The battle for Mana

BY ANDREA VANCE
Last updated 05:00 09/10/2010
Hekia Parat
MAARTEN HOLL/ Dominion Post

ON WALKABOUT: Hekia Parata on the campaign trail.

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The rain is coming down in buckets. It's been pouring all morning, and most of the previous night. The wind is blowing the rain horizontal and rendering umbrellas useless.

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett has been roped into a walkabout with Hekia Parata and, given the weather, you might excuse her for hoping the candidate will call off the morning's campaigning.

"I was hoping for the phone to ring," she confesses. "But there's no stopping Hekia."

Indeed. Already a list MP, Ms Parata was defeated by outgoing MP Winnie Laban in Mana 2008 and was unsuccessful in Wellington Central in 2002. She knows Mana is a Labour safe seat – Prime Minister John Key repeatedly refers to National as the "underdog" in the race. But Ms Parata is determined to run a strong campaign.

"I'm under no illusions that it's hard yakka and it is really a battle of inches and yards. So I'm putting in those yards," she says.

She perseveres with campaigning, deciding to call in on shops and cafes on Mana Esplanade instead. On a gloomy day, she and Ms Bennett make a vivacious pair and Ms Parata seems to have a genuine connection with people – from the estate agent worried about property prices to the pensioners sheltering in a cafe.

"I'm getting a pretty good response," she says. "When I first stood in 2008 I was relatively new to the electorate and Winnie Laban was very well established. But over those 2 years I've put in a lot of effort to get to know people, to make connections, I guess.

"I mix with all different parts of the community and they seem to remember that. I try my hardest to know what their issues are."

While she has had a couple of years to finesse her views on the difficulties facing the area, there is no doubting her passion.

She and her husband, Tertiary Education Commission chairman Sir Wira Gardiner, bought a house in Titahi Bay "on impulse" in 2006 and lived there for three years. They still own it. Although a list MP, she opened a constituency office in Porirua and holds weekly clinics. She wears a pretty greenstone dog-tag around her neck with "Mana" etched into it. "Look, I just absolutely love the people in Mana," she says with a huge grin. "There are people who have made conscious decisions not to live in Wellington. It's a really eclectic, diverse electorate.

"Topographically, it is a slice of New Zealand. It's got that long coastline, the backbone ridge of hills and everybody lives between them. And that's pretty much New Zealand's story, right?"

She exudes pride talking about nursing courses on offer at Whitireia polytechnic, jewellery makers in Paekakariki, tiny publishers on the Kapiti Coast and the successful athletics team at Titahi Bay.

But there is no escaping Labour's hold on the constituency, and some of National's policies are unpopular there. Ms Parata does her best to explain how the GST rise, national standards and the controversial Kapiti expressway will benefit people in the region.

There has been "a real embrace" of the October 1 tax cuts, she says. Parents have shown "a keen interest locally in what the educational standards and achievements are of their children."

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Roads are "an issue", she admits. "There is some hostility, but again, I have to say there is a fair amount of phlegmatic and pragmatic responses. Because the vast majority of people have, for a long time, wanted Transmission Gully.

"The thing that has been welcomed of the National-led Government is that [Transport Minister] Steven Joyce announced that actually the road would go through ... Most people are saying to me, `Yep, let's just get on with it."'

Arguably one of Parliament's more glamorous MPs, Ms Parata seems uncomfortable talking about her appearance. Noting a mention of her lip gloss in a previous article, she chides: "You didn't write about Kris Faafoi's aftershave. I dress well, always have. Long before I came to Parliament ... I think that it's respectful to the people with whom I'm engaging.

"My mother sewed our clothes from a very early age. The Parata girls, we were always well turned out. It's just part of who I am."

Growing up in the tiny East Cape community of Ruatoria, Ms Parata came from a family of eight. "We never owned our own home. We never owned a car. But we had a pretty strong set of values about working hard, being ambitious, getting an excellent education, and taking responsibility for the choices we make in life."

She left a successful career in the public service for politics. She also runs a consultancy business with her husband. But she is not the first MP in her family.

She requested her office on Parliament's ground floor because of two black-and-white photos which hang on the wall outside.

"[They are] pictures of two people to whom I'm related. Sir Apirana Ngata was a National minister back in the 30s and 40s and my great-grandfather Tame Parata was a member of Parliament for the whole of the South Island, which is breath-taking, for 28 years."

She says her motivation is "giving people the opportunities I have had. All my brothers and sisters and I now own our own homes. And our own cars," she laughs. "This is just another phase, or stage, as I see it, in my public service journey."

JAN LOGIE FOR THE GREEN PARTY

When Prime Minister John Key declares National the "underdog" in the Mana by-election it makes Green Party candidate Jan Logie laugh. "Yeah right," she chuckles, a nod to her unlikely chances of securing the seat.

"We are not going to say we expect to win it, but we are going to play it as if we can. Hopefully the upshot will be we win it, or we boost our vote by a lot."

The last Greens candidate polled 6.72 per cent of the vote in 2008. But the first-time candidate sees the campaign as a chance to push her party's policies on public transport, inequality and water quality.

"It would be a long shot to win but somebody has got to be saying this stuff ... None of what I am hearing from [the other candidates] offers anything new. It just sounds so familiar and hasn't made a difference."

Ms Logie has plenty of time to think about how to solve the problems of the electorate. She spends up to four hours a day on public transport, shuttling between her Paekakariki home and her job in Newtown.

Understandably, how we get from A to B is a passion. "We need faster, more reliable and affordable public transport. How many businesses ... complain about their staff being late every day?"

She is opposed to Transmission Gully and the Kapiti Expressway. The expressway will "sever" communities. Transmission Gully will put an extra 40,000 cars on the road every day, she says.

Running 12 train services a day, with 12 carriages, will take 8000 cars off the road, she believes. Cheaper, and more plentiful, buses are essential. "There's no point saying get out of your cars, take public transport, when it doesn't work for them. I've been sitting on the replacement buses – every day the conversations are `This sucks.' It's a miracle that anyone is taking public transport."

Ms Logie calls herself a "social justice" Green. A development manager for an environmental research centre, she used to work for Women's Refuge, where she still volunteers.

At 40, single, with no children, she jokes she is "a complete no-no" in politics. Originally from Invercargill, she previously lived in the electorate and moved back, from Wellington, in the last month.

"It's an absolutely gorgeous part of the country. It is so culturally rich that I think we should be talking more about the positives of it."

Climate change is naturally on the agenda – but Ms Logie has an interesting take. Her concern is for Pacific Islanders in the electorate who are seeing their islands disappear. She was part of a recent fono organised by Wellington City Council on the subject.

KRIS FAAFOI FOR LABOUR

KRIS FAAFOI has a confession. Just like former ACT MP David Garrett, he has been before the courts. The clean-cut Mana candidate's crime wasn't quite on the scale of stealing a dead child's identity – he failed to pay a fine for not having lights on his bicycle.

The son of aspirational, but struggling, Tokelauan immigrants, Labour's by-election candidate was educated in state schools and grew up to have a glamorous career as a television journalist.

But as a frightened 16-year-old, he secretly tore up reminder notices from the court, afraid to tell his parents about the $60 fine.

Eventually he was hauled before a judge – bringing along CDs and other treasured possessions to hawk off because his pocket money wouldn't cover the penalty, which by then stood at $120.

He was let off with a warning and the fine was waived. "I've never even been arrested," he says. "People say it's a rite of passage, but I haven't ..."

Now 34, Mr Faafoi faces the court of public opinion. Speculation that he was parachuted in from the leader's office – he is Phil Goff's chief press secretary – and is easily controlled persists.

It's a suggestion he roundly rejects. "People say it was a stitch-up – well, I'm sorry, it wasn't. I thought it was pretty close, it came down to the wire on the day.

"I took a lot of time to make sure I was prepared. The month before selection I was working pretty hard on the phones at night to make sure I spoke to most [party] members."

He is the favourite to win the seat, a Labour stronghold for decades. But he insists he is not complacent – and he knows it is a trial run for next year's general election campaigning.

"People get sick of hearing Mana is diverse, but it is. From one end you can get the absolute bottom of New Zealand society, those who are vulnerable, who have nothing. At the other end you've got people who are extremely affluent. You have to appeal to all those communities.

"This is an opportunity for us to highlight the issues that we think are going to be the major ones in the election – cost of living, unemployment, training, education and health."

He has the difficult job of following in the footsteps of the enormously popular Winnie Laban, who is leaving to take up a post at Victoria University.

"When you travel with Winnie, it's like travelling with a rock star, because everyone knows her. If I can do half as good a job, I think the people of Mana should be happy. Having said that, I hope to stamp my own brand on the place."

It would be easy to dismiss Mr Faafoi as a polished spin doctor, all style and no substance. He's too practised a media operator to avoid answering questions, but occasionally his answers are vague, particularly on local matters.

Although there is no over-the-top display of passion, education is clearly important to him.

"I got brought up in a state house. My mum and dad are still in it. So for me, seeing families struggling, I have a lot of empathy for them because I know how difficult it was ... If I can, as an MP, make the lives of their kids better, then I would have achieved a lot of what I wanted to achieve."

His first taste of politics came through his father, a teacher, who encouraged him to be active on the school council.

"My father was the chair on the board of trustees [at Hillmorton High School, Christchurch]. My parents wanted to make sure we had some say in what we were doing at school."HE LEFT TV to take up his job with the Labour Party in 2008, and readily admits he joined the party only late last year, when he was considering a future as a politician and started sounding out senior MPs.

He is keen to stress his connections with Mana, and plans to move to the constituency from his Kilbirnie home with wife Gina, 34, and 18-month-old son George.

"There was virtually no Tokelauan community in Christchurch so most of our family time was spent up here. Ninety-nine per cent of my extended family is in Mana."

His grandmother is in a rest home in Titahi Bay and his grandfather is buried at Whenua Tapu cemetery at Pukerua Bay, he says.

He recounts fond memories of long childhood summers spent playing in Porirua and at Titahi Bay.

"My uncle used to drive buses for Mana coach services. There was nothing like spending the day doing the circuit because he'd let us jump off and get chips or icecream and keep the passengers waiting. We'd jump back on, regardless of where the timetable was."

Pleasant as his reminiscences are, Mr Faafoi worries that things haven't changed much.

"The areas where I used to mess around are very similar to when I was growing up. That's a bit of a concern for me because it shows the hardship that was around there in the early 80s is still there."He shrugs off the view that Labour had almost 10 years in power to change that.

"We can moan about the past, but politics is about making a difference for me. I think of myself as a bit of a new generation.

- The Dominion Post

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