Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

PoliticsOctober 5, 2023

The fight for the cyclone-battered East Coast

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Last election, this long-held National seat was flipped by Labour. This time around, Labour is hoping a recognisable face can ward off the blue wave.

“How ironic,” Tāmati Coffey says while riffling backwards through the pages of the Gisborne Herald at the cafe directly across the road from his newly-opened campaign office. Sitting at the table among his red-clothed campaign team, whānau and fellow Labour Party candidate Cushla Tangaere-Manuel, he reads out an advert for his electorate competitor on the front page: “Dana Kikpatrick will get things done for East Coast.”

Flicking forward two pages into the paper, he reads a short article outlining the disappointment from organisers of a New Zealand Nurses Organisation election hui, which took place two nights earlier in Gisborne, that Kirkpatrick (along with two other candidates) was absent. Only Coffey and local Green Party candidate Jordan Walker made it to the meeting. As it happens, Kirkpatrick was in Whakatāne with National leader Christopher Luxon that day. “I did send an apology and explain to them I wouldn’t be able to attend,” she told The Spinoff. “I didn’t just not turn up.”

It’s a situation which highlights the fundamental challenges which come with this seat. It’s big – the largest land area of all the North Island general electorates. And in a place that people often associate with the word “forgotten”, there’s a great deal of value placed upon simply showing up. 

An expansive electorate

Gisborne, where both Coffey and Kirkpatrick’s campaign offices are located (just five shops away from each other, in fact), is the most populous urban centre within the East Coast electorate. The electorate which stretches from Maketū in the west, right across the whole eastern Bay of Plenty, around the East Cape and down to Gisborne, is mostly rural and mostly Māori too. The majority (51.5%) of the population is Māori – the highest share among all 65 general electorates. 

According to the 2018 census, one in five of those employed in the electorate are labourers, with 17.8% employed as professionals and a further 17.3% employed as managers. The biggest industries are agriculture, forestry and fishing (17.0%). As well, the electorate has the largest proportion amongst the general electorates of those on Jobseeker Support (12.3%).

The uniquely shaped East Coast electorate.

The electorate was established in 1871, but was abolished in 1893. In 1999, the East Coast was recreated. And ever since then, the seat has been a stronghold, not for any one party necessarily, but for candidates who are women. Labour’s Janet Mackey held the seat from 1999 to 2005, then National’s Anne Tolley won the seat in 2005 and held it for 15 years until her retirement at the 2020 election. Then, as part of the red wave across the country which saw 11 out of 26 rural electorates flipped from National to Labour, Kiri Allan took the seat at the last election – capturing a majority (51.7%) of the votes against National’s Tania Tapsell. But a lot has changed since 2020. It means that this campaign looks entirely different than it ever has before – and it’s why this race is so compelling.

For one, Tapsell became the mayor of Rotorua last year and so won’t be running again. Then, in February this year, Cyclone Gabrielle saw homes destroyed, communities cut off and damage to infrastructure and roading across the electorate – that has only compounded existing problems for communities. An inquiry to investigate forestry slash and land use released a report in May that said poor forestry practices had cost the industry its social licence to operate, and wide-scale forestry felling in those areas should be stopped immediately – major news for an economy currently so reliant on that very industry.

In July, the electorate’s then MP Allan, announced she wouldn’t be contesting this year’s election after crashing her ministerial car into a parked car and later being arrested in relation to the incident. In an Instagram post the day after her resignation, Allan said she had “failed all those” that had put their trust and confidence in her. “I have let my electorate down, my party down, and all those that relied on me,” she said. “Being the representative for the East Coast has been the greatest privilege of my life. But my actions have let everyone down.”

A week after Allan said she wouldn’t be seeking reelection, Coffey announced he would stand in the seat. It was shock upon shock: just four months earlier Coffey had announced his own retirement from politics in order to spend more time with family after two terms in government. And while he had previously won the neighbouring Waiariki Māori electorate in 2017, he narrowly lost by 836 votes in 2020, in an upset to Te Pāti Māori co-leader Rāwiri Waititi. 

Labour candidate Tāmati Coffey at Kaiti Mall in Gisborne. (Image: Charlotte Muru-Lannning / Archi Banal)

“The tragic events of last week which led to my colleague and friend Kiritapu Allan choosing to step down at the upcoming election have changed things significantly,” he said in his July announcement. “The East Coast has been through so much this year and it needs an experienced champion in Parliament.”

The force that Allan had in the electorate is not lost on Coffey. Not only had Allan already contested the seat once before in 2017 before she managed to win it on her second attempt, she was from the electorate, and had worked within it for years. “This was somebody who was deemed to be a powerhouse and future leader of the Labour Party, who was earning her stripes and solidifying this as a Labour seat after many years of being held as a National seat,” he says.

Recognisability versus an advantageous party

While Coffey has whakapapa within the area, he’s never actually lived within the electorate – though you wouldn’t know it by how well known he seems to be among locals. While out and about, Coffey certainly has the advantage of recognition. Not just because of his six years in government, but through his decade-long career on local television. Members of the public flock to him on walkabouts or call out “I love you Tāmati!” from their cars, and he’s as popular among oldies, (who seem to recognise him from his five-year stint on Breakfast) as he is among millennials who grew up watching him on What Now. Familiarity is useful for sure, but whether it will be enough to retain the seat – which is neither safe for Labour nor traditionally a swing seat – is the big question.

Born and raised (and still living) in a fourth generation farm house in Poutahi, just 10 minutes from Gisborne, National’s Dana Kirkpatrick might have less of a public platform and no previous experience in politics, but she certainly has the advantage when it comes to the colour of her rosette, with National well ahead of Labour in general polling. Based on recent polling, at number 46 on National’s list, Kikpatrick will likely make it into government, even if she doesn’t win this seat – Coffey’s chances, as number 36 on the list, are far shakier.

Kirkpatrick has a background in journalism and communications, starting out at the Gisborne Herald and working across various sectors like local government, equestrian sport and most recently within the health system. “It was really interesting to work in probably the biggest entity in New Zealand, in a time when it was changing from the Ministry of Health to Te Whatu Ora, Te Aka Whai Ora and the Ministry of Health,” she says. “Everything adds a little bit of colour and a little bit more life experience.”

Kirkpatrick says she’s “always been a true blue National supporter” but it was only recently she considered stepping into the political ring – announcing her candidacy in April this year, lured into it by a general sense of discontent with the state of the country, plus a good deal of family encouragement. “I sit back and I look at how things are going, and everything feels a little bit broken right now.” 

National candidate Dana Kirkpatrick on the campaign trail. (Image: Facebook)

“Our electorate is wide and varied,” she says. Even though many issues she thinks are shared across the electorate, when it comes to certain areas, “they differ; on one side of the electorate we’ve got cyclone recovery as an absolute top priority, including roading and infrastructure, then we’ve got forestry issues that don’t come lightly in our community, and over on the other side we’ve got farming, we’ve got crime, we’ve got roading – and across the whole economy we’ve got the cost of living.”

When it comes to the cyclone recovery, Kirkpatrick believes the work required to solve problems has been underestimated. Simultaneously, the knotty issue of forestry is one which she’s focussed on finding a solution for – even if it’s a solution not everyone is 100% happy with. “Farming, forestry and fishing are what bring our money, and that’s what the service sector looks after. If those sectors aren’t able to do well, then the rest of them suffer as a result,” she says.  “We can’t just walk away from forestry. Forestry is a massive part of our local economy.”

One of Coffey’s core focuses for the electorate is adapting in response to climate change. “Our changing environment means we will keep getting extreme weather events like Cyclone Gabrielle, so I’m committed to making sure that our region recovers, while also preparing itself for future resilience in connectivity, roads and infrastructure,” says Coffey.

It’s impossible to ignore the presence of primary industries in the electorate too, which Coffey says “form the backbone of the East Coast economy”. But, “whether it’s forestry, fisheries, farming or horticulture, there is no shortage of present and future challenges which will need strong advocacy by an experienced MP.”

Coffey believes the one uniting issue is the cost of living, and points to Labour’s policies around free prescriptions, healthy food in schools and lifting the minimum wage as steps to a solution.

The nuance of local issues

On the palm-lined streets of central Gisborne, the issues for locals are as expansive and varied as the electorate itself. Behind the counter of a central bar, a hospitality worker points to inequality as the issue she’s most concerned about this election. A Gisborne-based horticulture company stresses that road closures are having massive impacts on their business. A local taxi driver explains that emergency healthcare resources are stretched in the electorate – and that she’s concerned National’s plans to reintroduce prescription fees might worsen that pressure. A woman running a charity providing supplies for new parents says the need for their assistance has nearly doubled since the floods. A dairy owner mentions that safety and ram raids are the biggest issues for him, and notes that “whoever wins will have to find a way to make peace here”. A few shops down from the dairy, a 17-year-old cafe worker about to begin studies at the local Eastern Institute of Technology shares her concerns about the local rent prices. “Rents have gone up like crazy over the last few years,” she says. “It looks like I’ll be living at home way longer than I ever thought I would be.” 

A local volunteer worker believes these issues are interconnected. The housing crisis is a key issue across the electorate and Gisborne has long suffered from a chronic shortage of rental accommodation. But with more than 170 homes red or yellow-stickered in Gisborne alone following Cyclone Gabrielle, the situation has only been compounded. “I’ve seen instances of 16 adults living in one house,” she says. “And then at the same time you have all these empty holiday homes with no one living in them.” Add to that, the contrasting experiences and interests of those living in urban centres versus rural farms within the electorate, or the complexities of navigating the geographical territories of gangs within towns like Gisborne, and it becomes clear that it’s not an easy solution. “We need someone who can handle that nuance,” she says.

Who is trusted to bring that nuance is anyone’s guess, including Coffey. “Whilst we’re not riding the red wave this election, voters here are presented with me, who a lot of people know, versus somebody that’s quite new,” he says. “Will voters go for change for change’s sake? Or will they stay the course? I have no idea.” 

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