Chlöe Swarbrick’s victory was one of the biggest surprises of the 2020 election, but in the past three years she’s made the seat her own. Can the high-profile Green hold on to Auckland Central, or will it flip to a National or Labour newbie?
Herne Bay, possibly the most expensive suburb in the country; the chaotic CBD, where shoebox apartments are stacked over empty shopfronts and bougie eateries; and two barefoot, gumboot, strappy-sandal lifestyle islands, Waiheke and Aotea Great Barrier – welcome to the Auckland Central electorate. Here, there are a lot of educated young adults, and not many children or elderly people. Over half of the population was born overseas, the most of any electorate. A third of them live on their own, more than any other electorate, and almost seven of every 10 of don’t own their home. A quarter of the homes have no heating, compared to only 4% of homes across the nation. The hot topics in the area are crime, housing, transport and liveability.
The Auckland Central electorate was created for the 1887 election, and has been in continuous existence since 1905. In 2008 Grafton and Point Chevalier were shaved off and Newton was added on and in 2014 Westmere and most of Grey Lynn were moved to the Mt Albert electorate to account for expected population growth.
Last election, the Green Party’s Chlöe Swarbrick won by just 1,068 votes (3% of the valid votes cast) to slip into the Auckland Central seat – only the second time a Green candidate had won an electorate (the other was Jeanette Fitzsimons in Coromandel in 1999). The seat had been held by National’s Nikki Kaye since 2008, but sometimes by as little as 600 votes (2014) and never by more than 1581 votes (2017). Before that, it was a fairly safe Labour seat, the single exception being Sandra Lee, who won the seat for the Alliance in 1993. A few months out from the 2020 election, Kaye announced she was leaving politics, which made a Swarbrick victory seem more plausible, though very few predicted it.
Swarbrick has been a high-profile presence in the seat for the past three years and, in contrast to her unexpected 2020 win, it’s hard not to see her as the front-runner in Auckland Central in 2023. Her closest contender from 2020, Labour’s Helen White, has retreated to the Mt Albert electorate, and Emma Mellow, the National Party candidate, who was just under 3,000 votes behind, is nowhere to be found (she’s rumoured to be in Australia). Instead the two major parties have put first-timers forward, and one can’t help but wonder if the high-profile seat is being used as a training ground, and considered unwinnable, held tightly in Swarbrick’s high-profile grasp. Her campaign headquarters on Karangahape Road is buzzing with volunteers and neon green tube lights.
The two top contenders taking on Swarbrick are National’s Mahesh Muralidhar and Labour’s Oscar Sims. Muralidhar’s list placing of 43 makes it highly unlikely he’ll get into parliament without winning his electorate, and at 63 on Labour’s list, Sims has no chance, so both are pinning their hopes on taking Auckland Central off Swarbrick. Last week, the pair joined Swarbrick on Gone By Lunchtime’s election megapod to debate the issues facing their electorate. They also went head to head in a K Rd Business Association-hosted debate at Whammy Bar the week prior, and at an earlier debate at St-Matthew-in-the-city.
So what are the main issues facing Auckland Central, according to the candidates, and how do they propose to deal with them?
Tough on crime: National’s Mahesh Muralidhar
You may recognise National’s first-time candidate Mahesh Muralidhar from reality TV show Going Straight (described at the time as “Fear Factor on the sickness benefit” by the Listener), which he won in the early 2000s. Mahesh Muralidhar was badly burned in a stunt re-enactment, but this hasn’t stopped him from becoming, in his own words, “a seasoned executive with a track record of getting things done”. He is CEO of a New Zealand venture capital firm.
The 43-year-old lives in Ponsonby and revealed on the megapod that he drives a Tesla (not a Ferrari, as one member of the public had accused him of).
During the megapod and Whammy debates, he copped criticism for his party backing out of the bipartisan medium-density residential standards, which were intended to provide more housing without sprawl. When debate host Toby Manhire asked if “a little part of him died” when National withdrew its support, Muralidhar gave an emphatic no. The decision was in response to constituents’ concerns, he said. “We listened and said ‘I get it’.” Swarbrick, visibly agitated at this, pushed back: “I can’t interpret it any other way other than cowardice,” she said, saying that perhaps the National Party saw it as a way to win some marginal seats – no doubt hinting at her own electorate.
Muralidhar backed National’s housing growth policy, denying, as proposed by Whammy debate moderator Russell Brown, that its aim was “to keep apartments out of Epsom”, as well as Labour candidate Oscar Sims’ assertion that “his party’s policies will make it more difficult to build more houses”. Muralidhar even said the policy would lower rents, which, as pointed out by Simon Wilson in the Herald, goes further than the official National Party line.
Crime, and being tough on it, are repeated refrains for Muralidhar. “I’ve talked to a dairy owner who’s had a machete held to his neck,” he said during the Whammy debate. “I’ve talked to a young woman with a job on Queen St whose parents say she should quit. My number one commitment would be to make sure Auckland Central is safe again.”
When asked by Manhire what one thing he would do to make Queen Street “less shit”, Muralidhar said it would be to put a police station downtown. Sims was quick to point out that there was a police station downtown until it was closed under a National government in 2013.
Muralidhar clashed with Swarbrick over transport policy too. She asked him if he agreed with the “international expert advice” on induced congestion – that building more roads leads to more traffic. He said that concepts need to be tested in context, and that transport projects need to be prioritised and staged. “We haven’t staged our priorities properly, there are cycleways going nowhere, cones all over the place… our roads are terrible,” he said.
Because Chlöe is too busy: Labour’s Oscar Sims
Throughout his campaign for Auckland Central, Sims’ tune has changed in harmony with the national polls. At first, his pitch was that as part of Labour, he would have a direct line into government, and so Auckland Central would have a strong voice in parliament. Now that a Labour-led government is looking less and less likely, he’s saying that Swarbrick will be busy being the Green Party’s spokesperson for “a lot of different things”, so “I can step in and take over that local advocacy role”.
It seems that for Sims, being Labour candidate has gone from a strength (being an inside voice) to a hindrance (being on the defensive for a party that’s falling out of favour). During the megapod, when Manhire left the studio to let them deliberate among themselves, Sims said, “This is just going to become you two grilling me.” To an extent he was right, with Labour’s failure to deliver a target for National’s Muralidhar, who said, “there were so many projects you went out and said you were going to deliver that turned into huge wastes of money”. He goaded Sims into saying, “I think we have accepted that we wanted to do more on these issues and we haven’t done that.”
Sims, who like Swarbrick is an inner-city renter without a car, seems to have been to every corner of the electorate, visited police ministers, business associations, markets, festivals, community groups and residents’ groups to talk to his possible future constituents about their concerns. He’s nailed up hoardings, participated in debates, attended every Labour-related campaign launch and hosted a fundraising dinner.
Sims’ top three priorities on policy.nz are improving the safety of the city centre, protecting the rights of renters and improving reliability and affordability of public transport, including the Waiheke ferry. Voters may feel that the 25-year-old isn’t really offering anything Swarbrick isn’t onto already, and Sims seems to knows it. In fact, during debates, the two are often in agreement. During the St-Matthew-in-the-city debate, at one point he pointed to Swarbrick and said, “She’s getting in anyway on the Green Party list,” which is, well, true.
The reigning queen: The Greens’ Chlöe Swarbrick
According to Swarbrick, her biggest wins for her electorate over the past term have been securing the wage subsidy for small businesses, setting up the Ellen Melville Centre-based omicron resilience team, which turned into a community resource during the floods, saving the St James theatre, and increasing environmental protections for the Hauraki Gulf. Since her win by a hair in 2020, Swarbrick has grown her public profile and political stature, and continues to emphasise her belonging in the “community” of the electorate.
Of all the candidates, she has the biggest role in her party, being third on the list, and she considers it a strength. “That fact that I have high-profile spokesperson roles for the party, and I elevate those issues to the house in parliament, but also can link them back to constituency issues, I think, is a massive benefit,” she said during the megapod. She pointed out that her predecessor Nikki Kaye was a cabinet minister at the same time as “amply” representing Auckland Central.
Swarbrick’s number one priority for the electorate, as listed on policy.nz, is passing the Rental Warrant of Fitness Bill, which she launched in July and says will benefit the large number of renters in Auckland Central.
She reels off facts, figures, reports effortlessly, and seems to have done the impossible, that is, work constructively with Auckland mayor Wayne Brown. Together they’re making plans to turn the waterfront port area into public space. “On the areas we can get consensus, we do move forward,” she said.
Swarbrick summons a positive vision when she talks about the central city, in contrast to other candidates’ focus on crime. “We also need to talk about vibrancy – foot traffic, people wanting to be there.” She has been looking at different ways to fill the empty shopfronts of the city, she says, and taking ideas from post-earthquake Christchurch such as Gap Filler to discuss with regeneration organisation Eke Panuku.
Because of her visibility in the electorate and her high profile in parliament and beyond, it’s hard to imagine any of the other candidates winning favour over Swarbrick – but if unlikely candidates didn’t run, we wouldn’t have Swarbrick.