Sunday, 19 September 2010

‘Pass with care’ – A short photo essay on the imagery of local body elections

By Grant Brookes

It could be Anytown. NZ. For the last month, the city’s been awash with billboards of politicians and would-be politicians. Median strips, grass verges and traffic islands are a sea of wooden frames and images.

They all look the same. Smiling photos of men wearing ties. Women in expensive outfits. “Vote Jim for experience”, “vote Jane for change”.

The same handful of words combine into slightly different slogans – “caring for”, “listening to”, “working had for”, “you”, “the community”. But the faces tell the real story. It’s all about “me”, the candidate. Me, me, me.

‘Visual pollution’

I’ve door-knocked along this stretch of road at election time. I found locals were angry. As one man told me on the doorstep, they come into our neighbourhood and put up their signs without asking us. “It’s visual pollution”, he said, bitterly.

The business politicians have got the money to do it and the law on their side. They don’t need to ask. The people who say they “care” and “listen” are really invaders. An occupying army, marching in columns one in front of the other, who impose themselves on the locals and put their stamp all over the land.


But this is not Anytown. It’s Lower Hutt, home to a new grassroots coalition called VAN – Valley Action Network. In case you hadn’t guessed, that’s the group I belong to.

We’re not politicians. We’re trade unionists, environmentalists and community activists. We decided early on that although we were standing for election, we weren’t going to start acting like  politicians. We resolved in 2007 that our billboards would only go on up on fences, where people told us they wanted them. And they wouldn’t even have a picture of the candidate. Our billboards were not about personalities. They were about the issues facing grassroots Hutt residents.

Staring back

“We don’t really notice them”. That's what a person in this house told me, when I asked her what she thought of all the billboards on the council land opposite her house, in the background. Two doors down, another person told me exactly the same thing.

Political scientists spend whole careers puzzling over dwindling voter participation rates in elections. But there’s no puzzle. The billboards of the politicians aren’t saying anything meaningful to the residents of this suburb, which ranks with the “most deprived” in the country according the Ministry of Health. The residents know they’re being sold lies. Switching off is a healthy option.

But these people chose another healthy option. Staring back from their fence are VAN billboards, with loud messages for the “caring”, “listening” “hardworking” Hutt City Councillors on the grass behind.

They still can’t get it right

Driving round Lower Hutt this month, there do appear to be a few more billboards on fences. “Do you think they’re learning from us?”, another VAN activist asked me.

I think they did notice the impact of our 2007 billboard campaign, when it was obvious that we were the ones with roots in the community, we were the ones who respected the local people enough to ask their permission to put up billboards.

But this is what happens when it’s the landlord – not the tenant – who’s in charge of what goes on the fence.

“For sale”, says the sign. Alongside, current and former figures from the National Party, the conservative Christian wing of United Future and the Labour Party rub shoulders. Their fence billboards usually sit on the side of commercial buildings, vacant properties, and large blocks of flats (as in this photo). Speaks volumes. Fake community roots.

‘Pass with care’

This is my favourite image of all. Staring back at the flashly-dressed councillors in the background is another message on a fence. To begin with, the Samoan family in the house weren’t going to let us put a billboard up. “I used to do it for the Alliance Party”, said the matriarch of the house. “But this lot”, she said, waving towards the ones over the road, “I have nothing to do with any of them”.

But for me it’s the traffic sign on the back of the parked truck, and the pointing arrow, that tops the image off. “Pass with care”, indeed.

Door-knocking just down the road, I came across another response to the billboards.

“They're just more people I don’t know”, said one woman. “They could be another David Garrett”, she added, referring to the disgraced and disgraceful ACT MP.

Funny she mentioned that. Did she know, I asked her, that the man in the yellow billboard (a current councillor) was a leading light in the ACT Party? The architect of their Treaty Policy, in fact.

Of course she didn’t know that. How could she know that our council is stuffed with ACT and National Party hacks, lawyers, accountants, real estate agents and business lobbyists, or that many of the challengers are local figures in the Labour Party? The billboards tell us nothing at all about what they really stand for.

I liked the “pass with care” image so much, I took another one.

For more info on VAN – Valley Action Network, visit:

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