Labour is pushing hard in its vote-rich suburbs to put the election beyond doubt.  In the latest  of our Sure Things series, new candidates likely to win in safe seats, Tim Murphy joins a turnout drive in Manurewa

Banish any thoughts that the governing Labour Party is sitting fat and happy on its big poll leads ahead of Saturday’s general election.

Even in its red heartland, the safe seat of Manurewa in South Auckland, the party’s much touted ground game is moving into overdrive this final five days, trying to top up its nationwide party vote total to maximise its chances of returning to power.

It was no coincidence that Labour leader Jacinda Ardern spent Saturday attracting big crowds in the Manukau East and Mangere electorates, mining solid red areas for more support. 

Those are two of the ‘Three Ms’ made famous by former party president Mike Williams on television on election night 2005, when he noted during an apparent National Party surge that booths from the big, Labour-supporting electorates had yet to be counted. When they were, as Williams predicted, Labour nudged ahead and Helen Clark had edged Don Brash.

The third of the Three Ms is Manurewa. It was won last time by Louisa Wall by 8374 votes. It is a sure thing.

Yet, this year’s candidate, 31-year-old lawyer and mother of two Arena Williams, had teams out on Monday in three shifts in the wind and drizzle – returning to canvass streets in Clendon Park that had been door-knocked once or even twice before. 

Labour is, evidently, not content to sit on its laurels, or believe its own press, at the 47 percent it recorded countrywide in the latest 1News Colmar Brunton poll. 

Ten volunteers are with Williams for the morning push along John Walker Drive and surrounding side-streets. 

More insights plugged into the party’s voter database.

Like other parties, the Labour canvassing machine is data-driven, not based on hope. On their mobile phones the volunteers have an app uniting the data the party has from electoral rolls and previous canvassing on who lives where (by name), if they have voted already, if they are declared supporters or not, and even if someone is “a persuasion conversation”.

Williams door-knocks with phone in one hand and Labour leaflets shaped like those hotel ‘do not disturb’ signs, with a hole at the top so they can be left around a door handle if no one is home.

They feature Ardern rather than Williams because she’s used up all her Manurewa-specific brochures in sweeps of the streets which, after a late start due to Covid-19 restrictions, have seen her team call 12,000 times on voters at home.

This week is a special round – her ‘get out the vote’ exercise. She is encouraging people to vote today, tomorrow, or any day this week. The early vote is plainly gold for Labour.

After a query at one house of where the nearest polling booth would be, Williams directs the woman to Clendon Library, about five minutes’ walk away. Finlayson Park School, right across the road, will have a booth on election day, but that’s not mentioned because it would be leaving too much up to chance.

John Walker Drive, Sharland Ave and Tamworth Close are home to mainly single-level dwellings, often curtains-pulled, some properties with in-fill houses behind, some with sleepouts, many fenced and some with high gates, locks and beware of the dog signs. 

Do not enter.  

Williams whistles and calls out for dogs at each property with a gate, knocks or calls out to residents and mostly gets a wary to warm reception.

At one house the garage door goes up as she approaches and a guy in a dressing gown, Bruce, starts by telling her he is likely to vote for John Hall, the New Zealand First candidate. He thinks Labour has voted for things he doesn’t agree with, including euthanasia. Williams explains euthanasia is going to a referendum, but acknowledges many people have raised it with her.

“I don’t think End of Life is decided. That’s going to be a really important vote.”

Bruce introduces his 87-year-old mother and then praises Williams for standing. “It’s great. The young ones need to be up there. Too many old people making wrong, silly decisions.”

As he warms to the discussion, he says: “I like Jacinda. I like what Labour is doing. The only issue I disagree with them on is euthanasia,” and by the end, “Personally you coming here it is really nice. I’m convinced now I’ll vote for you.”

All parties will tell you that what people tell candidates face to face on a doorstep and what happens on election day are not always the same thing.

Williams taps data into her phone app, adding to a picture her volunteers are also mapping house by house.

Along the road, she manages to wake up one young man, who says the household is Labour-supporting but he’s on the Māori roll. “Like me,” Williams says. She’ll vote for Labour’s Peeni Henare in Tamaki Makaurau because she believes in the importance of the Māori seats. She says all three Māori women standing in Manurewa are on the Māori roll and therefore unable to vote for themselves.

She doesn’t think that’s weird. “Wouldn’t it be weird to vote for yourself?”

An interview with TVNZ’s Te Karere as the volunteers re-group.  

Down a long drive, another door knock and another seemingly empty house, before a woman in a blue Samoa shirt and holding an infant opens up. She asks if it’s possible to vote online, a question Williams hears a lot. The woman’s husband is in prison, and finding someone to watch over two boys and her baby is a problem for her in trying to get out to vote. Williams explains the Clendon Library, blocks away, is child friendly. “You can take a little one in there, sweet as.” The woman knows the library and goes there and to the one in Manurewa with her kids. She says she’ll try to do it before the weekend.

“We always go for Labour,” she says, recalling that Williams’ team had visited her before the second Covid-19 lockdown and helped her update her enrolment details and telling Williams: “Such a pretty lady, haha.”

Data entered in the phone, Williams says the desire to vote online is pretty common. “Getting turnout is a big challenge.”

The slog of door-to-door campaigning is the only way to try to remedy that. It can be good for the spirits to wave your signs on a busy road and receive plenty of toots from passing cars, but if those tooters are not enrolled or don’t get out to booths, it’s for nothing.

Thus the third round of door knocks. At one address, the candidate decides against going in. “I know these guys, they are union delegates and he’ll be asleep.” At another, she is able to tell a volunteer the names of the three voters listed there and that they’ve already voted. Down the road, someone else is noted as a “callback” and that number 24a has voted but “you’re looking for Len” at 24.

It’s a pretty efficient process. The phone, or the volunteers’ personal knowledge, eliminates wasted steps, wasted knocks and irritated residents. “They’ve already voted, all of them,” a volunteer tells Williams at one letterbox. “I talked to them last time.”  On another street: “I think he’s had enough now. He’s definitely Labour.” That’s duly noted in the phone.

It is a bleak day, spots of rain and drizzle, and it is politically hard yakka. (The dogs don’t all stay behind fences, two pushing through a loose board and circling Williams, one growling back and forth across her path as an owner tried in vain to grab the collarless roamers.) 

Two uninvited guests.  

Williams’ candidacy in Manurewa is not without controversy. Internally, she was set to challenge the sitting MP, Louisa Wall, before Wall reached an accommodation with the party hierarchy of a winnable list place. Williams says there’s little apparent issue with that in the community. “Most often, people are saying not that they are voting Louisa, or voting Arena or even voting Jacinda – but Labour.”

Manurewa is a low socio-economic area with a relatively high level of public housing, and housing and access to healthcare feature high on Williams’ priorities if she makes it to Parliament.

First, she says, there’s a real need for more transitional (emergency) housing. A volunteer mentions a woman staying in a motel who has been there for two years. That’s two years under Labour. Williams says more must be done.

When she canvasses in Wiri, and the area known as Ratavine, “at every second house people are wanting to talk about warm, dry homes.” She puts it down to neglect by the former National government. “It’s these people, I think that really need a Labour government.”

Williams grew up in South Auckland, where her mother is a GP and her dad, Haare, was a Papakura District councillor. The mayor at the time, former Labour cabinet minister George Hawkins, has given her a photo of a newspaper front page featuring her when she was one, in her father’s arms at the dedication of a waka. “I guess I started early,” she says.

Arena Williams in her father Haare’s arms at a political event in March 1991. George Hawkins is on the right.

She attended Diocesan School and Victoria and Auckland universities, elected president of the latter’s student association in 2012. She worked as a lawyer for Chapman Tripp, had her son, who is nearly three, learned te reo, and returned to work for Ngati Whatua o Kaipara before having her daughter last year.

With iwi affiliations to Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki, Tuhoe, Rongowhakaata and Ngai Tahu, she is regarded highly in Labour circles. She did her time standing in the unwinnable National seat of Hunua in 2014 and losing to Andrew Bayly by 17,000 votes.

Now on the verge of entering Parliament, she keeps any ambitions in check. “I want to be the kind of local advocate that these people deserve. It is the local stuff that gets me out of bed in the mornings. If I retire and I was a local champion, I’ll be happy.” That will mean making progress in increasing housing standards and the rights of renters. It would also mean she helps increase access for Manurewa people to healthcare. Labour has committed $200m to developing the Manukau Super Clinic and she wants to keep pushing that mahi.

But she doesn’t have just the one job. It’s clear Labour expects her and her team to also get the M in Manurewa working again, to make every doorstep a winner and to contribute to a sufficient party vote nationwide to put the election beyond doubt.

“Labour in safe seats has a responsibility to get out there and develop relationships with people. Making sure people know how to exercise their vote is really important to me.”

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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