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the shape of the ilam electorate overlaid over a green tinted photo of an ordinary suburban street with an election 2023 spinoff them
(Image: Archi Banal/Shanti Mathias)

PoliticsSeptember 8, 2023

Everyone running in Ilam needs to win

the shape of the ilam electorate overlaid over a green tinted photo of an ordinary suburban street with an election 2023 spinoff them
(Image: Archi Banal/Shanti Mathias)

Ilam, an electorate including some of Christchurch’s wealthiest suburbs, was a National safe seat until 2020, when the red wave changed everything. Now, with The Opportunities Party pinnings its hopes on Ilam, it could be anyone’s turn. 

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

‘This is Raf central,” says Raf Manji, gesturing airily out the windows of a cafe next to the University of Canterbury campus. On the other side of the street are at least four TOP posters, like giant versions of Manji himself, who is wearing a jacket with a subtle TOP logo and sipping green tea. He means the area around the university: Manji was beginning a PhD here before TOP came calling, which he mentions at least three times in his conversation with The Spinoff. 

While the Ilam electorate includes Manji’s declared home territory around campus, it stretches beyond that. In Christchurch’s northwest, the area includes the suburbs of Burnside, Avonhead, parts of Riccarton and of course Ilam. Parts of it are particularly well heeled, but the demographics of a big student population, multiple retirement homes and lots of healthcare and university workers mean that each party can tell a story about why they might be the ones to win the seat. 

Unusually for an electorate in New Zealand, there’s publicly released polling for Ilam, which means knowledge of how October 14 might play out goes beyond journalists’ educated guessing. A Curia poll commissioned by the Taxpayers’ Union last week showed that National’s candidate Hamish Campbell was ahead on 33%, Labour incumbent Sarah Pallett had 15% of intended votes and TOP’s Raf Manji had 14%. Nearly one in four (23%) voters were undecided. 

Each candidate running in the electorate needs to win the seat to be guaranteed a place in parliament. For Sarah Pallett – who took Ilam from National’s Gerry Brownlee, who had held the seat for more than 20 years, by more than 3,000 votes in 2020 – winning the seat is crucial if she wants to stay in parliament; she’s currently ranked 53rd on the Labour list, a long shot on current polling. Hamish Campbell, National’s new candidate in the area, is ranked 63rd on his party’s list, meaning winning the seat is his only certain path to power. And for Raf Manji, leader of The Opportunities Party, it’s essentially his party’s only hope, thanks to the 5% threshold. Candidates from the Green Party, the New Conservatives and Democracy NZ are also standing in Ilam.

a map of the ilam electorate
The Ilam electorate boundaries. Image: Parliamentary Library

The undecideds 

The student demographics of Ilam were mentioned by each candidate The Spinoff interviewed. But what do the students themselves think? At the University of Canterbury campus, I speak to Mezze, a student who has decided not to vote “because I don’t know anything about the candidates and I think that voting should be left to the experts”. Others are more engaged: Ruben, an engineering student, voted for Labour last election and likes the idea of free dental care. He doesn’t know much about the local candidates. “Oh yeah, I’ve seen pictures of Raf Manji on the posters,” he says. “Is he the guy who – he’s in The Opportunities Party? I don’t really know what they’re about, I just remember that they spent a lot of time talking about a universal basic income which seemed like a kind of crazy idea.” 

Aaron, who is studying law, has just moved out of the electorate, but hasn’t updated his details yet. “If I stayed it would definitely be two ticks TOP,” he says. As it is, he’s thinking of voting for the Greens, because co-governance is really important to him. 

a smiling raf manji with forlded arms in front of two opportunities party posters showing his face too
In Ilam, Raf Manji appears everywhere (Image: Shanti Mathias/Archi Banal)

The party leader: TOP’s Raf Manji

Before Manji abandoned his PhD for TOP, he worked in the finance sector in his hometown of London, chaired the Student Volunteer Army and worked as a Christchurch city councillor for six years. In 2017 he ran against Gerry Brownlee in the Ilam electorate as an independent, getting about half as many votes as the then National deputy leader and coming in ahead of the Labour candidate. 

TOP has previously trumpeted a universal basic income (UBI) as a response to inequality. It’s not the party’s focus now – Manji barely mentions it in his conversation with The Spinoff. Instead, he’s focusing on all the paths that could lead him to parliament. He admits that he’s put “every permutation you can think of” of electorate numbers into the Electoral Commission calculator, thinking of different ways that October 14 could play out.

“I think about [numbers] a lot,” he says. But he tries to remember that a poll is just a poll. “They’re helpful, but not particularly accurate.” It’s to his advantage to make people believe that, of course: Manji is relying on voters choosing him over established parties. Still, Manji exudes confidence. “I meet people all the time, and they say ‘Raf, you’re the strongest candidate by a mile… I can say this objectively, Christchurch will be better off if I’m the MP for Ilam.”

Not afraid to namedrop, Manji mentions meeting Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, as part of a Christchurch City Council delegation, and refers to his contacts in cabinet. He’s spoken to Gaurav Sharma and David Seymour. The latter had a message. “He said – yeah, you’re in the same place Act was in in 2017 except…” I finish his sentence. “You don’t have a party in your electorate cutting you a deal.” 

“Well, yeah. But TOP is actually doing much better than Act was in 2017. We have a very solid base around 2%.” 

Including his successful bid for council, it’s his fourth campaign in Ilam in 10 years. What parts of it does he like? Not doorknocking. “I don’t like doorknocking. I mean, I don’t like being doorknocked … but I’ve had some good conversations. You sort of have to do a bit of everything.” He’s enjoyed candidate meetings and street corner meetings; he appreciates it when people recognise him from his time on city council. “People seem quite despondent about the future and where things are at.” He’s convinced that TOP is “the only party that is really talking about the future”. 

But what is the future TOP wants? No more focus on a UBI: TOP’s flagship policy is the Teal card, like a SuperGold card but for young people. Essentially a bunch of policies for youth, the card would include fully funded healthcare, including dentists and GP visits,  as well as free public transport and a contribution towards bikes, e-bikes or scooters. There’s also a $5,000 savings boost through Kiwisaver, but only for those who complete a national civil service programme before age 23, inspired by Outward Bound, the defence force and the Student Volunteer Army.

an indian/welsh man with light brown skin and curly hair wearing a suit and a backgound of rees and a river
Raf Manji in 2017, when he stood for the Ilam seat as an independent (Photo: Supplied)

Manji wants his ideas about what improvements New Zealand could receive to be heard; he resents the 5% party threshold, which directs voters away from TOP, and the media’s focus only on parties that are polling well. “I’ve done the thinktank thing, I’ve written papers and articles and all the rest of it, but until you’re in parliament, you don’t have influence at the highest level.” Other parties have adopted TOP policies, like free dental from the Greens and Labour – tiredly, Manji says that dental care for young people has been a TOP policy since the announcement of the Teal card – and the Greens’ income guarantee. 

The Spinoff asks Manji how much of his party’s resource is being directed at just this one electorate. “I haven’t really looked at those numbers,” he says vaguely. “In terms of our social media, which is probably our biggest spend, it’s about 30% into Ilam, and that will probably increase. I mean, we’ve got a very good digital agency, and we’re getting great results from that in terms of spend.” The focus on Ilam is strategic: he admits that the party doesn’t have the resources to campaign all around the country and, well, he already lives here.

Manji is dismissive of his opponents. “They don’t really have a vision for Ilam at all. When you’re a lowly ranked backbencher, which they are, you don’t really get any say… but I’m the party leader, I’ve got a Christchurch plan, I’ve been a city councillor.” In a caucus of one, your voice is always the loudest in the room. “Sarah can’t win – I think it’s just between Hamish and me.”

a white man in a blue suit smiling with a road and some bushes in the background
Hamish Campbell ran for Wigram unsuccessfully in 2020. This time, he wants to be elected in Ilam. (Image: Shanti Mathias / Archi Banal)

Gerry Brownlee’s shoes to fill: National’s Hamish Campbell

National’s candidate for the electorate, amusingly, chooses to meet at the same cafe as Raf Manji did: LB & Co, which is right next to the university. He drinks peppermint tea, in keeping with his calm demeanour. Campbell, a cancer researcher, ran unsuccessfully against Megan Woods in Wigram in 2020, and lives in Ilam with his young family. He and his wife once rode motorbikes for a month through Rajasthan in India, and he lived in Sydney, working as a researcher and lecturer, before returning to Aotearoa.

Campbell has considered why so many Ilam voters are undecided. “People like to vote for someone they know. It’s a lot of work to make sure you meet as many people as possible so they know who you are.” Does he like campaigning? Since being told he was the candidate last October, he’s knocked on over 14,000 doors, he declares, and he enjoys it: meeting people is the best part of the campaign. “People who are disengaged – you’ve actually talked to them, it’s more of an active process than a passive one.” 

From all that doorknocking, he says he’s learned that the biggest challenges facing the electorate are crime and the cost of living. Campbell mentions a few recent retail headlines: an 82-year-old woman being attacked in Merivale Mall, Christchurch Boys’ High students being warned not to go to Riccarton mall, increases in the price of instant noodles impacting tertiary students living in the area. National’s proposed tax plan and policy for youth offenders are, he says, an effective response to these.

a red ball knocks over a row of dominoes against a pink background, while a person dressed in graduation attire attempts to hold them up
Getty Images

“It’s quite a diverse electorate, we have the university, we have the airport which is the gateway to the South Island – it’s an exciting electorate,” he says. “I think the people of Ilam want an MP who’s consistently present in the electorate,” he continues, emphasising that he’s lived in the area for years. Does he mean to imply that the current MP isn’t around enough? Another practised line. “I think being part of the community is the important part.”

Campbell doesn’t worry too much about people thinking he’s a replacement for Gerry Brownlee. “This is home – I grew up a couple of blocks from here, and that’s more of an emphasis than it being Gerry’s seat,” he says, waving towards his childhood home. 

A scientist by training, Campbell turns the focus to education policies. “Students need to have a strong, firm understanding of the fundamentals,” he says; National’s education policy includes more standardised testing and at least an hour of maths, reading and writing a day. Higher education is important too: with a PhD in molecular biology, Campbell says “he’s a big fan of the university, I can’t hide that.” He praises companies like Fabrum for emerging from universities and creating innovative businesses that respond to sustainability challenges. 

Clearly media trained and ready to seize on talking points, a smiling Campbell is unwilling to be drawn on his opponents. “Look, it’s going to be a very tight race. I’m saying to people, be mindful of where you put your vote.” Surely his list ranking means he needs to win if he wants to be in parliament? “I’ve been sent a clear signal that I need to win the electorate and I’m working hard to make sure I do,” he agrees, the National badge pinned to his blue-grey jacket gleaming. 

a woman wearing a red shirt sitting on a blue couch with a smile and a election 2023 spinoff logo on top
Labour’s Sarah Pallett is determined not to take any vote for granted. (Image: Shanti Mathias/Archi Banal)

The uneasy incumbent: Labour’s Sarah Pallett

Before she became an MP, Sarah Pallett was a midwifery lecturer, and before that a midwife. Yes, she’s heard all the Labour/labour, delivery/delivery jokes. After a decisive victory in 2020, taking over from the high-profile Gerry Brownlee didn’t feel like a big ask. “He was more focused on Wellington, I’m an electorate backbench MP – I’ve seen my focus as being here for the people of Ilam and I love that, it’s a huge privilege.”

Instead of welcoming babies to the country, Pallett has had the experience of conferring citizenship on new (adult) New Zealanders. She gets emotional as she discusses the experience of holding a private citizenship ceremony for refugees who had had a “much harder” path to citizenship than she did. (Like Manji, Pallett was born in the UK and migrated to Aotearoa two decades ago.) 

It’s a sunny, early spring day, and Pallett assures The Spinoff that once our interview and her cup of Lady Grey tea is finished, she’s going to leap off the couch at her home and go doorknocking: she feels like the walk. Housing and the cost of living are the two big issues in her electorate, she thinks, with students and older people on fixed incomes both affected. This mix of demographics makes it a particularly diverse electorate – it’s seen as wealthy but has the second highest number of people in social housing in Christchurch. Retired people who own their home but don’t have other resources, for instance: “They’re going to be particularly slammed with TOP’s land value tax, creating a whole other level of poverty,” she says. “But [Raf] said he doesn’t care too much about older people, she said bitterly,” she says, ironic. 

Pallet has served on the health select committee during this term; given her background, she’s particularly proud of pushing for ACC to cover injuries to birthing parents, and she’s excited about the potential of free dental care. “It’s something that Labour has talked about for a long time, but it has to be affordable, and we have to grow the professionals to do it.” 

With the high cost of living a frequent concern among constituents, she reflects that perhaps the party hasn’t done enough to communicate what has been achieved over the last six years. She reels off some changes. “We’ve got a 44% increase in the minimum wage, that’s really significant. The winter energy payment, $5 off prescriptions, Working for Families, Best Start, the cost of living payments… lots and lots of things that have added up: if it was just one, it wouldn’t be sufficient. Taking GST off fruit and veges, it’s not going to change everything but it’s another step that makes things easier for people.”

Does she think much about polling? Pallett reminds The Spinoff that the Curia/Taxpayers’ Union poll had a sample size of 600. Labour has indicative poll numbers, too, which she isn’t allowed to discuss. “It can do your head in wondering if you’re doing well or not doing well… it’s a cliche but the only poll that matters is the election.” 

She’s determined not to take any vote for granted, but gives the impression of a person who is slightly frustrated that she’s running in the same electorate as Raf Manji. “I think Raf will basically take the vote from me as a candidate. If you want the National candidate to win, vote for them. But if you want a progressive candidate who’s already established […] vote for me. Raf is Hamish’s best bet right now, because none of the polling suggests he can actually win the seat, but he can stop me winning. It’s kind of – you know, it’s politics. It’s just a shame.”

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