As MP of the most wrecked electorate in the country, Nicky Wagner can see positives all around her. PHILIP MATTHEWS reports.
Which do you prefer, a rock or a hard place?
Put it another way. If you had been an Environment Canterbury (ECan) councillor once and were a National Party MP now, how would you feel about ECan elections being canned for at least three more years?
The ideal person to ask is Nicky Wagner, Christchurch Central MP. "I'm a bit conflicted," she says. "I see the best in both. Obviously, as someone who sat on that council, I enjoyed being an ECan councillor, but I also saw the flaws in the system."
Wagner has been an MP since 2005 - on the list initially and as an electorate MP since a nail-biting count in 2011. From 2002 to 2006, she was an ECan councillor.
The back story is that Government ministers David Carter and Amy Adams announced early this month that ECan elections would be delayed until 2016. That is despite promises, when democratically elected councillors were sacked in 2010, that elections would return in 2013.
Does a loss of democracy matter? Wagner says that as ECan's Canterbury Water Management Strategy has community input, the greater loss of democracy "doesn't matter so much".
But many feel that the Government has not been clear about its reasons for cancelling democracy. A Press editorial warned that it would strengthen a backlash against National in Canterbury.
"Well, if that's the case, that's the case," Wagner says. "There is probably a backlash on all sorts of things. After most disasters, the people in charge get slapped.
"I think we've seen a few examples of looking for scapegoats round here but nothing like the scapegoats they looked for after Hurricane Katrina."
There is a bigger picture to consider, though. Some commentators argued that a swing to National in Christchurch in 2011 was crucial in the election victory. A swing the other way could cost it the 2014 election.
"It could," Wagner agrees. "The point is that it still doesn't make any difference. You have to do what you do the best you can and get on with it. Yes, I'd be really sad if there was a swing against us and I lost my seat through no fault of my own. But that's politics, it's a tough game."
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You can't miss the Nicky Wagner electorate office on Salisbury St. Two Wagner-branded vehicles are parked outside, painted National blue.
There are Wagner flags and Wagner signage, displaying the MP's smiling face. Next door is the empty car park of a bowling club.
In reception, there are lifestyle magazines and the relentlessly upbeat newsletter, "Nicky in the City".
The latest issue has a snapshot of Wagner with Prime Minister John Key at the opening of this office in July. They stand behind a cake iced with an image of Key and Wagner. In the hall there is a large framed photograph, again of Key and Wagner. The newsletter declares: "The official opening of my new electorate office was significant in the context of the Christchurch rebuild."
The electorate office occupies a newly built family home. Before the earthquakes, "an old cold water flat" stood here. Now there is a house that would be unaffordable for pre-quake tenants. This also seems like a symbol of the rebuild.
Wagner lives nearby on Peacock St. Previously, she lived in two different places near Cranmer Square. One was the historic Pickfair house that Wagner and her husband, David, restored.
According to the 2012 Pecuniary Interests Register of New Zealand MPs, Wagner jointly owns a Christchurch family home, a Wellington apartment and commercial properties in Sydenham and Sockburn. A holiday home in Picton is owned by a trust.
Wagner and her husband David have family trusts and individual trusts, and she has interests in two other trusts. She is also the director and sole shareholder of a company called E-Marketing Limited, incorporated in 1998. Before she got into politics in her 40s, she was in the online selling business.
She is a co-director and 50 per cent shareholder of David Wagner Holdings Limited, her husband's property development business. From 2000 to 2007, she was a director of the Canterbury Building Society.
She received almost $20,000 in declared campaign donations in 2011. United Fisheries donated $2800, Irvine International donated $2000, Hanham and Philp donated $2000, David Wagner donated $2300 and Rosanne Hawarden, formerly an Independent Citizens candidate in an ECan election, donated $10,708.04.
Wagner says that one of her political strengths is networking, knowing how to connect this person to that one.
In her spacious, sunlit office, she unrolls three maps of central Christchurch. They describe the boundaries of her electorate, its deprivation index and the Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU) plan, with its green corridor, stadium and convention centre.
If the CCDU plan seems like a daydream, the deprivation index defines grim reality. On the map, patches of green (rated 1) are the better off areas, while red (rated 10) is deprived.
"It's the opposite of what they do for school deciles, because decile 10 is the best school but it's the worst here," says Wagner. "Anything that's really, really red is down to decile 10, which is the bottom pile."
She points to boundary changes in the northwest corner of her electorate: "I extended up here and all I got was another Housing Corporation red zone."
These descriptions - the best parts, the red parts - provide insight into strategic thinking, with these electorate maps resembling battle plans. She points out the parts "that are positive for us".
But there is so much red on the Christchurch Central deprivation map, making for an unusual National Party electorate. "It's not a National Party electorate," she says. "It is at the moment."
Could the rebuild keep it that way? "The demographics will change because you will get a different kind of person renting this house than you did in an old, cold water flat."
Also, she says, pointing at the CCDU map's green corridor, "they're talking about quite good housing here".
People in good housing are more likely to vote National. But that housing may simply replace the high-end dwellings that have been lost, like Park Terrace Apartments, which "we used to call Viagra Towers, as all the men who left their wives lived there".
In conversation, Wagner is frank, cheerful, a little guileless. There is no sense of media management from head office. Few National MPs would confess that their seat is not really a National electorate.
How did she win it? Christchurch Central had been held by Labour since it was established in 1946. Geoffrey Palmer, Lianne Dalziel and Tim Barnett represented it. It was a seat where the Alliance did well, where Jack Locke ran on a communist ticket. Not exactly blue territory.
On election night in 2011, there was a dead heat between Wagner and Labour's Brendon Burns. In a recount, Wagner won by 47 votes.
Was the election a referendum on the Government's handling of the earthquake? Or were demographic factors more likely?
Despite winning, Wagner actually saw her vote fall from 2008 to 2011. Burns' vote fell by a greater amount, and there were more than 5000 fewer votes cast for candidates in 2011 compared with 2008.
One assumption is that Labour voters were more likely to be displaced from the electorate after the earthquakes.
"There was a change of demographics but my gut feeling was that I won the vote in a different place," Wagner says.
One place was ethnic communities. "They came over to us. I've heard Brendon's people say I stole the ethnic communities. It's an interest area of mine."
"I wrote to all the Pasifika - this is in their own language - the Chinese, the Indians, the Russians and one other, I can't remember now. I think that was quite fruitful.
"I was very lucky to win. I would have been very lucky to win before the earthquakes too. But I reckon I got 900 more votes from different places than I got last time."
On the map there are schools with declining numbers, particularly in Richmond and Shirley. We were talking a few days ahead of the Government's announcement of drastic education plans for Christchurch.
"The most positive thing that's come out of the earthquakes is that, because our lives have been shaken up so much, we are really focusing on things that matter. When you focus on things that matter, maybe you can move out of your entrenched position a bit. All these schools that have been damaged, they know there has got to be some change."
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Without counting, you can assume the word "positive" occurs more often than "negative" in a conversation with Wagner.
She doesn't volunteer it so one needs to ask: what are the negative things that have come out of the earthquakes?
"The real negatives are that the vulnerable have become more vulnerable. There are winners and losers. There have been some very strong winners."
Winners include businesses that stayed open on the suburban side of the cordon. Or investors who owned commercial property in places like Addington.
But we are talking about positives again. Does Wagner think that the vulnerable are being helped enough?
"We're trying, we're trying."
We haven't heard much from Wagner about the vulnerable in her electorate, compared with Dalziel over the border in Christchurch East.
"We're working hard with them," Wagner says. "I don't actually think the media is that positive for it. I'm an absolute glass half full, three quarters full person. I think we have to get over this hump because it is going to be better and our young people will come back.
"We can build a city for the future. Our city was 140 years old and was dying in lots of places. We don't like to talk about that too much. I'm really into positive. I don't like to talk about negative because I think negative often raises issues that people haven't thought they should worry about. There are enough worries out there already without worrying about things that might never happen or are worse."
She can be more specific, though: "It's the elderly I'm a bit concerned about."
Yet, she says that when she was doorknocking in the early days of no toilets, no power, the elderly would act staunch and direct her to the young mother with the baby next door.
"I had the most grizzles from young people saying, 'Why isn't somebody digging my garden up?' Get a life."
But she recognises that in TC3 areas in her electorate - parts of Richmond, for instance - there are many barriers.
"One of the things that gets up people's noses, and I understand completely, is that somebody on Memorial Ave has had their drive fixed because it was cracked. And they say, 'My house is falling down around my ears!'
"The reason that the drive on Memorial Ave's been done is that it is an insurance claim, straight forward, no problems. Over here, you have barriers. Is it a rebuild or repair? What kind of foundations do they need? Drilling has to be done first. Four or five different things to get through before they can start.
"Logic says do the worst people first but the worst people are worst for a reason."
She says that post-earthquake doorknocking made her work feel worthwhile. "It didn't matter what door I knocked on, they were pleased to see us and wanted to engage. Whereas in a very red seat, in the past . . . "
She would show up in her blue National jacket and they didn't want to know?
"Exactly. You play the cards you get. People ask, why on earth did you stand in Christchurch Central? I was so naive I only wanted to represent my community. And I've managed to do that. When I didn't win in 2008, I just said, I'm going to pretend I did. It's easier now because people come to me first, whereas I was always fighting for a space. I keep on doing the same stuff but I've got a legitimacy I didn't have before."
Again, does Wagner think the Government is doing enough for Christchurch?
"We can't do any more in terms of the support the Government has given to Christchurch, the funding that's come through, the social support. I can't see any gaps that we haven't filled."
In terms of post-quake positives, the media-managed launch of the CCDU plan in July must be top of the list. But winners and losers will emerge from that too. How is Wagner placed as a property developer?
She stresses that her co- directorship of David Wagner Holdings is "pretty passive".
The current project is a retrofitting of a warehouse in Addington. "He's got some properties in the inner city," she says. "Two or three of them have been knocked down. He's got a couple in Sydenham. He doesn't have any right downtown."
Of property winners generally, she says: "Anything outside the central city has been good, because they're all full now."
The NG Gallery building on Madras St. Should it stay or go? "I don't know how this is going to pan out but I know that the CCDU is trying to be as flexible as possible. There's no point knocking down things when you don't have to. I don't have a problem with having a row of buildings in front of the stadium. Why would you worry about that?"
She says she knows the owners, but they haven't approached her for help as their local MP.
For Wagner, the point is that the CCDU plan provides hope. "I'm absolutely convinced that this city is going to be better. You go to nearly every disaster place that's been before and they will say this place is better than it was before."
Christchurch Central is just part of the job. There is also the bear pit of Parliament. She prefers the local work: "After the earthquake there's so much work that I could stay here permanently. But in reality we are employed to make law.
"I came to it late in life. I wasn't political when I was young. I thought Christchurch could do better - I had boys and wanted a better future for them.
"I see my job as being a cheerleader for Christchurch, making sure we get what we deserve out of Wellington. My strong belief is that because it was such a red city in the past, Labour didn't have to do anything for it because they got the votes anyway, and we were never going to win so there was not a lot of competition for the votes. One of my arguments was to make it a marginal town."
Part of being a cheerleader is tweeting good news about Christchurch from her Twitter account: "We need to focus on the stuff that's taking us forward."
Recent examples? Birds in spring. The Bats making a music video. Daffodils in the park. The hospital rebuild. The Mayor and his wife on Malaysia Day. "Great turnout" for a TC3 meeting - but no sense of whether people felt unhappy at it.
It is about progress - things opening, not things disappearing.
"I used to think that all these buildings are coming down," she says. "Now I've got over that and it means we've got a new beginning."
But Parliament can be tough. Search the Hansard record and you see that in August she told Parliament that "we support local democracy and decision making as close as possible to the communities that pay". Green MP Eugenie Sage, also a former ECan councillor, replied that she was "puzzled" by that comment, given National's record on local government.
When the CCDU plan was released, Wagner praised it in Parliament, seeing the ongoing demolitions as a positive: "We are getting very good at demolition. We have demolished about 1200 commercial buildings in the centre city, with another 200 to go. That might sound negative, but in actual fact it is really positive."
In May, during a Budget debate, she talked about the red zone purchase offers. Again, positive news: "Every day I talk to people who have found new homes, who have moved into new communities, and many of them are very happy. In fact, some of them are ecstatic."
Her talk of red zone "silver linings" prompted Denis O'Rourke, NZ First's Christchurch earthquake issues spokesman, to say that "the Government presents the Christchurch earthquakes as both a problem and a solution in the Budget".
O'Rourke expanded on the negative flipside of Wagner's view: "The fact is that too many people were losers from that process. Too many people cannot, in fact, afford to buy the new sections - those of them that are on offer, and there are far too few of those. Homes are effectively confiscated by the Government under the red zone regime, with inadequate compensation for far too many people. Yes, there have been some winners, but there have been far, far too many losers."
But the harshest criticism of Wagner in Parliament came from NZ First leader Winston Peters. He predicted which National MPs would lose their seats in 2014. There is Paula Bennett, there is Kate Wilkinson and "then there is somebody you have never seen before - 'Miss Invisible', Nicky Wagner, from Christchurch. She is going to be gone - out of here."
Miss Invisible sounds like a harsh label. What does she think Peters meant? "I think he's just too old to see," Wagner says. "He needs his bifocals rubbed."
But seriously, "people have different roles in Parliament," she says. "I'm not the sort of person who goes into battle on the general debate. I'm not adversarial. I'm pragmatic."
Is it an aggressive forum? "There are certain people. Listen to Winston: he stands up and abuses people. That's his forte.
"In terms of Christchurch Central, I'm certainly not invisible here and that's what it's all about for me."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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