Tory Whanau wants to make an entrance. It’s 7pm and we’re in a crowded hotel room where she’s been getting ready for her 40th birthday, surrounded by close friends and empty champagne bottles.
The party officially started at 6.30pm, but she’s happy to make people wait a little. “I’ll come down at 7.30, just to be like, I’ve arrived,” she says, laughing. “I know I’m being a bit of a diva,” she adds. “I’m normally a humble person, but just for one night, I can be extra.”
Downstairs, people are being welcomed into central Wellington bar Lola Rouge with French 75s, a gin and bubbly concoction that tastes good enough to make you forget you’re drinking two in one.
Later, around 200 people will dance and drink and sing and take photos - political people like Green Party MPs Marama Davidson, Golriz Ghahraman and Julie Anne Genter, fashion people like Entire’s Sebastian Hunt, Yu Mei’s Jessie Wong and designer James Bush, and presumably a lot of other important Wellington people I don’t recognise.
But right now, Tory’s sitting across from me in a glossy black dress made specifically for the event (“I was like, ‘I want Met Gala! I want Oscars!’”), explaining that she’s wanted a big 40th since she was a kid.
“I always thought that, at 40, I hope I’m doing something important, and that I get to celebrate with my friends. And it’s just kind of like - it could not have been more perfect,” she says, adding, “I know there probably haven’t been many mayors who’ve had a massive 40th. And I’m like, why not?”
Tory is keen to reinvent our expectation of what mayors look like, which has traditionally been older, whiter and male. Tory, on the other hand, is the first Māori mayor of the capital city. She is one of the few vocally progressive mayors to be elected during the 2022 local elections (endorsed by the Green Party, though she ran for Mayor as an independent).
And she doesn’t mind people knowing she likes to party. “It is showing our rangatahi in particular, I’m normal, I’m a bit of a party girl, I’m single. I’m actually a divorcee,” she says with a smirk, “and it’s all good. If I can become mayor, you can become mayor.”
Partying is, after all, an extremely normal thing for young women to do, like breathing or telling a stranger in the bathroom to dump him. Unfortunately, there are a lot of punishers who take offence to women with important jobs having fun. Last year, Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin was subject to simultaneously baffling and predictable outcry when videos of her dancing and singing with friends in front of an iPhone surfaced online.
The criticism was “totally misogynistic,” says Tory. I’d argue it also fails to acknowledge the need for more politicians who, I don’t know, have a life. In theory, politicians represent us, and a lot of us are partial to occasionally getting boozed and flailing our limbs to loud music on a Saturday night. Perhaps if more mayors understood the liberating, community-engendering power of actually having fun, they’d do something about all our venues being forced to close - or at least stop the ones we do have getting noise-controlled by people who bought a city apartment coming to the shocking realisation that music makes noise. Perhaps we wouldn't have the leader of Aotearoa’s largest city trying to decimate culture by wiping $36.5 million off the arts budget. Perhaps!
That said, it’s hard getting people to care about local government. "It’s probably not regarded as very ‘cool’, or a cool career path,” Tory says. It’s also not something most of Aotearoa seems to really engage with. Voter turnout at local elections has been on the decline over the past couple of decades, and at last year’s local body elections, less than half of our population voted. So how do you get people to care?
Rehauling the voting system is a start, Tory says - right now it’s a fairly lengthy process involving a postbox. So is having elected members that come across more human than cyborg. “We need to make local body politicians a bit more relatable,” Tory says. “It’s all about representation. Why would we want a weird robot representing us? We don’t.”
If this ‘summer’ has shown us anything, it’s that strong community leadership is crucial in a crisis. And we’re facing a few of them. “We’re going to go through some really hard times through the next few years,” she says of issues like the cost of living crisis, the climate crisis and the housing crisis. “And I just think women are so well-positioned to take communities through that.”
That’s why Tory has plans to launch a network that supports and encourages young women into politics, both at a central and local level. A big part of this is making them feel safe in what can be an incredibly hostile environment. “We betrayed the Prime Minister,” Tory says of Jacinda Ardern and the misogyny she faced, particularly at the end of her run.
As someone who experienced similar early popularity (Tory received more than double the votes of the candidate who came in second), did it scare Tory to witness such a swift public U-turn? “No, it makes me angry. So angry. Because what it represents is this misogyny, and sexism, and racism that still exists in our society. And it’s kind of like, if a group of us don’t push up against it, it’s going to continue to persist. What I worry about is that it impacts our younger ones. That’s what scares me,” she says. “Sometimes it hurts my feelings, it definitely does, I’m not going to lie about that. But it doesn’t scare me.”
It’s this new guard of leaders, people of Tory’s generation and younger, that gives her hope. What she loves most is that they genuinely care about things like housing, the climate, compassion and equality. “What I want us to do is actually link up and create transformative change,” she says. “And as part of that, let’s actually have a good time. Have a party. It’s all good.” And with those words, she heads downstairs to do exactly that.