2 Oct 2022

The woman behind 'Refreshing Local Democracy'

8:52 pm on 2 October 2022
Postal voting in local body elections.

Refreshing Local Democracy has its origins in the anti-vaccine mandate movement. Photo: RNZ / Eveline Harvey

In this year's local elections six candidates are carrying the affiliation of Refreshing Local Democracy.

But who and what is Refreshing Local Democracy, and what do the candidates stand for?

Refreshing Local Democracy has its origins in the anti-vaccine mandate movement.

Seven-term Carterton district councillor Jill Greathead is one of six candidates carrying the Refreshing Local Democracy affiliation into the 8 October election.

She told RNZ she ran a training programme for new local body hopefuls.

She saw "Refreshing Local Democracy" as simply a slogan and one she told others on the programme to use as their affiliation if they wished.

"This is a training programme - this is not a group," she said.

"It finished on the 14th of July."

Greathead said there were three men also involved in the organising of the programme, though she would not disclose who they were.

The origins of the group lay in her publicly admitting she was not getting vaccinated against Covid-19 last year and then through connections established during the occupation of parliament in February and March, Greathead said.

Jill Greathead

Jill Greathead has been a councillor for 21 years and is running again with Refreshing Local Democracy. Photo: Carterton District Council

A Voices For Freedom Wellington channel shared details of a meeting involving Greathead and another woman named Helga in April.

"We hope you had a restful Easter and Anzac break. Our next Refresh Local Democracy meeting will be held this Sunday, 01 May 2022.

"We are excited to say that our Wellington-region-wide initiative is gaining traction and generating interest."

Greathead said she had been present at the parliament protest for five days.

"There were thousands of people at the protest. I met someone who knew someone who knew someone, and they were very keen to get elected members - meet elected members, because everyone of course was undergoing these crazy, crazy mandates. We couldn't go anywhere. I couldn't even go into my own council chambers that I had been in for the last 21 years for four months and no one said anything to me. It was absolutely shocking.

"People were pretty pissed off about not being able to go to libraries, swimming pools and council chambers."

Helga had stepped back from the group and an online training programme followed.

But Greathead rejected any assertion the Refreshing Local Democracy affiliation had its origins in the parliament protest, saying people who were vaccinated had also been involved in the training programme and one of the four organisers was "fully vaccinated".

While six people were carrying the affiliation into the election, up to 100 other hopefuls had been involved in the programme, Greathead said.

"Possibly, I don't know. I haven't done the stats. I haven't had time to do the stats."

Chris Romero, described as a spokesperson for Refreshing Local Democracy, spoke at a number of anti-Three Waters reform meetings across the country earlier this year.

Romero was also interviewed by Voices For Freedom head of national operations Tane Webster at one such meeting.

"It's a real united front and the common enemy - if we can use that language - the common opponent is this current government," Romero told Webster.

Romero was not standing for an elected position and Greathead said she had never met him and did not know how he came to be involved in the group.

When asked about her affiliations to other groups involved in such meetings, Greathead said she paid an annual donation to right-wing lobby group New Zealand Taxpayers' Union and had occasionally paid additional donations for particular campaigns run by the group.

She had also donated once to Voices For Freedom, but not to Groundswell.

Also carrying the Refreshing Local Democracy affiliation were Dot Watson and Roger Earp (Tararua District Council), Fiona Underwood (Manawatū District Council), Jaap Knegtmans (Upper Hutt City Council), and Michael Clarkson (Timaru District Council).

Earp stood for the New Conservatives in the 2020 election and attended the parliament protest earlier this year.

He said the group aligned with what he stood for.

Knegtmans also attended the protest.

Watson said she discovered the group through Telegram, but did not wish to discuss the matter further.

Clarkson said he also found the group through Telegram, during the period of the vaccine mandates.

"It was quite good to sit down and talk to people on anything and everything because with the isolation you could go a bit stir-crazy," he said.

It was a supportive group for those standing for the elections for the first time, Clarkson said.

RNZ was unable to contact Underwood.

Those who spoke to RNZ on the subjects said they were against the proposed Three Waters reform and the Covid-19 vaccine mandates, but Greathead said there was no policy platform unifying those on the training programme and people holding a diverse set of views and values had taken part in it.

While discussing why the group had been signal boosted by Voices For Freedom, Greathead said there was no link between the programme and the antivax group.

She called the idea Voices For Freedom would take over local bodies and make them ungovernable "stupid".

"They don't have the skills. They don't have the experience. I'm happy if a couple come in with the right kind of experience. There's a couple who . . . made fabulous candidates and if elected will make fantastic councillors."