The electorate formerly known as Dunedin North has almost always voted Labour, and last election the Greens outperformed National. But no matter who represents it, contentious questions about the university and hospital will remain.
On a dripping grey Friday several hundred students walked past blossoming trees and the muddy brown Waters of Leith and into Castle Lecture Theatres. The usual university set up: projector screen, desks attached to seats, and, sitting on chairs, five candidates contesting the Dunedin seat this election.
Each had a minute to introduce themselves. Rachel Brooking, smiling with the confidence of a Labour candidate in a very red seat, spoke about the investment in the hospital and what it will mean for Dunedin and the southern region as a whole. Sitting Dunedin councillor Jim O’Malley haphazardly explained his “Movement 2033” for a new party “left of centre”. Paul Deacon, standing for the New Conservatives, was met with muted applause – and boos, later in the afternoon, when he declared that “there is no climate emergency”.
Greens candidate Francisco Hernandez – wearing, of course, the Greens vintage sweater – was met with much more enthusiastic applause: he spoke about the climate crisis and countering the university cuts. Ben Peters, the local Top candidate, was missing – and so was Michael Woodhouse, who had sent Treaty lawyer James Christmas to represent the National Party in his place. His last name is “stupid”, Christmas acknowledged, describing himself as a “mainlander based in Auckland”. Keegan Langeveld, New Zealand First’s candidate, talked about his experience as a student and the burden of student debt. “Don’t vote for me,” Langeveld said, making it clear that he was only interested in the party vote.
For the most part, the student debate trod familiar ground: candidates spoke about the investment in the new hospital, climate change and student debt, housing and tax relief. They also described their favourite kinds of pies – Christmas admitted that he was a vegetarian, rare for the National Party. Brooking, supporting lowering the voting age, said “I was more sensible at 16 than I was at 21.”
But for information about what matters in this electorate, there was perhaps more to learn from the audience and the setting. The many MacBook Air-toting university students in the room will probably be voting, and when they do, they’ll be thinking of the university, which has been threatened with cuts, and which is a major employer in the electorate along with the council and hospital.
Dunedin is an extremely red electorate: it’s been won by Labour in all but one election since 1928. That was to the advantage of former minister David Clark, who is stepping down at this election. Current minister of oceans and fisheries, Rachel Brooking, is taking his place. So Dunedin is not necessarily interesting in terms of knife-edge polls, but rather in terms of how central it is to some of the key issues in this election: dental care, health infrastructure and education funding.
Rachel Brooking is feeling confident
Where does Rachel Brooking, Labour’s Dunedin candidate, go when she needs to escape into nature? To Ross Creek, formerly a reservoir for the city’s water supply, where there are “all these amazing walking and running tracks.” Brooking, previously a lawyer for two decades, entered parliament via the list in 2020.
She’s since become minister for food safety and oceans and fisheries – out of cabinet, sure, but still requiring ongoing work during an election campaign, like managing the quotas for fisheries, which are reset every year at the start of October. “It’s such a privilege to be involved in so many interesting things,” she says. She’s wearing a ring made of octopus tentacles and long earrings with suspended pekapeka bats on them: Brooking studied ecology, alongside law, so appreciates having environmental portfolios.
But before we get to any other issues, she wants to clear up some questions about the hospital. “It’s a $1.68b investment, and some people still think it’s going to be smaller than the current hospital,” she says. “There’s been some strange discussion around it – it’s going to be an amazing facility and of course we want to see it built.” Frustrated with frustrations about Labour’s lack of delivery, she points out “the hospital that’s coming out of the ground right now – that’s delivery.”
Brooking connects the questions around the hospital to wider problems of health staffing. “We want to keep training people in Dunedin and have all those really good synergies between the university, the hospital and the Polytech – to train up staff but also provide continued education of those staff as well.” Worries about job security at the university has been a theme throughout her campaigning.
The other topics she’s been hearing about while doorknocking and at events? “A lot of people think wealthier people should be taxed more.” Does she? Brooking hesitates: Hipkins has ruled out a capital gains and wealth tax. “It’s a hard one because you’ve got to get the voting public along with you and that middle ground doesn’t doesn’t seem to be there at the moment – but it’s something we should keep talking about.”
Brooking grew up in Dunedin. Her father is an academic – a history professor at the university – and she studied in the city. Like her Labour Party colleagues Ayesha Verrall and Grant Robertson, and 2023 Greens Dunedin candidate Francisco Hernandez, she was a president of the Otago University Student’s Association, involved in protesting education cuts and local Labour campaigns, before deciding “I better go and do some work and see the world and that sort of thing.”
Already an MP, Brooking was the only candidate who stepped up to replace David Clark when he announced his retirement last December. “It’s obviously a very good seat,” she says.
Having her name on the ballot in red, and with Michael Woodhouse more or less dropping out of the race, surely Brooking is feeling confident about what her life might look like after October 14? “I’m not taking anything for granted –” an obligatory statement – “but I would love to be more embedded in the community and do Dunedin things, and have parliamentary services staff to get to help individuals.”The urge to be an electorate MP is partially about being able to represent a place she knows well, and the idea of spending more time at home is also appealing. Her youngest child only just turned 13, and Brooking has become extremely familiar with the flight schedules at Dunedin Airport.
Brooking might not want to take anything for granted, but she certainly wants her party to remain in government – she’s worried, she says, about what a National-led government might do. “I worry about the Fair Pay Agreement legislation getting canned. I worry about the ETS. I worry about the same old ‘cut jobs from backroom public service.’” The lines about delivery sting particularly. “What did National deliver in nine years? They did quite a lot on broadband – then they evicted thousands of people from their homes because they thought someone might have smoked some P in the house once. They ruined the Family Court.”
Francisco Hernandez has déjà vu
Pacing up and down the University of Otago campus, handing out flyers – Francisco Hernandez has done this before. He was president of Otago University Student Association in 2013. A decade later, he’s campaigning for the Greens.
“The main difference is that in a national government election, you can’t bribe students,” he says, recalling fondly one of his tactics to student politics success: taping lollies and chocolate to pamphlets with his face on them. “But it’s good. People actually take Green Party flyers without being bribed because they believe in Green Party policy.” He has a point there: last election, the minor party got 17.8% of the vote in this electorate – more than National, at 14.1%.
Hernandez’s family is from the Philippines; he moved to New Zealand as a child. He has a political background: his dad was involved in student politics in the Philippines, and Hernandez has taken up the mantle. He joined the Labour Party in 2008, then became a Greens member in 2014, working in climate change policy, and lived in Wellington before moving back to Dunedin.
With a politics degree, he clearly can’t keep himself away from university: he’s currently studying a masters of economics. “A lot of right-wing people quote, like, neoclassical first year economics,” he says. He wanted to disprove the idea that being left wing means you’re not economically literate. “There’s a way to reclaim economics from the right and argue for policy solutions that aren’t just leaving everything to the jungle of the market.”
Being selected as a candidate has been an opportunity to talk more about climate change and inequality – he’s good at hitting the Greens’ party lines – and replay some of the same concerns he encountered in student politics. “You’ve heard about cuts to the university and the polytech, I’m very concerned about that,” he says. “The Greens’ policy plan this year is the boldest and most progressive we’ve ever had, and no one else was going to run, so that’s why I put my hand up.”
He’s had to buy more green items of clothing – the collar of a green shirt is peeking from beneath his sweater as we talk in a co-working space that the party has hired as a temporary campaign office. A ground campaign is crucial: as we enter the office, a volunteer calls out to Hernandez that they’ve just passed the milestone of contacting 10,000 people in the electorate, and he beams.
Hernandez has the unadulterated optimism of a minor party candidate who could, if everything went right, squeeze in on the list. He’s ranked 17th. He’s trying not to fixate on the numbers too much, but when you’re at number 17 on the list, and your party is polling higher than it almost ever has before, maybe enough for 17 MPs, it’s hard not to wonder. “I’m saying to people, this is functionally a two-horse race in Dunedin. It’s between Labour and the Greens.”
He’s dismissive of Woodhouse, who “has essentially bowed out – you’ve read the coverage.” After we talk, he sends me more data that he’s been looking at. “We’ve got a good chance of winning the party vote in Dunedin.”
The focus of Hernandez’s campaign is Otago’s campus, that idiosyncratic mix of Gothic stone buildings and glossy, glassy new facilities, the source of most of his volunteers and, he hopes, many of his voters. On X (formerly Twitter), he seems confident. “Just promised the Campus Greens I’ll go vegetarian if I’m elected this year (except for when I’m with my family),” reads a representative post. In person, he simply comes across as earnest about change.
Is there any fun fact about Dunedin that he thinks would surprise people who don’t live there? Hernandez grins: he’s been working on a theory that the city has the highest ratio of Japanese restaurants to population in New Zealand. The numbers aren’t settled, but he’s convinced: “If we do an analysis, we’ll find that it’s Dunedin for sure.”
Michael Woodhouse is still on the ballot
It doesn’t take much for Michael Woodhouse to muster enthusiasm for the covered stadium he helped secure funding for during his first term in parliament. “I’ve seen the All Blacks play there, and the Wellington Phoenix – that was really good fun,” says the five-term MP. “Then there are the concerts: Queen with Adam Lambert, Robbie Williams – he has to be one of the best live performers of all time.”
Throughout my conversation with the former cabinet minister at Otago University’s campus in north Dunedin, he seems to be a mouthpiece for a Dunedin investment campaign. He waxes lyrical about the “magnificent” albatrosses and incredible biodiversity of the Otago Peninsula. He praises the Orokonui Ecosanctuary. He even musters some approval for the Labour Party. “One really good thing that Labour did was set up the Centre for Digital Excellence, it’s created a number of companies that have gone on to do really cool things.”
While his name is on the ballot, Woodhouse, not on the National Party list, is open about the fact that he’s simply gunning for the party vote. He chose to run only in the electorate after being dissatisfied with his list ranking – implying, and then denying, that he had been knocked down National’s list because he is male. His chances certainly don’t look good: he has lost in the electorate five times.
“This has always been a party vote campaign,” he says. Woodhouse hasn’t been going to all the events: instead, National has been introducing other potential representatives to voters, like Christmas going to the Debating Society debate.
Woodhouse is happy to point to his track record in Dunedin, like getting funding for the stadium. He’s also happy to name the big issues facing the city: the hospital is an obvious one, and he was part of the cabinet that approved the rebuild in 2017. “Six years later, we’ve largely got a hole in the ground and lots of excuses for delays, cost, escalations and clinical cuts. And that’s been a serious disappointment,” he says.
The challenges facing Otago University are also a big focus: the institution has cut jobs, despite funding support from the government. “The difficult times the university is going through – I’m confident they’ll come out the other side,” says Woodhouse. “There is no painless process here.” He’s been talking to university leadership, determined that maintaining the university’s “legacy” is vital for Dunedin.
Famously, Otago is home to one of the country’s only two med schools. Does Woodhouse’s party’s proposed third medical school, in Waikato, threaten that? Woodhouse is supportive of a new med school … now, he says, implying that he hasn’t always thought it was a good idea. “Auckland and Otago have nothing to fear,” he says. “They should see it as adding to the health ecosystem and support it… they’ve got to accept it with good grace and realise that this is what New Zealand needs.”
As a list MP, Woodhouse has been a voice for Dunedin; with an office in the central city, his presumed departure could mean there is no National MP based in Dunedin. “It’s going to make it a little more difficult the fact that there isn’t a Dunedin-based list MP if Matthew [French, the candidate for neighbouring Taieri electorate] and I aren’t successful in those two elections,” he says. But he’s determined that there will still be ways to represent National, even if there aren’t permanent staff members and an office – a mobile National unit for MPs from neighbouring electorates. “A solution is being worked on.”
Woodhouse isn’t expecting to be an MP after the election, but he’s intending, for now, to remain in Dunedin. How could he leave? After all, the stadium he advocated for is still there. “I’d love to see some of those really big concert bands coming [to play],” he says. “I’d love to see Bon Jovi or U2.”