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The Rongotai electorate (Image: Archi Banal)
The Rongotai electorate (Image: Archi Banal)

PoliticsSeptember 4, 2023

For the first time ever, Rongotai is interesting

The Rongotai electorate (Image: Archi Banal)
The Rongotai electorate (Image: Archi Banal)

The voters of Rongotai have never seen a competitive race. This year will be different.

Read the other battleground electorate profiles in our Hot Seats series here.

James Shaw is bouncing up and down as he speaks. His excitement is obvious. “We know, because we’ve seen some numbers, you are going to win this thing,” he shouts. A crowd of about 100 party loyalists cheers back at him from a packed brewpub in Hataitai.  It’s a rare sight in New Zealand politics: a genuine campaign rally. And not for a party-level campaign launch, but for an electorate candidate – current Green list MP Julie Anne Genter, who’s standing in Rongotai

The Greens sense a real opportunity in Rongotai to do something the party has managed only twice in its entire history: win an electorate seat. The party isn’t sharing its internal polling, but local campaign manager Luke Somerville shows the crowd some other promising numbers: a statistical modelling based on the party vote in Rongotai in 2020 and the latest national polling data. It shows the Greens sitting six points behind Labour and well clear of National. “We only need a three point swing to win,” he exclaims. 

The Greens see the ground game as their path to victory. That’s why they’re holding rallies; they need a big and highly motivated base of volunteers, and they need to convince them winning is a real possibility. The Green Party’s aggressive push into Rongotai has changed the equation here and makes it one of this election’s must-watch electorate battles.

Labour has held this seat since it was created in 1996, and it has never been particularly close. Prominent Labour minister Annette King was the MP from the electorate’s inception until her retirement in 2017, when Paul Eagle stepped in. He won here in 2020 with 57% of the vote and no one else crossing 15%. Eagle is retiring after a failed run for the Wellington mayoralty last year. 

In his place, Labour is running former city councillor Fleur Fitzsimons. The Greens have put forward high-profile MP Julie Anne Genter, while local lawyer and business consultant Karuna Muthu is flying National’s flag. All three of them see a path to victory. Rongotai is no longer a safe seat. 

Rongotai comprises the Wellington city fringe to the south and east. It’s a highly coastal electorate, covering the entire Miramar peninsula, Wellington’s south coast, and the Chatham Islands. That makes a climate change a key issue here – Ōwhiro Bay regularly floods with king tides, and low-lying Lyall Bay is considered at risk of rising sea levels. Incomes are high, as are house prices, though there are a lot of community houses too. The public service predictably dominates the workforce, but it’s also strong in the creative and IT sectors. 

Rongotai is the home of two controversial transport projects: light rail in Island Bay, and the second Mount Victoria tunnel. It has the highest rate of bus users in the country but services have become less reliable. The voters are among the most educated in the country and are highly informed about politics. But they’ve never had a competitive race to get stuck into – until now. 

Julie Anne Genter: The challenger

It’s two days after the campaign rally and we are sitting inside Julie Anne Genter’s office in parliament. Her bicycle is leaning on the wall. The coffee table is piled high with a stack of research from the Helen Clark Foundation.

She is a policy wonk through-and-through, highly respected as an expert on transport and climate change issues. Her competitor, Fleur Fitzsimons, says she has “a giant brain”. That expertise has made her a highly valued List MP for the party. But she’s never been a local representative before, and transitioning to a community advocate will be a new challenge. She has been in parliament for 12 years, but still has work to do to introduce herself to the electorate. 

“People usually know that I rode my bike to the hospital to have my baby,” she says. “A lot of them have seen me biking around with the kids or by myself. They know I’m in parliament, and they know that I’ve been advocating for action on climate change and inequality for a really long time.”

Julia Anne Genter on the campaign train in Rongotai.

This will be the fourth electorate to print her name on the ballot paper. She previously stood in Mount Roskill, Mount Albert and Epsom before moving to Wellington in 2019 – but this is the first time she’s run a campaign with a genuine intention of winning. 

The idea to run a competitive campaign had been bubbling for a while. “When we started to hear rumours about Paul Eagle contesting the mayoralty, that’s when I thought we should have a real go, because we knew people weren’t very happy with Paul Eagle as a representative.

“Rongotai is a place where Labour has traditionally done well, because no one else has seriously contested the seat. So it has long seemed to me to be an electorate where the Greens can have a serious chance if we run a decent campaign with a high profile candidate.”

After Chlöe Swarbrick won Auckland Central in the 2020 election, the Greens sensed that electorates could be a game worth playing. 2023 is their biggest-ever push for local seats. “[Rongotai] has certain factors in common with Auckland Central.  It’s younger than average, with a higher proportion of renters, high populations of refugees and ethnic minorities. It has the highest bus use in the entire country for travel to work and the fourth highest bike use.”

There’s another recent campaign that gives the Greens reason to be optimistic: Tory Whanau. Whanau, the former Green Party chief of staff, won the Wellington mayoralty by a commanding margin in 2022 over outgoing Rongotai MP Paul Eagle and incumbent mayor Andy Foster. 

It was a big night for Green candidates across the city: Laurie Foon topped Southern Ward, Tamatha Paul finished first in Lambton Ward, and Yadana Saw and Thomas Nash were tied first as the highest-polling regional councillors. Those campaigns helped the Greens to build a large network of volunteers in the city, and the campaign machinery has been professionalised thanks to high-level staffers who gained experience on the Australian Greens campaign.

It’s already starting to show. By this time last election, Green volunteers had directly contacted 3,000 voters in the electorate. This time, they were past 16,000 before the campaign period officially began. There’s an enormous left block in Rongotai. Labour and Greens pulled in 76% of the vote combined in 2020, so the Greens are focused on converting soft Labour voters. “There’s such a huge number of people who voted Labour, not all of them would be necessarily committed to Labour, it’s just that Labour was the only progressive choice they had.

“I think we’ve established that there’s no risk of vote splitting and a national candidate coming through. That’s something Chlöe had to argue against in Auckland Central and still won. So it’s almost in our favour, because we can say to voters: just vote your conscience.”

Fleur Fitzsimons: The favourite

If the Labour Party had a laboratory for creating ideal candidates, Fleur Fitzsimons is the kind of specimen it would produce. She’s the safest pair of hands the party could hope for. 

We talk over flat whites at People’s Coffee in Newtown. It’s early afternoon but the locals keep flowing through the door. 

Almost everyone here seems to know her. Wearing a black jacket and red scarf, she looks exactly how she appears on her hoardings. As we talk, a woman approaches her to let her know she received her flyer and would love to catch up. Fitzsimons looks pleased but slightly embarrassed – “I promise I didn’t set that up in advance,” she says. 

For a first-time general election candidate, she’s incredibly polished. She has an Ardern-esque speaking style that oozes compassion. She has great instincts and chooses her words carefully – sometimes too carefully, as she falls back on well-trained “politician speak”. 

Fitzsimons’ political career began alongside Chris Hipkins. She was vice-president of VUWSA in 2001 while he was president, and won the top job herself the following year. A long-time union lawyer for the Public Service Association, she was at one point the Women’s Vice President of the Labour Party. She served on the Wellington City Council for five years, where she had a reputation as a highly competent representative and a skilled political operator who was a constant thorn in the side of mayor Andy Foster. 

Fitzsimons won her council seat in Southern Ward after Paul Eagle became MP, making this the second time she has run for a seat Eagle vacated. When she was announced as the Labour candidate for Rongotai, The Post called it a safe seat, but she rejects that framing: “I never have described it as that and you’ll never hear me use that language.”

Despite this, her campaign strategy is clearly that of a frontrunner: don’t talk about your opponents, don’t bother with attacks, introduce yourself to the community and focus on your own name recognition. Fitzsimons knows Genter well – their children are friends and they’ve been over to each other’s houses for playdates – but in terms of campaign strategy, she is all but pretending she doesn’t exist. “I accept there is a high proportion of people here that will vote for the Green Party and I’m not about to spend precious time on the doors or the phone talking them out of voting Green. My focus is on keeping National and Act out of government.”

However, you certainly couldn’t accuse her of taking the race for granted. Fitzsimons is campaigning full time in the seat and has personally knocked on thousands of doors. “A lot of people live up a lot of steps. I’ve lost a significant amount of weight,” she says. 

The party offered her data on the numbers of doors knocked, but she didn’t want to see it: “I just want to keep going.” 

Labour has organised volunteer door knock sessions every weekend and dropped leaflets and a letter from Grant Robertson endorsing her in every mailbox. In terms of key suburbs, Fitzsimons insists she is campaigning across the whole electorate, but is putting additional effort into areas outside her previous council ward. “I have, certainly at the beginning of the campaign, put a lot more effort into the east. So Miramar, Kilbirnie, Seatoun, as well as trying to get a good grasp of the issues and Chatham Islands, which are an important part of the electorate.”

Keep an eye out for the battlegrounds of Newtown and Berhampore. They’re traditionally working class suburbs, sporadically gentrifying with trendy cafes and eateries that attract young renters. They also play host to hundreds of community housing tenants (if elected, Fitzsimons wants to help establish a public housing tenants union).

They’re very left-wing areas – in 2020, candidates for Labour, Green and TOP scooped up 6,360 of the 7,232 electorate votes (88%). The Greens will be hoping to grab a big chunk of that vote. Both suburbs fall within Fitzsimons’ former council ward. She has a strong profile on the ground, especially among the more community groups and residents’ associations. 

If she manages to hold off the rising Green tide, her reputation within these key suburbs could be the firewall that secures her victory. 

Karuna Muthu: The outside shot

National has never been a strong contender in Rongotai. Chris Finlayson, who ran four times, famously used to say if he ever won the seat, he would immediately ask for a recount. But Karuna Muthu says he’s in it to win it. 

When asked if he had a favourite coffee spot in the electorate, Muthu suggested we meet at Palmer’s Garden Centre in Miramar. “I don’t have green fingers,” he says, “so all these flowers are fantastic. I can pretend I grew all these beautiful things here”.

Miramar is his local neighbourhood, where he has lived since 1995 and his wife is a GP. It’s also the bluest area of the electorate – the home of Wētā Workshop, Scots College and leafy suburbs.

Muthu’s a smiley guy with a cherubic face and an infectious sense of enthusiasm. He’s obviously excited to have the chance to run for a major party, though this isn’t his first stint at office. He ran in Rongotai for United Future in 2008, earning 223 votes, and for mayor in 2013, receiving 935 votes. 

National candidate Karuna Muthu

Politics is in his blood. His father was a prominent politician in India; he served as the mayor of Madurai and was a co-founder of DMK, which is currently the ruling party of Tamil Nadu. He has watched the Green Party ramp up their campaign machinery and thinks it could deliver him a path to victory through a split left-wing vote. “The harder the Green Party works, the better for me,” he says. “We have two very polarising left-leaning candidates in Fleur Fitzsimons and Julie Anne Genter.

“There is a mood for change in the electorate, and I feel that I have a real chance to flip to blue.”

Realistically, his pathway to victory is extremely slim. He would need to outperform every previous National candidate by several points (the best previous result was 28% by Chris Finlayson in 2008) and luck out with Labour and Greens splitting the vote narrowly.  He has nowhere near as many fence hoardings as Fitzsimons or Genter around the electorate, but his face is near-ubiquitous in shop fronts, especially in many immigrant-owned restaurants and takeaways. 

Muthu also managed to get hoardings placed on the Newtown building that served as Paul Eagle and Annette King’s electorate office for the past three decades. He called it “a historic moment” on his Facebook story.

The makeup of the electorate is shifting, and Muthu thinks it could work in his favour. A longtime advocate for migrants, he once organised an anti-racism protest on parliament steps targeted at Winston Peters. “I’m reaching out to communities that the National Party had never reached out to before. And I’m actually welcomed by those communities,” he says.

“There are five to six thousand contractors and employees working for Wētā here. They are families from Argentina, Israel, India, Singapore, Malaysia, Italy. They change the demographics of the electorate. They are not loyal to Labour or National or any party, but they are hurting because the cost of living is rising.” 

Will Wētā staff be a deciding factor in Rongotai? It wouldn’t be the first time Peter Jackson has influenced local politics – his endorsement and donations helped throw the 2019 mayoral race towards Andy Foster – but Muthu might need a bit more than movie magic to pull this one off. 

Keep going!