Christchurch Central may not bleed as red as it once did – but candidates for the electorate found themselves dragged – willingly or otherwise – towards the left during a recent debate, as Sam Sachdeva reports

Christchurch has long enjoyed a reputation for its English heritage, the best souvlaki in the country, and its left-wing political traditions.

Former Business Roundtable head Doug Myers famously labelled the city the “people’s republic of Christchurch” in the 1990s, an attempted insult that many residents instead adopted as a badge of pride.

That reputation has taken a bit of a knock in recent years: in 2011, National candidate Nicky Wagner broke Labour’s 65-year stranglehold over the Christchurch Central electorate, while the wider city swung in behind a blue wave in the wake of the city’s deadly earthquakes.

The rise of Jacinda Ardern in 2017 helped to move the party vote back towards Labour, while lawyer and self-described socialist Duncan Webb wrested Christchurch Central back for the party.

On a balmy Monday night, it seemed as if the spirit of the People’s Republic had infected candidates across the political spectrum at a debate in the city centre.

Part of that may have been down to the venue: the headquarters of the Canterbury Workers’ Educational Association, an organisation established by trade unions in 1915 to provide adult education to working people.

“I’d like to think I’m at home,” Webb quipped during his opening remarks to the crowd, his ubiquitous red-and-black Swanndri jacket resting on the back of his seat as he spoke about what drew him away from law and into politics.

“What was going on in Christchurch, in some places is still going on, was deeply unequal: where some people were fine, some people were managing, some people had the resources, the intellect, the fortitude to get what they were entitled to, and some didn’t, and that essentially made me angry.”

National’s Christchurch Central candidate Dale Stephens struck a more moderate tone than his leader Judith Collins has been displaying of late. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

His main rival, National’s Dale Stephens, may have been less at home amongst the unionists, at least based on his CV.

The former policeman hosted TV show Crimewatch for a decade, which at first glance would seem to situate him within the party’s other “law and order” ex-cops, while his most recent role as director of Māori business at New Zealand Trade and Enterprise suggested a degree of comfort with the corporate world not shared by all those in the room.

But Stephens in fact seemed closer to the crowd than leader Judith Collins at points: he spoke of wanting to help Māori through political change in a way he couldn’t in the police, and was more than willing to discuss the flaws of capitalism.

“It’s really important we take our current business leaders on a journey, to understand that it’s the generations coming through now that have the social value and social conscience that our current businesses don’t have,” he said.”

“So our current business leaders are focused on ROI, return on investment, making profit – what we want to see is that profit applied to social outcomes for our people, to environment and sustainability, and stronger communities and stronger culture.”

While Collins this week ruled out working with the “far-left Marxist” Green Party, Stephens said one of his frustrations was “the pre-decision phase, where certain politicians and parties say they won’t work with this party, won’t work with that party”.

“Why can’t the Greens and National work together? There will be things that I like about the Green policies but because of this kind of firewall between the two parties, we can’t work together on specific environmental issues.”

He also spoke glowingly about the potential of hydrogen cells to create greener trucks, trains and heavy machinery, while spending less time on the plethora of roading projects National has proposed.

Stephens did attract some heckling for his more orthodox National views, including a defence of farmers facing what he said was a heavy regulatory burden.

“The most important thing we can do [for the rainbow community] is make sure parties like the New Conservatives don’t get any MPs in Parliament – they have the most disgraceful policies on these issues that I’ve heard of, nothing much short than Nazi-ism as far as I’m concerned.”

Greens candidate and community worker Chrys Horn was a more seamless fit across the board, even as she essentially asked the crowd to vote for anyone but her and give only their party vote to the Greens.

“It’s about sharing the resources that we have, it’s about making sure that everybody has a decent life that gives them access to opportunities,” Horn said of whether the climate crisis and poverty could be tackled simultaneously, while questions about waste reduction and protecting ecosystems also played to the Greens’ policy strengths.

“I feel like saying no, we don’t want any of that – but we do,” she joked of a question about developing improved rail links for Christchurch.

New Zealand First’s Christchurch Central candidate Mark Arneil was a no-show, but in his place appeared the party’s Banks Peninsula candidate and former MP Denis O’Rourke.

The first question asked of the candidates, what political integrity meant to them, was perhaps a difficult one for O’Rourke given the recent news about the New Zealand First Foundation, yet he took aim nonetheless at politicians who sought to represent “special interests” and took large donations.

“There’s a bit of a fine line there between a donation and something that actually amounts to putting pressure on,”  he said, while claiming his party would never receive a donation of the size that often went to Labour or National.

But O’Rourke threw his weight behind declaring a climate emergency – something it is hard to see his leader Winston Peters supporting – while he attracted perhaps the loudest applause of the night for his response to a question about supporting the rainbow community.

“The most important thing we can do is make sure parties like the New Conservatives don’t get any MPs in Parliament – they have the most disgraceful policies on these issues that I’ve heard of, nothing much short than Nazi-ism as far as I’m concerned.”

From left: Denis O’Rourke, Dale Stephens, Duncan Webb and Chrys Horn on stage with debate host Ray Shipley. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

In fairness, the candidates were dragged to the left by the nature of the audience-submitted questions; one, asking whether the “paradigm” of capitalism was “broken past its use-by date and fundamentally flies in the face of universal physical laws”, led to some mock-accusatory glances from the candidates towards political activist and attendee John Minto.

One question in particular put the contenders on the spot, as they were asked which of their party’s policies they disagreed with. Webb cited the strong case for a capital gains tax made by the Tax Working Group, while Horn expressed some nervousness about the design of the Greens’ wealth tax (a compromise given Ardern ruling out a CGT).

O’Rourke said he disagreed with the three-strikes law supported by New Zealand First, while Stephens jokingly checked there were no National board members in the room before providing his answer.

“I have a difference of opinion with the party about our Māori policy, I have some…views on Māori development, Māori economic development, and I don’t think our party’s moving fast enough in that direction.”

Given his apparent tendencies towards the left wing of National, Stephens would seem a strong candidate to buck the trend of red electorate seats in Christchurch.

But Webb’s 2871 vote margin at the last election, coupled with the growth in Labour support under Ardern and the struggles of National under its myriad of leaders, suggests it will be another electoral cycle – at least – before the heart of Christchurch can again be turned blue.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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