Chasing Labour votes in middle Auckland
By Richard Harman (author)
The leafy avenues which wind up to Mt Albert’s summit in Auckland are probably not the best place to watch a Labour candidate campaign.
The oversized houses, the BMW SUVs and the elegantly clad joggers point much more to National voters.
But nevertheless, Jacinda Ardern, Labour's candidate in the Mt Albert by-election, waded cheerfully into the challenge with a series of street corner meetings there last night.
Though it has to be noted that Ardern’s version of a street corner meeting is a little more sedate than some of her more raucous colleagues.
She invites locals to come and meet her while her equally cheerful young supporters strategically place themselves on the street and wave signs about with her picture on.
But it was not until the last of five meetings on Summit Drive where even the cheap end of the street will cost you well over $1 million that she got much of a response.
And as a small group of locals gathered, and after a selfie or two, the talk turned, perhaps surprisingly, to housing.
What was worrying them was the ability of their families to buy their own homes.
“Regardless of their own circumstances people are aware of the pressures it (housing prices) is putting on others,” she says.
Ardern is not unfamiliar with these sort of affluent voters.
She fought two elections as Labour’s candidate in Auckland Central, home to some of the richest people in New Zealand.
“A lot of people make assumptions about the way people vote but if Auckland Central taught me anything it was not to assume anything.
“Take every door with a fresh view as to what they might be interested in.
“And that’s why it is a marginal seat.”
Her street corner meetings last night were very different to those held by Michael Wood in neighbouring Mt Roskill back in November.
In some ways, they are still very similar electorates. Both began as state house suburbs at the end of the tram lines from Queen Street.
These days most of the houses are privately owned; 59% in Mt Albert and 62% in Mt Roskill.
The big difference is in ethnic composition.
Mt Roskill is a migrant electorate where Europeans make up only 44% of the population and Asians 39.1%.
In Mt Albert, 70% of the elector are European, and 19% are Asian.
That doesn’t mean that Ardern doesn’t confront ethnic issues. Earlier this week she met with an African migrant group whose major issue was racism.
Ultimately, Mt Albert is middle New Zealand; or more accurately, middle Auckland.
And what Ardern is hearing the campaign trail would suggest the mood in the city is starting to turn on the housing issue.
“A consistent theme has been housing,” she says.
‘It comes at street corner meetings and at the door.
"Forty per cent of this electorate rent and the media age is 33, so there is a large number of people who want their first home but who are really struggling, given that this is the seventh most expensive area in the country in which to purchase a home.”
But the Government’s answer to the housing crisis in Auckland, which is to build more homes, provokes its own issues.
A scheme to redevelop part of Unitec’s campus and build 1800 new homes is a long running irritant in the electorate.
“There are questions around what kind of urban design will that project have; will it have an effect on traffic; will it overflow our schools which are already at capacity so housing in all of its forms and infrastructure in all of its forms has been a hot topic here.”
The problem the Government faces is that it has started to address those issues but (for example) it has yet to approve a single grant from its $1 billion infrastructure fund to encourage local authorities to provide infrastructure to enable housing projects to go ahead.
But the infrastructure deficit doesn't just apply to roads and drainage --- the electorate contains the two largest primary/intermediate schools in the country (Gladstone and Balmoral), and Ardern says the pressure on them is an issue.
“They’re about to have thousands of people added right opposite to them by the Unitec development.
“We should have been doing much much better planning to anticipate that growth."
And of course, Auckland being Auckland, public transport is an issue.
While she was campaigning by a set of traffic lights on Mt Albert Road, drivers stuck in a long queue were pulling down their windows and yelling out “sort the traffic out”.
There is also a slightly eccentric but nevertheless pervasive issue in the electorate, and that is the rundown condition of the Mt Albert shops.
There's not much she can do about this, and she refers complainants to the Local Board.
Much of this though actually sounds like the locals think she is running for the Council rather than Parliament.
But she does allow that some bigger issues have seeped into the campaign.
“There have been questions about Willie Jackson,” she says but doesn’t seem willing to specify what the questions were.
It might be reasonable to assume that they weren’t favourable.
Ardern is almost the polar opposite of Jackson’s confrontational style of politics.
This has been a genteel campaign where people have been coming out of their houses and setting up tables with drinks and cupcakes for her as she holds what seems to have been an almost endless round of street corner meetings.
Because National is not standing the vote on Saturday is likely to be low.
The challenge for Labour will be to motivate its supporters.
For pundits, the point to watch will be how Labour has fared IN National voting areas like Mt Eden or Westmere. If Ardern can perform relatively better there than David Shearer did in 2014, then Labour will know it is making real inroads into middle New Zealand.
(Tomorrow: The possible spoke in Labour’s wheel --- Green candidate Julie-Anne Genter)