Thank God for Dalziel, champion of the underdog

In Mexico, a black and white moggy named Morris is running for mayor of Xalapa.

Using the campaign slogan: "Tired of voting for rats? Vote for a cat", Morris has 130,000 "likes" on Facebook - far more than any other candidate. "He sleeps almost all day and does nothing, and that fits the profile of a politician," says his handler, office worker Sergio Chamorro, 35.

Morris, who has his own popular range of T-shirts (Yes We Cat) has inspired other animal candidates including a donkey in Ciudad Juarez, a dog in Oaxaca and a chicken in Tepic.

Warned by authorities they will spoil their voting paper if they opt for four legs rather than two, the resounding response from the public has been "Who cares?"

It's a timely reminder of voter disenchantment and I suspect Morris - or even the chicken - would do quite well here, where turnout in council elections hovers around the mid-30s.

This year's October local body elections were shaping up as something of a boredom-fest too. From Jono Naylor in Palmerston North to the seemingly eternal Tim Shadbolt in Invercargill, from Dave Cull in Dunedin to Steve Chadwick in Rotorua, and from Julie Hardaker in Hamilton to Harry Duynhoven in New Plymouth, the sitting mayors look almost certain to retain their chains without much of a contest.

The lack of political vigour reaches rigor mortis levels in our biggest city, where not even the lure of being in charge of a super- city can tempt anyone besides a veteran protester and a millionaire businessman to stand against shoo-in Len Brown.

Neither John Minto nor John Palino stand a dog's show against Brown. The only chance the Right had of wresting the leadership of Auckland from his grasp was Pakuranga MP and new gay icon Maurice Williamson, and he threw in the towel before the contest even began.

It's a pity, because Williamson would have given Brown a run for his money. But internal polling had him 20 points behind, and that's a lot to make up during a campaign.

He might have done it, but the odds weren't worth it for Williamson, who would have had to have given up his career in Parliament to campaign - and his ministerial salary.

Wellington has the makings of a contest since dear old John "Mystery" Morrison finally got fed up with Mayor Celia Wade-Brown's dithering and agreed to stand against her. But while Morrison is already being tipped as the likely winner, the gentlemanly and softly spoken former test cricketer is unlikely to set the hustings alight.

Thank God, therefore, for Christchurch East Labour MP Lianne Dalziel, who has delivered a swift kick in the pants to a moribund election season by confirming that she will stand against Bob Parker for the Christchurch mayoralty.

Parker was cruising before Dalziel declared her hand. He's had his fair share of controversies - particularly around his support for unpopular council chief executive Tony Marryatt. He's also clashed with Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee, who once called him "a clown" and has tended to treat both Parker and the council like a circus troupe.

Parker has had one of the most difficult jobs in New Zealand in the past three years. The leader of the most scrutinised council in the country, he's been in the invidious position of trying to represent his city through an almost total rebuild while at the same time having most of his powers stripped from him by central government.

The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) and Brownlee are in charge of rebuilding Christchurch, not the council - and while the MP for Ilam is electorally accountable, his job is not at stake in a safe National seat. Parker's is, and he will be judged by the voters based on the progress the council has (or hasn't) made.

Parker won justifiable acclaim for his leadership in the aftermath of the quakes. He was a steady, reassuring voice on television every night in his hi-vis jacket. But questions have since been raised about Parker's ability to finish the job, and whether he has the fire in his belly to enable him to do so.

Enter Dalziel. Her career in Parliament was winding down, having been punted out of Labour's top 20 by leader David Shearer earlier this year, partly for supporting arch-rival David Cunliffe but also because her face no longer fits Shearer's attempt to rejuvenate the party ahead of the general election next year.

A lifelong champion of the underdog, Dalziel has spent the past three years rattling cages in Wellington as she has advocated for her quake-hit constituents. No-one doubts the fire in her belly still burns very brightly indeed.

Dalziel is a good match for Parker. Where the incumbent is soothing, urbane, and sophisticated, Dalziel is much more of a street lawyer - excitable, passionate, confident and extremely intelligent.

Dalziel's entry is likely to re- energise Parker, too. Finally, Christchurch voters badly short- changed in the democracy stakes recently - have a good reason to head to the polling booth. Though I'd still love to see Morris as a wildcard. I bet he'd split the vote.

Sunday Star Times