There are no incumbents in the south Auckland seat of Takanini, for this is a completely new electorate. Justin Latif goes to meet some of the voters, and the fascinating bunch desperate for their support.
The name of New Zealand’s newest electorate can be traced back to a prominent Te Ākitai Waiohua chief of the 19th century, Ihaka Takaanini.
A significant landholder and powerful leader in South Auckland during the 1850s and 60s, he held the important role of land assessor for the Crown. His story ended in tragedy, however, as he was falsely accused of inciting an invasion of Auckland, which was proven to be completely incorrect. Stripped of his roles and land holdings he was imprisoned without trial, along with his wife, elderly father, and three children. He would eventually die on Rakino Island in the Hauraki Gulf, never to see his home again.
The shape of the seat
Few may know of Ihaka’s plight, but the electorate which bears his name is still a region of many contesting interests. The new seat encompasses Wattle Downs and the suburb of Takanini at the southern end, and stretches through Manurewa to Flat Bush in the north-east.
The area is both ethnically diverse and economically disparate, with large pockets of wealth and poverty throughout. Demographically, there are large Māori and Pacific communities within the western, Manurewa side of the electorate, while there are large Pakeha and Asian populations in the south and east of the electorate. It’s also expected for the population to grow by 8% in the next few years, as large tracts of farmland are slowly converted into suburbia.
Given its diverse makeup, it is not easy to know which way it could go on election day, but Professor Andrew Geddis has noted that it could be seen as National’s to lose, given it includes sections of the deeply blue constituencies of Port Waikato [formerly Hunua] and Judith Collins’ Papakura seat.
And what voters see as the key issues also vary widely.
For business owner Sarith Thong, who runs a cafe in the Takanini shopping district and lives in Flat Bush, law and order is at the forefront of his mind and of others he speaks to.
“People are concerned about crime and being safe – so that’s a priority [when it comes to choosing a party to vote on],” he said.
However, for Dave Tims who’s a resident and community pastor in Randwick Park, an area with a median income of $31,500, he’s worried about how his community is coping under the pressures brought on by Covid-19.
“The price of rentals is one issue, especially how damp rentals are,” he said. “I’m also quite concerned about the digital divide, that was really highlighted over the lockdown. So how do we boost our schools to get our kids ready for the digital future of work?”
Angie Finnigan is a primary school teacher who lives in The Gardens, Manurewa, a suburb with an average sales price of $1.18 million, and she says traffic congestion is her biggest concern.
“We would love to see more cycle paths, so there are more options for transport,” she said. “Congestion through the area is just insane, so that’s the biggest issue for me.”
Like the others The Spinoff spoke to, Finnigan knew little about those standing, other than that National’s candidate Rima Nakhle and her family put on an amazing Halloween display each year at their family home.
“Her brother in law dresses up as a knight each year and stands at the end of their driveway, with a sword. He gets the children to do challenges to get in. The kids love it – it’s just the best thing.”
And the Nakhles aren’t just known for their Halloween costumes. The family moved from Lebanon to New Zealand in the late 1960s and now own a number of prominent businesses in South Auckland and are also generous philanthropists.
Rima Nakhle, who moved to New Zealand from Australia in 2012, following her marriage to Roger Nakhle, says running for this seat is driven by her own passion for the area.
“I like to carve out my own way,” she said. “I just love to serve and that’s what pushed me to go for this.”
Her current role typifies this call to service, as she helps run a transitional and emergency housing service called Te Mahia Community Village, for the homeless or those struggling for accommodation due to something like a family break-up or a sudden loss of income.
People from all walks of life stay at the village, but regardless of what background people have – the key is to treat everyone the same, she said.
“I’m a person with a deep well of compassion, and so I try and see the good in everyone, I’m not going to judge them, so when you come into the village, just follow the rules, be respectful of each other, and let us know if we can help if you’ve gone through a challenging time.”
But don’t confuse her compassion for sentimentality. Crime, she stressed, is something she will address if elected.
“I’ve spoken to many residents who have had their homes broken into. It’s not fair and it’s particularly not fair that we have repeat offenders not being made accountable.”
Tackling crime is definitely an issue Elliot Ikilei, the New Conservatives’ deputy leader, will be running on.
Ikilei, who stood for Manurewa in 2017, has worked as a youth worker in the area for 12 years and believes the best way to solve issues like crime starts with helping families stay together.
“The main thing behind criminal activity and the joining of gangs is not education, race or income, but the situation in the home, from when a child is zero to three-years-old. So that’s where we want to focus our resources and our party wants to focus on policies that make it easier for families to stay together,” he said.
Another major policy plank for his party is to tackle race relations. Ikilei is of Māori, Pakeha, Niuean, and Tongan descent and he says his major concern in New Zealand is the fermenting of racial division.
“What the current government has done for race relations is terrible. I think we are worse for it,” he said.
There had been a “strengthening of separatism”, he said, from the response to Ihumātao, where no formal agreement or resolution has been announced by the government, and the strengthening of the Tūpuna Maunga Authority, a council-body established during the previous government’s term.
“We believe in equality – you should be supported by the state, based on your need, not your skin colour. Basically if you want to destroy the Māori family, you do what we’re doing now, which is by expanding the welfare state and by giving extra rights and privileges [to Māori].”
George Ngatai is Vision New Zealand’s Takanini candidate and his party shares many values and policies with the New Conservatives.
However Ngatai, who runs a medical practice right on the border of the electorate, disagrees with Ikilei on race relations and says valuing our bi-cultural relationship is actually good for the country, and can help improve racial unity.
“The Treaty of Waitangi is our foundational document, and it benefits both Māori and non-Māori. What we need to do is educate people around that, rather than allow it to split our nation,” he said.
“The bi-cultural relationship actually protects us as a country and it’s actually the bi-cultural process that can help us address these things appropriately.”
Ngatai, who’s a former National Party member, was asked to stand for the party by Hannah Tamaki, who he knows through attending Destiny Church. He says his party’s key message is that we need to be supporting people through this time in ways that put a greater emphasis on hand-ups, not handouts.
“I don’t support unemployment benefits and that’s something we need to have a strong discussion about. That is going to be something that’s good for not only Māori but New Zealand as well.”
Like Ikilei and Ngatai, Labour’s candidate, Anae Dr Neru Leavasa, describes himself as a social conservative with a Christian faith background. However, that’s where the similarities end.
Leavasa said given the fast-growing nature of the area and from what he’s heard when talking to voters is that housing and immigration are the main issues concerning people.
He would like to see the government build more housing, both social and Kiwibuild houses, to accommodate Takanini’s growing population and to also reduce the health risks that occur when there is overcrowding. “I’ve been a South Auckland doctor for 12 years now, and I’ve always thought there is more to do outside of the clinic in terms of health and wellbeing. The areas of housing, poverty and education are where I want to influence things.”
Leavasa, who works at a medical practice on Hill Road, Manurewa, was motivated to become a doctor after battling cancer through his teens.
“I was given a 20% chance of survival, but I thought I’d take my chances, and apply for medical school. And I guess it was just something that took my mind off the cancer treatment.”
He is going to apply that same never-give-up attitude to the campaign. “I’m just going to try and get my face and name out there and do lots of door-knocking,” he said. “I will work hard. I”m quite passionate about the community and I’m ready to go. We need the right candidate at the right time.”
The prize for whichever candidate emerges victorious in September will not just be representing a part of the country that epitomises so much of modern New Zealand, but also, alongside Ihaka Takaanini, a place in the history books, as the first person to take the seat that carries his name.