In it for the long haul, and the win

21:20, Aug 25 2014
STANDING UP FOR NELSON: Labour’s Maryan Street, left, is challenging for a third-time against National’s Nick Smith.

National's Nick Smith has been in Parliament for 24 years. Maryan Street was Labour Party president from 1995 to 1997 and is seeking her fourth parliamentary term. As they step up their campaigns for the Nelson seat, Bill Moore asked them what keeps a politician interested. 

Nick Smith has a suite of offices in Annesbrook with a conference room down the corridor and a spacious hall upstairs. Maryan Street shares a cramped space with her electorate secretary off Rutherford Mews, part of a back-alley building where Nelson's trade union movement has its head quarters.

Smith threw a jaunty campaign launch bash this week at the Boathouse with wine, finger foods and his good mate, Deputy Prime Minister Bill English, as guest speaker. Street told the Nelson Mail on Monday that the door-knocking and targeted leaflet drops for her campaign were well under way and there wasn't going to be a launch function.

The contrasts are clear: a well-organised, well-supported, well-funded and seemingly safe electorate MP up against a third-time challenger with much slimmer resources and less conspicuous adulation from her supporters.

Neither, however, will say that it's a done deal.

Earlier in the year, Street told the Mail that winning the Nelson party vote back for Labour was her goal, an admission that Smith had the seat in the bag. This week she saw it differently, declining to set an electorate vote target, saying: "I'm out to win."


"When I first arrived in this electorate his majority was 10,000. I took it down to 8000 and then to 7000. So he's not on an upward trajectory," she says.

Smith, Nelson's MP since 1996 after two terms in Tasman, says "nobody owns any seat".

National's Nelson team was shocked by Aldo Miccio's failure to hold the mayoralty for a second term. Smith isn't taking chances.

"The public make a decision at each election about who they think is going to be best," he says. "And the moment you take them for granted is the day that you'll go down the tube."

So as well as his launch party and his usual programme of street-corner meetings - 18 in the next month - he's holding a weekly public meeting in his rooms, wheeling out a different fellow Cabinet minister each time.

He's already out door-knocking. So is Street. That's a major part of her campaign, along with personalised campaign leaflets and fronting up at the various meet-the-candidates gatherings where she'll face off against Smith and the minor parties.

"It's more important that I make contact with people than waste money with a launch," she says.

Both say their local organisations are in top form.

Smith has a membership chart in his office. The figures are confidential, he says, but "I think we're in the best shape since I first contested Nelson".

"I'm delighted with my campaign team. The membership's in good heart."

Street says: "We've done more phone canvassing and door knocking at this stage in a campaign than we've ever done before. This targeted [leaflet] stuff is smarter. Here in Nelson I've got more volunteers and more hoarding sites than I've ever had."

She says since moving to Nelson in 2007 she's worked hard to show that list MPs are no lesser members than electorate MPs.

"As a list MP, I've made it my business to be a very good electorate MP as well."

She tries to visit every school in the electorate every year, she goes to everything she's invited to across the business-arts-sport-community spectrum and after 18 months she was granted a site beside the Nelson Market to match Smith's weekly presence.

She can help people with the problems that they bring to the market meetings just like Smith can, she says.

While it was disturbing when the tide went out for Labour in 2008 and 2011 and took the Nelson party vote with it, Street says, "it must be galling to Nick at every public event that we are introduced as Nelson's two MPs".

She says the sense of social justice from her Presbyterian upbringing in New Plymouth got her into politics - she joined the Labour Party in 1984 - and that's what keeps her going.

"The thing that drives me on is inequality. It's the thing that disturbs me the most."

So when she first thought about moving to Nelson, where her partner's family live, she asked herself, "If my mission in life is to help the poor, why the hell am I coming to Nelson?"

"It took me a very short time on arrival here to realise that this really is a tale of two cities. There is real poverty here. I have door-knocked substantially around Tahunanui, Stoke and Victory, because they need to know who I am and they need to know that I'll stick up for them."

She says Labour is the only large progressive voice in New Zealand politics. "We need to first recognise the responsibility of that and second, build it and show we are capable of delivering on the things we think are needed in order for people to get an equal shot at a decent life."

Street was the first openly gay woman to be elected to Parliament. It's never been raised as an issue in Nelson, she says.

"I don't make a song and dance about it, I'm just me, and in the end they choose to vote for me or not according to their own lights and the things that are important to them."

She says Nelson is the best possible seat to run in as a gay candidate. "It's got a very liberal history and while the conservatism is there, I always find that on social issues Nelson people have a fairness to them that resonates with me perfectly well."

If her role is useful for anything, it's to let young people know that you can be gay and mainstream, she says.

"You don't have to feel like a freak sitting on the edges of society out on the periphery, in the margins somewhere, where people at best tolerate you and at worst despise you for being there."

She relates a story about a gay student she had at Green Bay High School.

"We got on very well and I kind of looked after him a bit."

After he left school, at 18 he took his own life, leaving her distressed and wondering what she could have done to make him feel safer.

Engaging with Nelson's network of gay and straight young people, parents, counsellors, teachers and professionals, helping them create safe places to grow up has been "one of the most valuable things I've done here in Nelson", Street says.

Smith puts his remarkable success in Nelson down to hard work.

"I put everything into the job."

He believes his "weekly duty" at the market is crucial, grounding him, keeping him abreast of developing issues and widening his contact with the public.

"I do think I get a benefit from the fact that I genuinely enjoy my constituency work."

He says you can have all the high-powered policy discussions you like but it's helping people that builds loyalty and allows people to make a direct judgment about the way he deals with their issue, rather than through a secondhand message via the media.

"The last thing is that I make no bones about the fact that I am a centrist politician.

"I dislike the politics of the hard left as much as I dislike it of the hard right. I think that's a comfortable fit with a place like Nelson, that I genuinely think is pretty moderate and mainstream New Zealand."

Smith says being both Nelson's electorate MP and a Cabinet minister is "frantic and challenging".

"I find it incredibly intellectually stimulating. I have a low boredom threshold.

"The part that's just unrelenting is that as a minister and to a lesser extent as an MP, you are always on duty."

He says the political decisions in New Zealand are made in the Cabinet room on the Beehive's ninth floor.

"Just to be a part of that decision-making feels enormously privileged and lucky."

The two MPs inevitably meet frequently at events and, of course, in Parliament.

So, what are their impressions of each other?

Street on Smith: "I've always admired his approach to the job in Nelson. He's got a different style to me, that's for sure. He's pleasant and helpful in Nelson, and I see a different side of him in the theatre of Parliament."

Smith on Street: "We have a pleasant and professional relationship and that speaks well of the way democracy functions in Nelson and New Zealand. Maryan's got a good brain. She tends to be hard left and so philosophically we're in a pretty different area."

Would they sit down together for a coffee or a glass of wine?

Street: "No. We're not friends. There's too much different between us."

Smith: "There's always a bit of awkwardness ... I would like to compare notes one day when we're both long retired."

The Nelson Mail