Annette Main became the mayor of Whanganui in 2010, following a long career in tourism and a stint on the Manawatu-Wanganui Regional Council. She is retiring from local government after the 2016 local body elections
1. Where did your career path begin?
“I started teacher training at 17, but I gave it up but I gave it up when I married and had a baby at 19 because that’s what happened back then. I wasn’t involved in the fulltime workforce for quite a while, until I moved to Wellington from Whanganui in the early 1980s. I started working for New Zealand Post in their public relations department and that was my first fulltime job, when I was in my 30s.
“I moved back to Whanganui to be with my family and I started working for the council as a tourism officer. I had a few tourism-related roles, then I went into business with my parents.
“About 25 years ago I bought a very remote rural property on the Whanganui River. I built it up into a tourism business and it became very well-known as an unusual place to stay.”
2. What prompted you to get involved with local government?
“About 18 years ago, after I had been living rurally for a few years, I realised there was no one on the Manawatu-Wanganui Regional Council who represented iwi or people who cared about the environment. The Whanganui River wasn’t featured strongly in regional council policies then, most of their work was on flood protection. I stood and got on, and I was there for 12 years. I chaired the environment committee and was also deputy chair for a while.
“I absolutely enjoyed those years on the regional council and it wasn’t until six years ago that I decided to stand for mayor of Whanganui. I was unhappy with the way the town’s reputation had deteriorated, and the way our relationships with partners had broken down. I wanted to see that turned around.”
3. What’s kept you involved?
“Just before the last election my husband died really suddenly of an aneurysm and that rocked everything for a while. I made the decision to continue to stand because the very reason that Whanganui’s relationships had broken down was still there.
“Since then I’ve focused on rebuilding relationships with the community and partner organisations, and on building our reputation and economy. That’s not completed, but it’s well on the way so I feel ok about leaving at this time. I’m 65, I think things are on a good path, and it’s time for a young person to get involved.”
4. What have you learned from being part of local government?
“I learned that I have skills that I never realised I had. I’m able to handle difficult public situations, I’m able to stay calm and I’m able to get a sensitive message across to people who are taking very negative positions. I’m also much better at standing up in front of people and answering questions.
“One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that people respond positively if they are hearing positive things about their community. I’ve also learned a huge amount in terms of digital technology. I’ve learned what a council is to a community and how it needs to work in partnership with other groups to make progress.”
5. What advice do you have for women considering local government roles?
“Go for it. It’s really rewarding to know you’ve made a difference and all the life experience you have is very valuable around the council table. People will tell you that a council is just a big business, but it’s a business with different values. The decisions are not just about money, they’re about people. That’s why women excel in local government, they understand the community they live in.
“However, women still seem to have the main responsibilities for keeping their families running, whether they’ve got children or not, so they need to look at how they can manage a public-facing role on top of these other commitments. If you’ve got a partner, make sure they’re supportive. If you don’t have a partner, make sure you have other people around you who can support you.”
6. What’s the worst thing that’s happened to you at work, and how did you deal with it?
“It was three years ago, when Whanganui’s wastewater plant failed in the middle of summer. There was just me and a new infrastructure manager, everyone else was on holiday. The smell was everywhere. We had the former mayor talking about ‘Ponganui’ in the media while we were trying to rebuild Whanganui’s reputation. I had to be the public face of it to the local and national press and I had to keep putting out some consistent messages while knowing we weren’t going to be able to fix it any time soon. I don’t know how we got through it now, it was all-encompassing. It was such a difficult time, I think I’ve blanked a lot of it out.”
7. Who’s a woman you admire?
“Tariana Turia is a woman of absolute principle who has never wavered from what she wanted to achieve for her people. She’s made hard decisions when she’s needed to and she’s stuck to her principles in the face of huge opposition. If I could stick to my principles as strongly as she has, I would be very proud of myself.”
8. What are the biggest challenges facing women today?
“I don’t think men and women are as equal as we should be. I know it’s extremely difficult for women to get into senior positions. Women are still being paid less than men and we still have to fight for what we’re worth.
“I still believe there is a lot of sexism. I haven’t been subjected to it in an obvious way, but I know it’s there. I know that as a woman mayor I am subjected to a lot more scrutiny and rumour than my male predecessors.”
9. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
“To listen to what someone is saying and not let your mind wander to the answer you’re going to give them before they’ve finished speaking. That came from a very old book my father gave me about managing meetings when I was in my role as a public relations manager.
“In the past I’d been anxious about getting my view in, but once I started thinking about that advice, I started watching people more. That’s when I realised what good advice it was. You see them getting ready to jump in when you’re speaking, so you learn not to pause so they don’t get the chance.
10. How do you want to be remembered?
“As a person that brought our people back together. If that’s how people think of me, I will be very happy. I’m also very proud of being mayor at a time when we turned our economy around.”