Deputy hopes to learn from the best

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PHOTO: LUISA GIRAO Invercargill Deputy Mayor Toni Biddle is aiming to make the council work in a better way.

WHEN Toni Biddle was a teenager she never imagined she would be involved in politics – never mind the fact she would become deputy mayor of Invercargill.

At this stage in her life, she only had two passions: music and swimming.

But it was at the same pool where she trained to become a champion Southland swimmer that she made her first contact with council.

When she was about 12 years old, she heard the pool she used to swim at had plans to close one of the swimmers’ lanes to give more space to the public.

She sent a letter to councillors asking them not to do that.

“I wrote ‘please, don’t close the pool. I want to be a famous swimmer one day’,” Cr Biddle laughs.

When she was not in the pool, she was singing, she said.

Born and raised in Invercargill, Mrs Biddle grew up with music in her home.

Her father was a singer and her uncle was a founder of a Southland country music association.

She started to make presentations and began touring with the trio Natani.

The stage was “her normal”.

“It was all I knew – and I think this enabled me to be confident with people. I don’t shy away.”

It would still take some years for her to use these skills on “another stage” – the council table.

Mrs Biddle travelled to Australia where she worked as a jillaroo mustering sheep on stations in the Australian outback.

When she returned to New Zealand, she worked for 11 years at the Ministry of Social Development.

It was there she noticed how a politician could make a difference.

“When we had a big change in government. Everything changed quite dramatically.

“I noticed politicians really have a influence in how things are implemented… I thought ‘if this is how you make changes, I want to do that’.”

Since then, she started to get more involved in politics and started to attend some council meetings.

The penny dropped when Mrs Biddle saw a councillor sleeping during a public submission.

“It is intimidating when you go there… You have 13 faces, plus staff and media. I remember it as if it was yesterday – I noticed some of them were having a nod off.

“I was furious.”

She said she would never name the person who was sleeping, but it was the impetus for her standing for council.

“We have people (the public) who desperately need us to be awake and proactive.”

She was elected with the third highest number of votes for council in 2016 and again this year.

Among all decisions and matters, the controversial Southland disAbilities Enterprises contract was the most challenging debate in her first term, she said.

“It was probably the first time that I noticed it became a personal issue for us. I think we all lost track of the bigger picture. I learned so much and I would hate to see that happening again.”

Announced as Invercargill deputy mayor this week, Mrs Biddle said one of her main goals was to make the council work in a better way.

Although Mrs Biddle had announced last year she would run for the mayoralty against Sir Tim Shadbolt, she said pulling out of the mayoralty race was the best thing she had ever done.

She doesn’t deny a future desire to be Invercargill’s mayor, but said for now she wanted to learn from the best.

“He is undoubtedly a man for the people. He is a really good listener and has a crazy schedule. I think this is one thing people failed to see… all the things he does that we don’t see him doing.”

Despite some criticism from fellow councillors, she said what Sir Tim needed was support.

“…from myself and whole council, we are ready for it.”

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