Chch political landscape set for shakeup?

'There's growing anger and resentment'

PHILIP MATTHEWS
Last updated 12:50 28/06/2014
nicky wagner, john key

VISITING: John Key lunches with Nicky Wagner in Ballantynes.

ruth dyson
LAUNCHED: Ruth Dyson announces Labour's policy on red-zoned bare land and commercial property.

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A political starter for ten. Which politician from which party said this about Christchurch East last year?

"The roads and other infrastructure in the electorate are a disgrace three years after the earthquakes. National has cause to be concerned."

That was former ACT MP John Boscawen, who is not exactly a hardcore Left-winger or a so-called "carper and moaner". Boscawen was commenting on a story in the National Business Review in the wake of National's defeat in the Christchurch East by-election.

Defeat? Maybe you need a stronger word.

"National was totally humiliated," political commentator and former Labour Party president Mike Williams says. "That was a landslide."

In a seat vacated by long-term Christchurch East MP Lianne Dalziel, newcomer Poto Williams actually increased Labour's majority. It was said that Labour got the vote out in an old-fashion, door-knocking campaign led by retired MP Jim Anderton involving a cast of hundreds; but the result was also taken as the electorate's verdict on National's management of the broken city.

It came only two years after National's win in 2011 was interpreted as a mandate from Christchurch, an assurance that the Government was on track with the recovery. Two electorates switched from red to blue and Labour's share of the party vote dropped in all of the seven electorates in greater Christchurch.

National's victorious Christchurch Central MP Nicky Wagner does not attribute all of the 2011 result to at the time strong rhetoric about the rebuild, but three years later, after all that has and not happened, does she think people still feel positive about her government's handling of Christchurch?

"It depends on what your experience has been," she says. "Some of it is the responsibility of the Government and some of it is the circumstances of your life."

Mike Williams has a contrasting view. He admits that "the people I still know down there are Lefties", but when he visited Christchurch last year he was struck by two things.

The first is that he kept getting lost because the landmarks he used to navigate have been demolished. The second is that he noticed "a huge amount" of bitterness and resentment.

"Why don't you kick the insurance companies' arse? Why don't you change the board of the Earthquake Commission (EQC)? The vibe that National had done pretty well had turned into the view that things were not happening quickly."

Labour candidate Tony Milne has seen this too.

"There's growing anger and resentment," he says. "People are saying that the priorities of the Government don't match the reality for them. A focus on big anchor projects while people don't have homes to live in. Over 5000 people homeless. Flooding isn't being sorted out. EQC issues are ongoing three and a half years after the earthquake. Traffic congestion."

***

It was a bad election for Labour. In 2011, some of the steepest declines in the party vote happened in greater Christchurch. That trend, along with the loss of the Christchurch Central and Waimakariri electorates, is why Williams often says that the last election was won for National in Christchurch.

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While most media attention is focused on deals in Epsom, Ohariu and East Coast Bays, the importance of Christchurch in the nationwide picture in 2014 is less understood. But with this election already promising to be closer than the last, Christchurch has become crucial.

This month's Fairfax Ipsos poll put Labour's nationwide party vote at just 23.2 per cent (party sources have internal polling at 31 per cent). But Canterbury was the leading region for Labour, at 28 per cent, which could imply that a collapsed party vote is turning around.

"I hear that we're doing OK and our vote's creeping up in Christchurch," is all Tony Milne will say about the polling.

Milne is Labour's choice for Christchurch Central but in 2010, when he was campaign manager for Jim Anderton's mayoral bid, he learnt the hard way that no campaign is over until it's over. A Press poll put Anderton far ahead of Bob Parker before the first Canterbury earthquake hit. Anything can happen in three months.

Milne has a reputation as a loyal party man and an adept organiser. He lost twice in the unwinnable seat of Rakaia but says proudly that "the Ashburton Guardian said I had run the best Labour campaign there in 20 years". He was also a volunteer for Barack Obama in Pennsylvania in 2008.

Monday was the day Milne's campaign to win Christchurch Central became full-time. He took leave from his job as national manager of public health at the Problem Gambling Foundation the previous Friday, but he had already canvassed 8000 people in the electorate.

"You have to earn it," he says. "You have to be seen as someone who fights for the area. That's the biggest piece of feedback I've had while doorknocking. They feel like they haven't had a voice for the past three years."

On paper, it should not be difficult for Milne. Wagner squeaked in by just 47 votes over Labour's Brendon Burns in 2011 and both sides agree that the redrawn boundaries, which bring Sydenham, Beckenham, Opawa, Waltham and Redwood into Christchurch Central and drop Shirley, Richmond and Avonside, are slightly in Labour's favour.

"When you have boundary changes, sitting MPs get upset because they have done a lot of work in those areas and they know those communities well," Wagner says, thinking of Shirley in particular.

Talking by phone from her Parliamentary office in Wellington, Wagner does not sound like she is in campaign mode yet: "I'm just keeping on doing the things I normally do."

For Wagner, Christchurch is focused on what she calls "the two sides of the earthquake". On one side, there are the people struggling, and she cites the recent All Right survey. On the other, people are "making the most of the rebuild".

It is in her nature to be positive. But that can clash with the tougher realities for some in her electorate.

"She's part of a government that's actually doing harm to Christchurch Central," Milne says. "A government that's ignored the big issues like the housing crisis and doesn't believe there is one. I'm knocking on doors and seeing people living in garages and caravans and on couches.

"This government that Nicky's part of is not prioritising people's housing. The market is never going to sort that out. The Government has to intervene to protect people and to give people the security that they need."

But Milne cannot assume it will be a sure thing. Sitting MPs have higher profiles and greater resources. And while Wagner could possibly come in on the party list if she loses, she feels "it's important that I win the seat".

She did six years as a list MP before her slim win in 2011 and feels she is just getting into her stride: "It takes a while to figure out how to make things work."

And if Milne thinks Wagner is part of a government doing harm to Christchurch Central, what does Wagner make of Milne?

"I know Tony because he used to work for Tim Barnett," she says. "I think he's a very nice young man."

***

All the doorknocking and all the local, individual stories. Tony Milne met a 92-year-old man in Redwood who expects to be dead before his rebuild is settled. So many people in St Albans told him about the need for a turning arrow on the corner of Cranford and Innes St, he began a campaign.

And then there is Phillipstown School, still fighting forced closure by the Ministry of Education. Milne has been on fundraisers and rallies, sat in court with the affected community and provided strategic advice to principal Tony Simpson. Labour's position is to keep the school open at least another two years and then review it.

This has a personal dimension for Milne: "The reason I joined the Labour Party was the National government closed my high school."

That was Cargill High School, Invercargill, in 1998.

"I'm from a working class lower income family and my parents had to shell out to buy a new school uniform for my final year of school when they had already struggled to pay for a uniform in the first place. Those are the little things that people don't think about around school closures."

Then Labour went on to close schools in government which was "a big disappointment to me".

As for Phillipstown, population projections say the city needs the school. Phillipstown is less earthquake damaged than Woolston School, with which it will merge. Woolston is in a flood-prone area while Phillipstown is not, and this is before you consider that the school, families and communities all want it to stay open, as do the Christchurch City Council and a community policing team.

Milne argues that "the Phillipstown decision doesn't make sense at all". Could there even be a Phillipstown backlash for Wagner?

She agrees that it has been "very controversial". She says that "right at the beginning of this process" she told Education Minister Hekia Parata that "I'm not prepared to support anything that doesn't make sense for Christchurch or if I don't see a good outcome".

Does that mean Phillipstown closing makes sense and is a good outcome?

"Everybody hates to lose something," Wagner says. "But now we're beginning to see what we can gain. It will be a fantastic opportunity in the long term."

She confirms that the school asked her for help when it was first threatened with closure.

"I worked very closely with the principal. After the earthquakes, I was involved with cleaning up the school. I brought the Buddhist community along and did fundraising.

"I've listened to what they have to say and offered to do anything I can to help, to smooth the way but not conflict with the Government."

How useful was this? Principal Tony Simpson is unwilling to be drawn into the politics of comparing the support candidates have offered.

"I've felt that I've liaised well with all candidates," he says, "but I'm very disappointed that Phillipstown School has been considered by the minister as closing and that the voice of this community has not been recognised."

***

Christchurch Central could go back to Labour but how about Waimakariri?

Post-earthquake population drift was at least part of the reason National's Kate Wilkinson took Waimakariri in 2011, after Labour's Clayton Cosgrove had it for 12 years.

Labour's Ilam candidate James Dann is sure that Waimakariri can be won again.

"National hasn't shown a lot of respect for the people of Waimakariri by knifing Kate Wilkinson in the back and running Matthew Doocey in the seat," Dann says. "Clayton has a really good reputation out there and people still give him constituency issues."

Doocey was National's man in Christchurch East last year. Mike Williams is amazed that National is running him again.

Some in Labour suspect that the low profiles and late announcements of National candidates in 2014 is a signal that it doesn't expect to do well in Christchurch. Former car salesman Karl Varley will run in Wigram. List MP Joanne Hayes is running in Christchurch East after not getting selected for Wairarapa. Nuk Korako is running in Port Hills.

But two National seats are still sure things. Selwyn on the south-western edge of the city is held by Amy Adams and Ilam in the north-west is held by Gerry Brownlee.

James Dann was keen on Christchurch Central but when Milne was picked, he opted for Ilam. It may be considered safe National, but there is more to it than leafy streets and grand houses.

"People would be surprised at how unequal Ilam is as an area," he says.

Like Milne, Dann can quote the statistics. In Ilam, 25 per cent of households earn over $100,000, but in suburbs like Jellie Park, the median income is just $19,200. In Upper Riccarton, it is $16,000.

"I've been going around places like Truman Rd in Aorangi. Those people don't watch the news. They don't have computers at home. They're not even following me on Twitter."

As a blogger and inner-city resident, Dann is used to hearing that social media is the future of politics or at least the best political weapon. But campaigning in Ilam's low-income areas has revealed some of the lessons that Labour learnt in Christchurch East: you have to get in people's faces and have solutions.

The people he meets want to hear about jobs and houses, child poverty solutions and lower power prices. They have very local concerns, like changes to bus routes and the threat of market rents on state houses. They don't care about dolphins and fracking or Donghua Liu.

"Rolling around in political circles insulates you from what is out there," Dann says.

"It's not what Kermit said, but being Green is kind of easy. Being middle-class, liberal and preaching to your friends about those issues. It's not about getting out to these houses in Ilam."

In one way, Dann might have been an odd fit for Ilam, but in another, it was an ideal match. As earthquake recovery minister, Brownlee has been the chief target of Dann's Rebuilding Christchurch blog. Now he gets to take him on in person.

Dann is increasingly convinced that the blueprint is not working, and is too ambitious for a city the size of Christchurch. The widespread apathy in the city is just as problematic.

"We seem to be sleepwalking towards knocking down cathedrals, knocking down heritage buildings, knocking down a swimming pool to build a playground. National can say it has a mandate from 2011, but no one voted on a stadium, no one voted on a convention centre and no one voted on the frame."

Labour in 2011 chose not to politicise the earthquake. It wanted to avoid being seen as negative although, nationwide, it ran a negative "no asset sales" line. But in the Christchurch East by-election, the earthquake did become political and a solution was proposed. Labour promised 10,000 KiwiBuild homes and a rejuvenation of New Brighton. "We gave people a reason to vote for Poto Williams and Labour," Milne says. "It wasn't about bagging the National Party and what they had done."

This is why Labour is rolling out Christchurch policy announcements on consecutive Mondays. There was the earthquake court idea, the red zone buy-out offer, rockfall mitigation for the Port Hills, Kiwiassure. There is more to come.

"Last time the earthquake policy fit on a piece of A4 paper," Dann says. "There is no shame in putting it to the public and having a serious discussion. We can do it properly and make hay from it."

Each announcement also has the side effect of putting Christchurch issues on the national news at least once a week.

"Christchurch is not a political issue," Dann says. "Even within Christchurch, it isn't really. Across the country, the height of political discussion is when John Campbell comes down here and does something."

Tony Milne agrees.

"I go outside of Christchurch and people have no idea what we are facing on a daily basis," he says. "I tell the stories about the Flockton Basin and the Beckenham Loop, the issues around homelessness.

"John Key said this is a challenge for all of New Zealand. It can't be if people don't know what's going on."

- The Press

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