For Rotorua Mayor Steve Chadwick, local government is just the latest chapter in a life built around making things happen.
WORDS ANDY TAYLOR IMAGES BRYDIE THOMPSON
First off, what’s in a name? Given her public profile and her extensive career in politics, it’s hard to imagine that anyone meets the Mayor of Rotorua without being previously aware of her; but someone new to these shores might find Steve Chadwick to be not quite what they were expecting. Let’s face it, Steve is a pretty blokey kind of name, and though she is down to earth, humble and devoid of all pretention, blokey is something Steve Chadwick most certainly ain’t.
“It’s actually Stephanie, but Steve stuck from a very early age, and after that I was only ever Stephanie when I was in trouble,” she says with the tone of someone who has had to explain this a million times but is quite happily resigned to her fate. “And yes, there are a few people who come expecting a male and look a bit shocked, and I’m sorry if that disappoints — but there’s not much I can do about it,” she adds with a grin of genuine mischief, and it is clear that confounding expectations and then outperforming them are part and parcel of the ball of energy that is The Honourable Stephanie (Steve) Chadwick.
Originally from Hastings, she is probably best known for her time in Parliament, where she served as Minister of Conservation, Women’s Affairs, and Associate Health between 1999 and 2011, and then as the Mayor of Rotorua, a role she has held since 2013. But her story is far more multi-layered than that.
“I grew up the youngest of six children,” she says, “and so constantly had to speak louder to have my opinion heard.” Those siblings included artist Dick Frizzell among other very talented individuals, so this was a family heaving with strong characters and stronger views.
Her first calling in life was as a midwife. “I was always a bit of a health activist, and I was drawn to birthing as it was a natural process and I was involved with a group of quite radical midwives. I ended up helping bring about 5,000 babies into this world, and I loved that role. I loved being a part of birthing as it is a profound and intimate profession, and I still meet some of the babies I delivered now. Though many are on to the next generation!”
Whether it is newborns, government policy or social welfare organisations, it could be said that bringing things to life is very much Steve Chadwick’s reason for being on the planet. She has been instrumental in setting up the Rotorua Women’s Refuge, Rotorua’s first Family Planning Clinic and School for Young Parents, as well as its first Kōhanga Reo, all entities that seem completely normal and entirely essential now but were reactionary in the 1970s. “My father was an engineer and my mother was an artist,” she says, “so there was both a very creative side to my growing up and a very functional side, a side about making things happen. But both my parents were always about thinking outside of the square — differently, but logically, because that was the artist and the engineer at work. Our family were a square peg in a round hole, and we realised we weren’t conservative, but that was just fine. It was a very creative and happy upbringing that meant I was allowed to reach my own conclusions and was never constrained.” Good luck to anyone who might try!
She met her husband, John Te Manihera Chadwick, in the late sixties, and together they embarked on a future that is virtually cinematic. First there was the big OE, with the first stop being Papua New Guinea, where she set up a birthing clinic, naturally. And then they went on to London where their home — replete with newborns of their own by that stage — became something of a drop-in centre for Kiwi expats on their London sojourns. It was a happy home for many years, until while watching the Commonwealth Games their son asked who the people performing a haka on TV were. “When I had to explain that they were Māori and that he was Māori and that his dad was Māori, we realised it was time to come home! Our children needed to grow up bicultural — and that was what brought us to Rotorua. Our journey ever since then has been one of biculturalism.”
After serving as a local councillor, national government beckoned with all the highs and lows that a career in the public gaze entails. “The low was definitely the death threats I got when I brought in the Smoke Free Environment Act. Having to be escorted by a police protection squad and realising that there were people out there that hated you and were unwell — and were following you — was very scary. And being accused of being one of Helen Clark’s ‘Femi-Nazis’ was also very personal, and frankly ridiculous. But the highs put all that in the shadow: passing the Smoke Free Act was great, and working on health issues throughout the Pacific was fantastic — that was right up my alley as an ex-midwife.”
The passing of husband John, who had become a much-loved and prominent lawyer, late in 2017 brought the year to a solemn close, but Steve has no intention of letting her personal loss get in the way of her public commitment. Far from it. Instead, 2018 will be a very big year for the Mayor and for Rotorua — because it is obvious from spending even a short time with her that Steve Chadwick and the Rotorua district are very much intertwined.
“One of our main objectives was to revitalise our inner city,” she says, clearly warming to the future and tired of discussing her past. “And we did that by having a councillor sit on a portfolio dedicated to inner city revitalisation and by getting all our retailers and CBD businesses to work with us. The inner city had over a hundred empty shops four years ago, but we’ve changed that and it has a completely different vibe now, and the development that is proposed for the lakefront is really going to be exciting and build on what we’ve put in place. The whole footprint will be completely different, there will be a conservation zone and it will incorporate the museum, but we are thinking it will be driven by a whole new entity rather than council. Sir Bob Harvey has agreed to help us with this so that is really exciting.”
“We were painted as a zombie town in 2013, but 2018 is going to show that we have invested in our city and we are really going places. The population is growing, we’re performing above the national average economically, and we also have the new Forest Service coming here — to its rightful heartland — so this is going to be a big year for Rotorua. Actually, I think it’s going to be a big year for all of New Zealand.”
You heard it here first folks. And she should know.