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PoliticsOctober 13, 2020

The battle for central Auckland is splitting the left

helen white chloe swarbrick auckland
helen white chloe swarbrick auckland

Labour has its eyes set on taking the Auckland Central seat from National, but Green supporters are anxious their party won’t make parliament without the safety of an electorate win. Justin Giovannetti investigates the division.

Auckland Central is an electorate of contrasts.

The central neighbourhoods of Auckland represent one of the most expensive collections of homes in the world, while also hosting New Zealand’s most pervasive homelessness. It’s the headquarters to the country’s business class, but most locals are renters. It’s the electorate with the fewest number of children and retirees. The voter pool is largely millennial and split between low-wage service jobs and professionals.

The electorate’s politics lean left, but it has twice rejected Jacinda Ardern as a local MP in favour of National’s candidate. The left’s vote this year is dominant. It is also thoroughly divided.

Labour’s Helen White is at the top of the polls in what could be a three-way race. In 2017 she came a close second to the popular Nikki Kaye, only 1,500 votes behind the liberal National MP who took the seat from Labour in 2008. A frustrated frontrunner, White is pitching to the pragmatic centre-left. She wants to make the seat red again, but has faced repeated calls from activists and columnists to stand down and clear the way for the Greens. That’s not going to happen, she told The Spinoff.

Chlöe Swarbrick, the high-profile Green MP, is mounting one of her party’s rare two-tick campaigns in Auckland Central. Polls have put her in third place, but Swarbrick is seeking the electorate’s more left-wing vote with the promise of bolder action on housing and wealth disparity. In an interview she criticised her Labour opponent as “centre-left”, unwilling to tax the rich and comfortable.

Then there’s National and Emma Mellow. A late addition, after Kaye suddenly quit in the wake of her party’s leadership upheavals, Mellow has Kaye’s liberal leanings, but is appealing to employers and homeowners. She told Newshub Nation that jobs are her first concern and she wants to be the voice for business in parliament. Her best hope, however, is to slip through the middle of a warring White and Swarbrick.

Emma Mellow, right, walks Ponsonby Road with Judith Collins and Melissa Lee and Emma Mellow (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

‘What do you want?’

One of the atypical aspects of the Auckland race is that the frontrunner has a lower profile than the candidate polling in third place. White knows that and it’s a source of some annoyance. Speaking with The Spinoff at her office in downtown Auckland, she recalls a recent Radio New Zealand story about the electorate that focused heavily on Swarbrick.

It’s the middle of the campaign and she’s at her office because she needs to work. A barrister, she’s billed for $0 in September. She works for herself, she’s not a partner in an international firm, and the six unions she represents still need her to put in some hours.

A lot of people don’t quite know who she is. White said she feels as though people have looked at her resumé and have judged her harshly. Yes, she lost in 2017, but she came closer than expected. Yes, she’s a lawyer, but she represents workers and whistleblowers. She charges on a sliding scale, people only pay what they can afford. Yes, she does own a home, but her mortgage is “monstrous” for her salary.

“Yes, I’m a lawyer. I can’t always be ‘the’ candidate. I’m not a list MP,” she said, in muted criticism of list MPs like Swarbrick who can spend a lot of their free time between elections campaigning. “It’s true, I’m not particularly fond of social media, but I’m 52, I’m a lawyer and I’ve got stuff to offer. Really, what do you want? The other day there was a story on Radio New Zealand heavily focused on Chlöe. We’re at the point where people need to really understand that I’m the person who can win this for the left and it would be terrible to lose that.”

“It’s been frustrating,” she adds. “You can’t be everything to everyone.”

Helen White visits inMusic in Auckland with Jacinda Ardern in September (Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

The left battles, the race grows closer

Last Sunday, a Colmar Brunton poll in Auckland Central showed a tightening race. White was ahead at 35%, with Mellow at 30% and Swarbrick at 26%. Only 9% said they were undecided. White is trailing her party, with 47% planning to cast a party vote for Labour. Mellow and Swarbrick are ahead of their teams, with the Greens expected to receive only 13% of the party vote in the electorate.

To White, the tight race is a sign that voters need to rally for Labour. She’s worried National will find a way to sneak up the middle. Swarbrick argues the opposite: with the progressive parties expected to receive 61% of the vote, she said there’s no middle National could sneak through.

Both sides have doubled down on the campaign trail. If you live in Auckland Central and haven’t seen your candidates in debate, that’s a choice you’ve made. The candidates have engaged in numerous debates. Neither White nor Swarbrick can recall exactly how many, but it’s a lot. They’ve grown accustomed to each other’s answers and thoughts. There’s not much more to learn.

The two grapple over the wealth tax and housing when they meet at the Ponsonby community centre in late September. Mellow doesn’t attend as it isn’t officially an Auckland Central debate. White is measured and enunciates clearly. She’s been an employment lawyer for 27 years and knows how to deliver a case. Swarbrick has an arsenal of passion. It’s a polite and policy-focused version of the wars playing out online between the area’s Labour and Green supporters.

New Zealand has largely avoided the splintering of progressive parties seen in recent years across the English-speaking world. In the United States, business-friendly Democrats have ceded ground to an openly socialist and increasingly vocal wing of the party. British Labour is still grappling with the legacy of former leader Jeremy Corbyn. In Canada, the New Democrats face the question of whether to focus on social justice or the traditional union base.

That fragmentation hasn’t happened in New Zealand partly due to the dominant popularity of Jacinda Ardern, as well as MMP. Labour’s hard-left activists are, in many cases, likely to be in the Green Party. One of the only places that debate has played out in New Zealand this election is in Auckland Central.

The politicians and thinkers White and Swarbrick reference in conversations are revealing of the progressive schism.

Swarbrick calls on US Democrat Bernie Sanders to defend her party’s wealth tax; he’s at that party’s left-most fringe. Labour’s Michael Joseph Savage is her example of taxes put to good use.

White looks to US Democrat Elizabeth Warren, a progressive character whose politics are closer to the centre but well to the left of presidential candidate Joe Biden. She also reads a lot of Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel prize-winning economist critical of globalism and growing inequality.

The two candidates largely want the same things – liveable wages and affordable housing – but have very different ways to get there.

The pragmatic progressive

As she gets increasingly relaxed during an interview, White gets more animated and passionate. While the attribute of “passion” is more often associated with Swarbrick, all three of the major candidates have something that lights them up. Swarbrick’s at the Ponsonby debate was clearly cannabis reform. White’s is employment law.

As a lawyer she has stood up to large companies. Fonterra has lost to her in court several times. She also helped scupper a plan by Air New Zealand to contract out all its heavy maintenance work to China, something that would have led to the loss of hundreds of jobs.

Few people have spent much time thinking of restraint of trade clauses in employment agreements. White has and it’s one of those areas of law that she cares deeply about. Companies in New Zealand are increasingly inserting clauses into contracts that were once reserved for senior executives to stop them from moving to another company and taking trade secrets. Those clauses now sometimes appear in low-wage jobs as well, largely to restrict workers from quitting.

“Stiglitz talks about how those clauses widen the gap between rich and poor. I know that. I had someone in here the other day who earns $20 an hour and has a six-month restraint. That person is afraid to work for themselves, unless they want to take a six-month holiday where they don’t work at all,” she said.

She’s seen an increasing number of contracts now stipulate you can’t hire someone from your company if you leave. “So your mate could make $5 an hour more if they go work for you, but they can’t. What are they getting out of that deal? It’s pushing down wages, and you might not see that if you’re part of a union or have the same employer, but I see it. I see it all the time,” she adds.

If elected, she’ll have a bill ready for the biscuit tin of private members’ causes. She wants to contain the trade clauses before they get out of control. It’s a small thing, but for some of the young professionals in Auckland Central, it could become a major life hurdle in the next few years.

Candidates at an Auckland Central debate at Freemans Bay Primary School, including Chloe Swarbrick third from left and Helen White third from right (Photo: Josie Adams)

Taking out government insurance

One of the arguments for a Swarbrick vote in Auckland Central is a safety net for the party as a whole. They’re currently hovering around 6%, just above the cut-off to get into parliament. Making matters worse, the Greens have consistently turned in a slightly worse performance on election night than the polls would suggest. It could be a close shave. A win in Auckland Central would mean bringing a group of MPs to parliament even if they fall under the 5% threshold.

There have been suggestions that Labour should have surrendered the seat to the Greens as an insurance policy. That could be done either through a wink, like in neighbouring Epsom where National supporters vote Act, or by White dropping out of the race.

There’s one problem with those suggestions. The Greens said they haven’t asked for a deal and Labour said it hasn’t offered.

It’s obviously a source of frustration for White. As she sees it, the suggestion is she isn’t up to the challenge. “Jacinda has been clear that a tactical vote in Auckland Central is a vote for me,” she said.

“There’s been a lot of chatter on Twitter,” she adds. “People are trying to stare Jacinda down for a deal. There’s never been a deal with Auckland Central. She has repeatedly said that. She’s been totally clear, she’s never sent any other signal, but some people would really like her to.”

Like who?

“Simon Wilson has repeatedly said things about me. I’ve never met the man. I’d quite like to,” she said, her words heavy like the stick she’d like to bludgeon him with. “There’s been a little bit of character assassination going on. That I’m lacklustre. That I didn’t do well last time, that doesn’t bear fruit.”

Wilson, a senior writer at the NZ Herald and formerly of The Spinoff, was asked about the allegation of character assassination. He said he hasn’t tried to personalise his analysis of the race. His columns haven’t been about White, but that centre-left voters should keep the Greens in parliament and vote for Swarbrick to ensure Labour has a partner after election day.

White rejects the suggestion. “The Greens are at 7% and they have a good base vote. It’s always been that way. This isn’t even the electorate where they traditionally have the highest party vote,” she said. She spoke before the latest poll showed Green support dropping to 6%.

The Greens’ best showing for the party vote in 2017 was in Wellington Central, where they won just over 21%. However, the electorate results were far grimmer. Green co-leader James Shaw finished third with 15%, far behind Labour’s Grant Robertson. The man who would become finance minister and Labour’s de facto deputy leader was a few hundred ballots shy of winning an outright majority.

Most voters double tick, as high as 70% according to some research. As White sees it, that makes the Greens’ mission in Auckland Central close to mathematically impossible.

Chlöe Swarbrick on the campaign trail (Photo: Supplied)

Labour red with a dash of green

The Greens say they never wanted a deal with Labour, dashing the hopes of people who want a green Auckland Central as an insurance policy.

“If we’re going to win this, we’re going to win it the old-fashioned way,” said Swarbrick. She admits that Labour needs the Greens, but this local race is disconnected from the national conversation, she adds.

“This seat isn’t going to change the balance of power,” she said. What if the Greens fall under the party vote threshold? “Yes, it could if we don’t hit 5%. But we’re focused on hitting that. This has never been any form of back-up.”

Her race in Auckland Central isn’t about getting the Greens into parliament, it’s about representing local issues and bringing a more progressive and green shade to a future Labour government, according to Swarbrick. This echoes a recent conversation The Spinoff had with the Green co-leaders, who said their campaign is partly focused on promising New Zealanders that they’ll empower Ardern to be more progressive.

“If people want climate change to be the nuclear-free movement. If people want house prices to go down, if people want to address poverty, if they want to address welfare inequality… the Greens are the only party who puts that stuff constantly on the agenda and fights for it,” she said. In their Ponsonby debate, both White and Swarbrick said they wanted house prices to come down.

Swarbrick is interrupted several times while sitting outside of a wine bar on Ponsonby Road. Young locals want to thank her. A few days later, National leader Judith Collins would run into opposition while campaigning on the same stretch of road. The support for the Greens isn’t universal, said Swarbrick – a number of local supporters were ordered to take down signs by landlords and neighbouring businesses.

Foreshadowing what a possible coalition debate behind closed doors could look like in a few weeks, Swarbrick said she’s been exasperated by the conversation about taxes this campaign. The Greens’ proposed wealth tax has been attacked or ignored by every other party. Labour has promised increased income taxes on the very wealthiest New Zealanders, while National and Act have promised to lower taxes. Neither of the major parties want to tax capital gains or real estate assets.

“Can politicians get real for once? Seriously? Everybody, every time, asks how do we get the young people engaged? We get them engaged by stopping bullshitting them,” said Swarbrick between sips of beer.

“People can see through the way that politicians project this veneer of professionalism and talk in this loaded terminology and dog whistles to certain demographics. To talk about child poverty, the climate crisis or wealth inequality is all meaningless if you’re not backing it up with actual solutions,” another sip. A young woman on the street stops and smiles at her.

“I said that at a debate a few weeks ago. Helen and Emma said, ‘You can’t say that we don’t care about those things.’ You can care about those things, but there’s massive cognitive dissonance if you don’t actually want to address them. You can’t grow your way out of those problems.”

Her solution: it’s time to have a mature conversation about taxes and stop tinkering in the margins. If the Greens enter coalition talks with Labour next week, she said, far from compromising their core values, they’ll be bringing in the spirit of Michael Joseph Savage with them.

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