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Being mayor, doing that…

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Watching you: National’s Christopher Luxon, then Leader of the Opposition, and Taupō MP Louise Upston will have to wait a bit longer before Susan O’Regan joins them in Wellington. Photo: Mary Anne Gill.

Plenty of people are prepared to put a wager on Waipā mayor Susan O’Regan becoming a National Party member of Parliament.

But right now it would be a tough ask prising her out of the job she describes as the best she has ever had.

Katherine O’Regan

Politics pores through her veins – her mother Katherine O’Regan was the first woman elected on the Waipā County Council and was then an MP from 1984 to 1999; serving as a minister in various portfolios during the fourth National government.

When she died of breast cancer in 2018 – diagnosed through the free screening programme she helped set up as Associate Health minister – Susan was in her first term as a Waipā district councillor.

Two years earlier she turned down the opportunity to become the National Party MP in Taranaki-King Country because she was pregnant with son Jack.

The 51-year-old is Waipā’s first female mayor.

O’Regan recently reflected on her first 12 months as mayor before heading off to Le Quesnoy in France to represent Waipā at the opening of Te Arawhata – New Zealand Liberation Museum followed by her first break in a year.

Waipa mayor Susan O’Regan, Cambridge Community Board chair Jo Davies-Colley and Le Quesnoy mayor Marie Sophie Lesne with the poppy bowl gifted to the Te Arawhata – New Zealand Liberation Museum from Cambridge, New Zealand.

Cambridge, Waipā’s largest town, and Le Quesnoy are sister cities and in 2018 Waipā controversially donated $150,000 towards the museum’s establishment.

O’Regan abstained early on from voting on moral grounds saying she would have preferred to see that money go on a museum of relevance for Waipā ratepayers – one which would acknowledge the New Zealand Land Wars impact on the district.

“I always had a little bit of reservation in my mind because there were our own histories here which needed attention.

“But this is a crucial piece of telling New Zealand history in an area where there is a paucity of New Zealand stories.

“It’s such a great story and the connection Cambridge has to Le Quesnoy and the town has with New Zealand means it is an important story to tell.”

When O’Regan stood for the mayoralty last year, her biggest task was getting to know what the issues were in Cambridge.

Susan O’Regan and husband John Hayward on their Judge Road dairy farm. Photo: Mary Anne Gill.

She is closely aligned with Te Awamutu. The Judge Road 240ha dairy farm she and husband John Hayward have is closer to Te Awamutu than Cambridge – the town is where she and her family play sport and gravitate to – plus she had been a practising barrister in Te Awamutu specialising in family law.

So, she worked Cambridge hard and secured the business community’s support at the Chamber of Commerce’s Town Hall meeting. She romped home campaigning on “A Time for Change” against incumbent Jim Mylchreest and newcomer Chris Woodhams, a brash businessperson who lost crucial support when he said Cambridge businesses had nothing to offer by way of employment opportunities.

As Waipā’s first female mayor, she joined other Waikato women in politics with two National Party MPs Louise Upston (Taupō) and Barbara Kuriger (Taranaki-King Country) and Labour’s Nanaia Mahuta, whose Hauraki Waikato seat was won at the election by Te Pāti Māori’s Hana Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke.

Women in charge: A zone two meeting at Lake Karāpiro brought together some of Waikato’s female leaders, from left: Pamela Storey (Waikato Regional chair), Adrienne Wilcock (Matamata-Piako), Susan O’Regan (Waipā), Paula Southgate, Angela O’Leary (both Hamilton) and Liz Stolwyk (Waipā). Photo: Mary Anne Gill.

There are four Waikato women mayors: O’Regan, Jacqui Church (Waikato), Paula Southgate (Hamilton) and Adrienne Wilcock (Matamata-Piako).

Plus, there are three women deputy mayors – Angela O’Leary (Hamilton), Liz Stolwyk (Waipā) and Carolyn Eyre (Waikato) and rounding out the female influence is Waikato regional council chair Pamela Storey.

O’Regan threw herself into the job which she describes as “full time and then some.”

Her conscience played havoc with her emotions and time in those earlier months. She now admits she did too much.

“It’s a female thing. If I’m not here, you are failing the people, and if you are here too much, you are failing the children, the husband, the farm.”

She feels she has the balance right now even tacking on some days away in Europe with her husband at their own cost.

“He’s never been to Europe, and I only had a fleeting visit 20 years ago.”

Swearing in: Susan O’Regan and husband John Hayward with their children, from left: Lily, George, Jack, Emily and Ben. Photo: Mary Anne Gill.

O’Regan is expecting a tough workload on her return, a reference to rising costs and rate increases or the three Is – inflation, interest and insurance.

“The very obvious elephant in the room is that very strong headwinds in the financial space. I can’t emphasise enough the challenges we will have.”

In that respect Waipā is not alone among Waikato councils but she rules out any thoughts of a Super Waikato City including neighbours like Hamilton and Waikato.

“We already have a high level of cooperation and there are a lot of (other) ways to collaborate.”

Collaborations, shared services, deals with neighbours – that is the way to do it, she says.

“I see we (already) have a high level of co-operation.”

There are two more years before another local body election – O’Regan is in the camp which thinks it should be four and not three years.

“We are making decisions that fit into a picture that lasts more than a three-year cycle.”

Decisions should be longer-term ones making elected officials better ancestors.

She wants to keep focused on the end goals.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon once gave her some advice – ‘write your last report or letter now and when you do decide to leave or are pushed out, you better hope that what you said at the beginning has come to fruition’.

The fact she references Luxon is a nod to O’Regan’s continued interest in national politics but for now she loves being mayor more.

“It’s been really fun. It’s such a privilege, a huge privilege, it’s the best job I’ve ever had. It just plays to all of the parts about me as a person.

“I just love this district. The more time I spend out of the district, at mayoral things and local government things, I realise how fortunate we are.”

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Mary Anne Gill

Putāruru-born Mary Anne Gill is one of Waikato’s most experienced communications and public relations practitioners. She has won several national writing gongs including three times at the Qantas and twice at the Voyager media awards.

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