Former Prime Minister Jim Bolger accused of bias, being 'abrasive' at Kāpiti Coast meetings on managed retreat

But Bolger said claims he acted with bias were nonsense.
But Bolger said claims he acted with bias were nonsense. Photo credit: RNZ

By Kate Green for RNZ

A former prime minister has clashed with residents of a coastal community in a series of public meetings about managed retreat.

Kāpiti Coast residents have raised concerns about allegedly aggressive and bullying tactics by Jim Bolger, who has been tasked with leading community consultation on a council project to map coastal erosion and sea level rise.

Now, the Kāpiti Coast District Council has sent a letter to residents saying it has spoken to Bolger, and reminded him of the need to be impartial.

Bolger, prime minister from 1990 to 1997, was appointed by the council as chairperson of a 12-person panel tasked with community consultation on behalf of the council.

The Takutai Kāpiti project aims to map the effects of coastal erosion and sea level rise, which will affect where people can live, whether they can get insurance and how much their homes are worth.

The issue has received pushback for years, after the council tried to put erosion warnings on LIMs in 2012.

It was taken to court twice by affected residents, who said the science relied on estimates of sea level rise and coastal erosion that were far too extreme, and the information was misleading - and the courts sided with the council.

But a year later, an independent panel found the science was not robust enough after all, and the information was removed from LIMS.

Then in 2021 the council picked the issue back up, announcing a project to map the region and its hazards, which would affect where people can live, property values, amenities, and their ability to get insurance for their homes - in a nutshell, managed retreat.

Another scientific study was published in April last year, and the community advisory panel (known as the CAP) was set up to do community consultation, headed by Bolger, before the council made any decisions.

Locals told RNZ the community meeting in Raumati at the end of July was particularly fraught.

At one point, Bolger took to the microphone in an attempt to reassure the nearly 200 people in attendance that managed retreat would be the last option considered.

"It's not very complicated - why would we do otherwise? Forget whatever you've read, forget what conspiracy theory you've read," he said, to which the crowd erupted into a mixture of applause and groans.

"I'm sorry, I'm only telling you the truth."

But one local, Jonny Best, said the way Bolger had intervened went against the panel's purpose - to listen.

He said he had raised concerns with the council about Bolger's conduct more than a year ago, saying his manner in meetings even then was "abrasive" and "dismissive".

Best said residents already had little confidence in the council's process and this was not helping.

"If your community hasn't got confidence [in the process], well then they're not going to have confidence in the recommendations and the findings later on, either."

Another complaint was made to council by the Raumati Community Board, saying it was entirely within the scope of the process for people to voice even their most extreme views at these meetings, and some people felt shut down and intimidated.

The Raumati meeting was recorded on video, and at one point, it shows Bolger approaching a woman who was speaking, and she stopped and challenged him: "Are you trying to shut me down?"

The council responded to those who laid complaints by way of a generic letter, signed by Mayor Janet Holborow and council chief executive Darren Edwards.

"Thank you for raising your concern in relation to the recent Coastal Advisory Panel (CAP) workshop held at the Raumati Bowling Club," it began.

And further down: "Whilst these discussions can be extremely challenging with varying views and opinions it's important that we maintain a high level of respect allowing for open and honest debate.

"We have met with the chair and reminded him of the need to remain neutral."

Residents said this was as good as an admission that neutrality had been lost, and one told RNZ the council should replace Bolger as chairperson.

Holborow said in a statement that conversations about managed retreat were challenging, but necessary, and it was important to maintain constructive and respectful channels of communication.

Bolger blames social media for pushback

But Bolger said claims he acted with bias were nonsense, and as a Kāpiti resident himself, when it came to managed retreat he believed in the science.

"The role [of the panel] is to advise the council in due course, early next year," he said. "And we're listening to people, that's why we're going round. Some people get excited. That's not the first time I've had audiences get excited."

Pushback on the issue of managed retreat was nothing new.

"There were certainly many who wanted to speak, but we knew it was going to be [like that] because people were listening to the social media, and the social media got themselves all very excited long before we got there."

And with more public meetings yet to be scheduled, disagreements around the process, the science, and about managed retreat itself may persist.