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Emergency expert: Labour Party candidate for Southland Jon Mitchell

By GUY WILLIAMS

Jon Mitchell is that rare thing in Queenstown these days — a bona fide local.

The Labour Party candidate for Southland was born in the former maternity hospital in Sydney Street, and spent his early childhood in an old bungalow on a site now occupied by Fergbaker and Hallensteins.

From there he attended Queenstown Primary, then Glenorchy School when his family
moved to the head of the lake, before going to the former Queenstown District High School.

The 56-year-old emergency management expert is deputy director of Response and Recovery Aotearoa New Zealand, a Wellington-based consortium of universities, Ngai Tahu, resilience organisations and emergency management experts that delivers disaster response and recovery leadership programmes for the government.

Although he and emergency nurse wife Mary are based in the capital, they’re building a new home on a lifestyle block near Garston.

He’s lived in Queenstown off and on over the years, including working part-time for the council as its emergency manager from 2012 to 2015.

It was during that stint, in 2013, that he had an unsuccessful crack at the Dunstan ward in the Otago Regional Council elections.

A geography and planning grad from Otago University, Mitchell’s had a varied working life, not only in New Zealand but with stints in the United States and the UK.

His jobs have included skifield management, Customs, hiking guiding, lecturing and policy
analysis and planning, but he says he increasingly gravitated towards and specialised in emergency management.

He’s been at the pointy end of planning for and responding to some of NZ’s biggest actual or potential hazards, including national pandemic planning and the Canterbury earthquakes response.

Mitchell, who describes himself as a collaborator who can network and ‘‘join people up’’ to reach the best possible result, is backing himself to wrest Southland from the National Party’s clutches.

Once the fiefdom of former Prime Minister Sir Bill English, it was won by Hamish Walker in
2017 with nearly 60% of the vote.

But Mitchell reckons the extraordinary events of the past few months could swing it from blue to red.

‘‘Six months ago, everyone would’ve agreed this was a safe National seat.

‘‘But given the changes we’ve had since then . . . particularly how the government’s led the response so successfully to Covid and the support this area’s received through that … that’s changed people’s view of the role of government.

‘‘They’re starting to ask questions about, ‘should we keep voting the way we have in the
past?’

‘‘It’s significantly more likely there’ll be a Labour MP in this electorate after the election.’’

Will the well-publicised scandals that torpedoed the careers of Walker and his predecessor Todd Barclay prompt dyed-in-the-wool National supporters to defect to Labour this time around?

He’ll only say the electorate needs ‘‘effective and stable representation by someone who
understands how Wellington works’’.

‘‘They haven’t had that, and I think so far there’s only one candidate who offers that.’’

As for Walker’s and Barclay’s misdemeanours, Mitchell says he’s worked closely with politicians of all stripes for nearly 30 years.

During that time he’s seen ‘‘really exemplary’’ and ‘‘really disappointing’’ behaviour.

‘‘The community should hold us to high standards in everything we do.

‘‘There’s a lot of pressure in the role, so I think it needs people with experience and maturity, and a focus on doing the right thing for the right reasons.’’

A member of the Labour Party since 1984, he says the most important thing is that it remains in government.

But he wants to win the seat to ensure it’s strongly represented at a critical juncture in the region’s history.

A major issue is its international tourism centres of Queenstown, Milford and Te Anau are
currently reeling with the impact of closed borders.

There are also questions over how to fill the economic void caused by the eventual closure of the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter.

He says there are two issues he’ll be pushing most strongly in his campaign: economic diver-sification, and improving the region’s health services, particularly mental health and maternity services.

guy.williams@scene.co.nz