Wellington’s Mayor Justin Lester is something different in politics, a typical Kiwi lad who enjoys football, beer and banter mixed with a shrewd politician that has one focus – making Wellington an even better place to live for all.
Justin Lester is a man on the up in Wellington. Since being elected our Mayor in 2016, he’s been working with Wellingtonian’s to invigorate the Capital, adding his trademark enthusiasm to any situation.
We meet up on a grey day at his office, just off Civic Square and Justin greets me warmly. Later, we go to take photos and Justin takes great delight in pushing aside the barriers which restrict access to the area under the Library, walking past the big glass windows as Wellingtonians do a double take over their novels. You get the sense that despite being grown up, Justin is really still a mischievous school boy at heart (probably the one who’d always get out of trouble just at the last minute!).
"Being Mayor is no 9am to 5pm job, but Justin takes it all in his stride, including making time this week to check up on the progress at the Ngaio Gorge slip."
Despite his sense of humour, Justin takes a few things seriously. An avid cycler, it is immediately obvious that he’s passionate about family, work and his adopted city. Being Mayor is no 9am to 5pm job, but Justin takes it all in his stride, including making time this week to check up on the progress at the Ngaio Gorge slip. He’s active on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and attends thousands of events each year. A perfect candidate for Residents 101, I wanted to better understand what made our Mayor the man he is today, why he stood for council and why he decided to make Wellington his home.
HOW DID HE GET HERE?
Justin Lester was born in Blenheim but first lived in Ward before the family moved to the Deep South. “[In Ward] my mother and father bought a service station and tea rooms. In the late 70s, the Government had promised that a new ferry terminal would be created to go from Picton to Clifford Bay. This never eventuated so my first life lesson was never to plan any business venture around Government decisions.”
Justin’s parents broke up before he started school. His mother raised her two boys alone in Invercargill – an experience that shaped Justin’s political leanings and values. He went to school in South Invercargill at Elston Lea and then Tweesdsmuir Intermediate – neither of which survive to this day. “I joke about this to Trevor Mallard – but only half joking – that he closed my schools!” Justin says.
Justin went to Southland Boys High about 8km from where he lived, despite living next door to a much less academic high school. “A teacher told me I had to go to Southland Boys High School because I needed to go to university. So every day I cycled past the high school next door that all my friends went to,” Justin explains.
“Southland in the ‘80s was heavily influenced by rugby, racing and beer,”
In Southland at the time, most people’s parents worked at the smelting works, the freezing works or were on the dole because of freezing works closures. “Southland in the ‘80s was heavily influenced by rugby, racing and beer,” Justin says.
Justin’s mother was on a benefit so there was often not much money to go around. But that was never a hindrance for Justin who threw himself into every opportunity available. He played rugby league, football, badminton, tennis, softball, and cricket (“Still my life-long sporting love to this day”). “I was interested in drama and public speaking and got into theatre sports, debating and choir all the way through school. I also had an interest in languages and studied German, Japanese and Latin.”
WAS BEING IN POLITICS OR BEING MAYOR HIS DREAM?
Hardly, Justin says. “At a very young age, I thought I’d run a fish and chip shop because I liked eating them! Then I had a teacher who believed in me and encouraged me to aim to go to university. I was always competitive and that spurred me on" he says. "When I got to 7th form, I got an American Field Scholarship to Germany which changed everything. It was one of the first times I’d been out of the South Island, let alone New Zealand.”
He studied law and arts (German) at the University of Otago and then went on to do a Masters in Law in Germany, travelling over there with his then girlfriend, now wife, Liz. Eventually, Justin and Liz decided to come back home to New Zealand, settling in Wellington because of its cosmopolitan and multicultural vibe. “It was the only city which fitted the box. We both loved Wellington and it was really the only city we wanted to come back to.”
They started the healthy food business Kapai with a friend, having seen a gap in the market in Wellington for better lunch options. Justin also worked all the time, contracting in the public and private sectors for 8 years, running Kapai on the side. “I’ve always taken a multifaceted approach to my career to keep me interested.”
WHY DID HE GO FOR COUNCILLOR AND THEN MAYOR?
“Back in 1990, the then Government slashed the benefit to beneficiaries. Mum was sitting at the table in tears, because she was already struggling to make ends meet, through no fault of her own" he recalls. “I was 11 and I felt the changes were ignorant. I thought that politicians didn’t seem to understand the impact their decisions have on people at a real level. I decided at that point I wanted to change it and represent the interests of people who didn’t always have a voice,” Justin explains.
When Kapai took off, a 32-year-old Justin recalled his younger self. “I knew I wanted to help represent the community of those who weren’t well represented so I stood for council in 2010. I was appointed Deputy Mayor in 2013 and in 2016 decided to run – and I got in!” he says.
SOMETHING PEOPLE MIGHT NOT KNOW ABOUT WHAT IT'S LIKE BEING IN HIS ROLE?
Justin can get 30,000 invitations a year to events. “So even if I really want to attend an event I hope people aren’t offended if I can’t!” he says. His days are often tightly scheduled with back-to-back meetings. “Every day I love being at work, but it is incredibly busy and 7 days a week!”
“Stick to 3 points. If you speak for more than 3 to 5 minutes you’ll bore people!”
“One of the busiest jobs is being a parent. I’m very privileged to do the work I do, but I also have a more important responsibility to Liz and my 2 girls. Liz and I have to manage our time, as do all families, but we wouldn’t change it for the world. The family is everything at the end of the day and I make sure I always make time for my girls,” Justin says.
WHAT ARE HIS GOALS AS MAYOR?
From the horses mouth...
(1) Making housing affordable. “It is getting increasingly difficult. You need to first make sure there is enough social housing in our city.”
(2) Making Wellington a destination city to live. He also wants intelligent and entrepreneurial people who are looking to move to New Zealand to choose Wellington to live in.
(3) Improve transport, both public services and infrastructure, all around the city.
...AND TO RELAX?
All kinds of sport, Netflix, and read all get top billing for Justin. “We’ve been watching The Good Wife lately,” he says. “I also love The West Wing.’’
“I fell in love with Wellington the first time I set foot in the city. That will never change!” Justin smiles.