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Will Chlöe Swarbrick slow Labour’s roll in Maungakieikie?

It was another cold night in another cold community hall in Panmure and Chlöe Swarbrick was still grinning. Simon Wilson reports on Maungakiekie, the electorate that will show whether Labour really knows how to win.

There were no MPs in the room. That’s unusual in Auckland: with the party lists working the way they do, most of the city’s electorates have more than one MP. In nearby Mt Albert three sitting MPs are chasing the seat and in Epsom there are four.

Maungakiekie has none because the incumbent, National’s Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga, is retiring, and Labour’s Carol Beaumont, formerly a list MP, wasn’t high-enough ranked to make it back last time.

But former MPs, well, yes, there was a surfeit of them. Richard Northey, who had been the Mt Eden MP for Labour and then lost the Maungakiekie seat in 1996, despite winning the party vote: he was there. Northey is a member of the Waitematā Local Board these days, and still a deep party loyalist – if there’s a political meeting, he’ll be at it. Beaumont was also there: she’s a unionist who lasted for two terms on the list; now she was busy organising things in the room.

And there was Graeme Lee, the former cabinet minister in the Bolger government of the 1990s who broke away to found both the Christian Heritage and the Christian Democrat parties. Don’t ask: doctrinal disputes, or something. He seemed smaller than he used to be, as eventually happens to us all, and sat quietly. Lee was there because that’s his daughter up on the stage, doing her best to become Maungakiekie’s next National Party MP.

You may know Denise Lee as the two-term city councillor who distinguished herself last year by mounting a late attempt to block the Unitary Plan. Not the whole of it, just the bit that would allow more density in her Maungakiekie-Tāmaki ward. It was an oddly old-fashioned piece of nimbysism, because Panmure, in the heart of the electorate, has a shiny new transport hub surrounded by swathes of underdeveloped land. Exactly the kind of place that could be vastly improved by density-done-well, and exactly the kind of place in which Auckland needs to focus its growth.

Why did she bother? Quite possibly so she could stand up at general election meetings and say she tried to stop nasty town planners ruining the neighbourhood. Which is what she did that night. Denise Lee has always wanted to be an MP.

Greens candidate Chlöe Swarbrick had a go at her over the Unitary Plan. “There’s a moral panic around tower blocks,” she said. “But what we are talking about is three and four storey buildings.”

To her credit, Lee also said Panmure was a good place for more density, and when Labour candidate Priyanca Radhakrishnan attacked the Unitary Plan she came to its defence.

“There was a dire lack of consultation,” said Rahdakrishnan. “It was pushed through under pressure from the government and local communities were shut out.”

Lee said that was not so. “There were hundreds of thousands of submissions. It was an incredibly participatory process.”

She was upbeat throughout. Denise Lee projects a kind of no-nonsense breezy competence, which is more than can be said for a great many candidates this election.

Will she win? She has an odd political track record. In the council election last year she was the only successful candidate from Auckland Future, the National Party’s spectacularly ill-fated attempt to form a new, caucus-disciplined grouping. A dubious distinction, as it turned out.

Also, she has stood for Maungakiekie before: in 2008, when she represented United Future. Her political career is the neat inverse of her father’s: where he headed from the heart of the National Party mainstream to the fringe, she’s going the other way.

Members of the sceptical and well-informed voting public of Panmure. (Photo Simon Wilson)

By rights she shouldn’t have a hope in hell of winning, because Maungakiekie is a seat Labour should completely own. From Maungakiekie itself (One Tree Hill) and Onehunga it stretches east through Penrose, Mt Wellington and Panmure, to Pt England: it’s the least-wealthy isthmus electorate, full of renters and struggling families, and with Epsom and Tāmaki at its northern borders it rubs up against a couple of the most wealthy. Urban, ethnically mixed, full of bustling local communities, busy roads and a lot of problems.

Full of big plans, too. Maungakiekie will double in population in the next 15-20 years. It contains two of the largest development projects in the whole city: the East-West highway, which will be New Zealand’s most expensive road; and the Tāmaki Urban Regeneration programme, an enormous housing project that’s set to build new housing on some of the public parkland at Pt England. Both are extremely controversial. Tāmaki protesters and their placards line the walls at this Panmure meeting, as they have at many others. The crowd was sceptical of much of what they heard, and they knew their stuff.

The thing about Maungakiekie, though, is that while it looks like it should be a Labour stronghold, it isn’t. It’s the country’s ultimate swing seat: every MP since MMP began in 1996 has been a government MP and in every election since 1999 the party vote has also gone with the government. The vote in Maungakiekie mirrors the mood of the nation.

And it’s consistent, too: the party vote for the last three elections has been stuck. National has won 14,000 votes each time, Labour 12,000 and the Greens 3000. The electorate vote has been similar: 16,000 against 13,000 and 2000.

This time, Labour’s credibility is on the line. An urban seat full of struggling families, not poverty-stricken, on the whole, but struggling nonetheless; with giant disruptive infrastructure projects; facing a future in which the whole character of the place will probably change quite profoundly.

In a successful economy, Maungakiekie is the sort of place where first-home buyers should be able to get a start, where businesses should be able to thrive, where employment should be high and where everyone should be able enjoy the diverse life of the town centres, the really beautiful parks and good transport and other amenities.

If big cities are going to work, it’s places like Maungakiekie where they have to work really well. If political parties like Labour are going to remain relevant, they have to become hard-wired to voters in a seat like this.

Priyanca Radhakrishnan wants to make that happen. She’s a party high flyer: at number 12, she’s the highest ranked non-MP on the party list, and will become an MP on Saturday regardless of the electorate outcome.

Radhakrishnan is one of the new breed of politician, like Jacinda Ardern, Nikki Kaye and others: her degree is in development studies and she’s come up through the ranks as a staffer in the party. She hasn’t worked as a member of the parliamentary staff, but has been a policy development analyst. Born in India and raised in Singapore, she’s also been a social worker and a community activist.

Radhakrishnan is a good debater. When Lee produces figures about new housing, Radhakrishnan is ready with the argument that not enough affordable homes are being built. “And $650,000 is not an affordable home. They need to be priced at under half a million dollars. National is not doing that.”

She attacked the East-West Link for its “$2 billion” price tag (technically, $1.8 billion) and for having “no tangible benefits”. She was forthright on the party’s policy to “ban foreign property speculators and close the tax loopholes that let them operate here”. Good with the party line, as Lee was.

What Priyanca Radhakrisnan projects is connection: the value of being part of the community. She talked about being at Pt England, among “thousands of people for movies in the park”, and dog walking, and kids playing. “The most socially connected cities have mixed streets and vibrant public spaces,” she said.

Has the Labour bubble burst? Not yet, despite what some are saying. Two months ago the party was hoping to top 30% and forlornly praying it would get to 35%. Now, 40% is seen as failure.

But the Jacinda Swing has been massive. In going from 24% to a polls average of 40% Labour has increased its party vote, at this point, by a massive 66%. It has a completely realistic chance, together with the Greens and/or NZ First and/or the Maori Party, of forming the next government.

A 66% surge in party support should be enough to push seats like Maungakiekie deeply into the red corner. But there’s a complication and her name is Chlöe Swarbrick.

The Green Party candidate tried for Auckland Central but lost the nomination race to incumbent list MP Denise Roche. So she ended up in Maungakiekie. Not that she puts it like that herself. “I’ve got strong roots here,” she told the Panmure crowd. “I grew up around Onehunga.” Her grandmother lived there and she visited lots. “Also,” she added, “I wanted to stand in this seat because I wanted to challenge Sam Lotu-Iiga over the appalling policy of privatising prisons.”

What Swarbrick is really good at is wading right in. She stays positive, grinning away, but it doesn’t stop her getting angry.

Lotu-Iiga was corrections minister when the scandal of Serco’s mismanagement of Mt Eden prison came to light; he didn’t handle it well and it’s not a stretch to say that embarrassment drove him out of politics. So Swarbrick came to fight, but her opponent had gone home.

Still, she’s got excellent form on the issue that Denise Lee is also known for: that question of the compact city and the Unitary Plan. Swarbrick stood for mayor last year on a platform that made her the poster politician for compact, public-transport-focused, modern city living.

That campaign revealed just how natural a politician she is, and that aptitude was on show again tonight as she talked about the disgrace of living in a country with “the highest-ever rates of inequality”.

Housing got her really fired up. “Mouldy homes kill children. More children die because of their home than in cars. In their home! Homes are more dangerous than cars. We have to change that.”

Lee was smartly on message with the Bill English statistics of achievement, and Swarbrick went smartly back at her with her own party line. “Facts and figures mean zero without context. We are top of the world in homelessness and there is no government strategy to end it!”

But here’s the thing. Chloe Swarbrick is not asking for the electorate vote. She wants the party vote. She really wants the party vote: her job this campaign has been to spearhead the Green Party’s appeal to young voters, to suck in party votes from all over and especially from her own electorate. They got 3000 in Maungakiekie in the last two elections: just how much higher can she push it?

It’s pretty clear from the chemistry between them that Swarbrick would like Radhakrishnan to win the electorate vote. But will Greens voters get it? Will they split their vote?

Maungakiekie is one of several general roll electorates where the general trends will be swamped by the personalities (Northland, Auckland Central, Hutt South and possibly even Nelson are others). The party vote will swing to Labour and perhaps also to the Greens. But a good chunk of Labour’s candidate vote, the electorate vote, will swing to Swarbrick. Just because it’s Chlöe. Because of that, don’t be surprised if Denise Lee wins it for National.

Labour really won’t want that to happen. There’s important moral legitimacy at stake: the Labour Party should be able to command the non-wealthy parts of the urban vote. For Priyanca Radhakrishnan herself, an electorate win will allow her to enter parliament on the front foot.

Here’s the rub, though. Whoever wins becomes an MP. If Lee loses, she’s very unlikely to make it on the list. She’s ranked 63, which means National will probably need at least 50% of the party vote for her to become a list MP. Even in the halcyon days of John Key, National never managed that.

If Radhakrishnan loses, her number 12 ranking will put her into parliament anyway. Labour would probably have to fall below 20% for her not to make it. In the halcyon days of Jacinda Ardern that doesn’t seem very likely either.

And Swarbrick? She really needs those party votes. If the Greens get to 6% she’ll be an MP. Even 5% on the night could do it, because the special votes, which get counted later, are expected to favour the Greens. They’ve hovering a little above that now, but any election day slippage would be costly.

simon@thespinoff.co.nz @simonbwilson


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