’’ in 2008 — ‘‘I was exited’’.

A petrolhead — at 21 he’d won the New Zealand junior rally title in a Mazda RX3 — he then bought a Glenda Drive garage, Quickstop, which he ran for five years.

During that time he was eventually diagnosed with urethral cancer, but only after a team of American urologists got involved, after which he endured ‘‘some pretty nasty operations’’.

‘‘I literally sold [Quickstop] the week I went for an operation.’’

MacDonald then picked up apart-time job overseeing mental health services in the southern region.

Then, frustrated with sitting in traffic, he successfully stood for council in 2016.

He says his highlight was chairing the mayoral housing affordability taskforce in his first term.

‘‘We were able to develop a [‘secure home’] product the housing trust’s now gone on and put in place.’’

Latterly, he’s also enjoyed chairing the audit, finance and risk committee.

He particularly enjoyed his first term — ‘‘that was a fantastic group of people, everyone was going in one direction’’.

His first Parkinson’s symptoms came in the form of finger-twitching two years ago.

It was diagnosed after getting ‘‘a particularly nasty urinary tract infection’’, and not bouncing back.

‘‘It’s not a death sentence, but it is a slow degenerative disease which they continually tell you stress and exhaustion are bad for, and exercise is good for.

‘‘There’s a lot of work with council and a lot of stress being a public figure, and I’ve decided to walk away from that because I need to.

‘‘I’m gutted, there are some projects I would like to have still been involved in and seen through.

‘‘I somewhat feel bad about triggering a by-election because I genuinely believed I would  be able to keep doing what I was doing.’’

He admits he’s recently collapsed twice, once at home and once in Dunedin, which his 22-year-old daughter, Hannah — ‘‘who is really my reason for being here’’ — witnessed, however he says he only made his decision to resign during a very recent meeting with  mayor Jim Boult.

‘‘It’s a tough time for the town, it’s a tough time for the council.

‘‘I feel bad having left the team at such a time, but there’s a huge relief at the same  time.’’

Aside from council, MacDonald’s also quitting two cancer consumer groups, including a South Island group he chaired.

But he’s staying with the mental health group, which is finally now reviewing southern services, and a charitable trust he set up looking at providing a hub for local social services.

He says reaction to his resignation’s been ‘‘humbling, to say the least’’.

‘‘It’s really been awesome.’’