Forget Auckland Central, Nelson, Ōhāriu, or Wanganui. Takanini, in Auckland’s deep south, is arguably the hardest-to-pick seat in New Zealand. Nikki Mandow went to find out why.

Take this: it’s a new electorate – half its voters don’t even know it exists. All the candidates are newbies; there’s not one with experience as an MP.

And it’s the second fastest-growing area in the country – up five percent a year for the last three years. How did the new arrivals vote last time? Who knows. 

Meanwhile there’s a huge disparity of ethnicities and socio-economic levels, there’s new urban and old rural.

And perhaps most crucial of all: 2017 results from polling booths now in the Takanini electorate show a small advantage for National last time – but in a country that’s swung dramatically to Labour over the last three years.

The two main candidates accept it could go either way. 

Labour’s Dr Neru Leavasa

When Labour candidate and local GP Dr Neru Leavasa’s parents volunteered on Labour Prime Minister David Lange’s Mangere election campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s, Takanini was basically fields dissected by a few shops, car yards and industrial premises on the Great South Rd.

Vegetable gardens and orchards supplied produce to Auckland, stud farms bred horses for the world.

Takanini in the 1950s. Source: Auckland Council Libraries

Leavasa’s family, originally from Samoa, have always been Labour supporters, although his uncle represented the Christian-focused New Zealand Pacific Party in the 2008 election.

Decades after they joined David Lange, Leavasa’s mum and stepdad are still on the campaign trail, spending the final week of the 2020 election working out of Leavasa’s temporary tin-sided office unit in a new shopping strip off the main drag. 

Tautiaga Senara, Tevaga Leavasa and Olita Senara have been volunteering for Labour for decades

The whole region is a mass of buildings and building sites – there are dozens of big new housing developments. 

Local real estate agent Sanjay Pradhan from Barfoot & Thompson estimates 2000-3000 new houses are going up each year – and the speed of building is accelerating.

That could be 10,000 new voters since 2017, in a 67,000-strong electorate.

Takanini has grown as estimated 2000-3000 homes a year since the last election. Source: Google Maps

Leavasa’s veteran campaign manager (and brother-in-law) Nick Bakulich is on his eighth campaign for the Labour party. When an electorate race is this close, it’s exciting, but also super hard work, he says. 

In the immediate run up to the election, Bakulich reckons he’s spending up to 40 hours a week – unpaid – on Leavasa’s campaign. Door knocking, sign waving, updating the canvassing app. 

(See Tim Murphy’s story on candidates’ use of data in the 2020 campaign.)

That’s like a full-time role on top of Bakulich’s normal work as a funeral director, and his position on the local board.

He says getting a feel for the new electorate has been hard. “It’s an odd shape, and incredibly diverse.”

Takanini is made up of parts of the Papakura, Manurewa and Hunua (now Port Waikato) electorates. Source: Parliamentary Library 

“It’s a real socio-economic mix – lots of working class and now lots of urban middle class. Some of the new properties are worth way over a million dollars and there’s a real melting pot in there – fourth or fifth generation New Zealanders and new immigrants, young families and older people.”

The electorate also encompasses a few of the old farms and horse studs. 

You move from suburban to rural in a matter of metres.

From Flat Bush to Takanini

The Takanini electorate was dreamed up for this election when population growth in South Auckland made existing electorates too big. Takanini got a bit of Manurewa, some of Hunua, and lots of Papakura. 

They were going to call it Flat Bush, but changed to Takanini after talking to locals.

The parties didn’t get a boundary map for several weeks after the announcement of the new seat and it wasn’t until June the Government released the electoral profile – the most up-to-date census statistics – Bakulich says. That didn’t give the parties long to choose their candidates and get their campaigns under way.

Remember, the original election date was September 19.

Dr Neru Leavasa (L), with campaign manager Nick Bakulich and volunteer Jay Jay Constantino. Photo: Nikki Mandow

“The electoral profile makes a big difference in who you choose as a candidate and how your campaign is run, because it tells you which groups you need to engage in terms of demographics.”

Source: Stats NZ, from electorate profile

The field

As far as Newsroom knows, no one’s done any local polling in Takanini. There are seven candidates altogether, including the New Conservatives’ Elliot Ikilei who tells Newsroom he thinks he’s got a pretty good chance of winning the seat.

But most people see it as a two-horse race. A tight one.  

Extrapolating polling booth data from the 2017 election produces a 2000-3000-vote advantage for National. Population growth locally and a swing to Labour nationally has the potential to wipe that out – or not. But it’s likely to be tight.

Dr Leavasa, who was a successful candidate in the ADHB and then the local body elections, before being selected from a 10-person field as Labour’s nominee for Takanini, says this election is like all the campaigning he’s done “on steroids”.

“All the data, all the communications from HQ, telling you where Jacinda is at, making sure everyone’s on the same page.”

Even if there had polls to look at, it wouldn’t have made any difference, Leavasa says. The hard work needed in a marginal seat would have been the same.

Leavasa’s temporary electoral office is just up the road from a polling booth. Photo: Nikki Mandow

It’s all about getting out there, knocking on doors, phoning, and talking to as many people as possible.

But in Takanini there’s the added complication of voters not even knowing which electorate they are in, let alone who the candidates are.

“Even today, some people think they are in [National leader] Judith Collins’ electorate [Papakura], or [Labour MP for Manurewa] Louisa Wall’s. You have to say ‘Did you know you are in a new electorate?’ It’s confusing.”

National’s Rima Nakhle

Across the electorate in Flat Bush, National’s Rima Nakhle has the same problem.

“Some of them think Andrew [Bayly, National’s MP for next-door Port Waikato, previously Hunua] is the MP. Some people who have lost Judith are in mourning.”

Nakhle’s parents were born in Lebanon and she lived in Australia before she married and moved to the South Auckland suburb of The Gardens in 2012, where her husband’s parents lived.

They were staunch National Party supporters.

Campaigning 101: Knock on the door, slip a leaflet in the jamb, and turn away slowly. Photo: Nikki Mandow

Nakhle runs an old school, grass roots campaign. Lots of door-knocking, leaflets, a campaign newspaper dropped to 21,000 households. No app in sight.

Today she’s out with Bayly, an electioneering, door-knocking pro. Bang on the door, slip a leaflet in the jamb, walk slowly away backwards in case they appear, move on. If someone answers, talk for one minute – two max – before excusing yourself. 

Campaigning 102: Don’t hold voters up for long. Two minutes max. Photo: Nikki Mandow

“Most people are not expecting their MP to stand for ages on their doorstep. They are glad to see you, but they don’t want you to stay.”

Above all, don’t stop en route to admire the scenery, the gardens. “Trees don’t vote. Move on.”

Bayly can get through 300 homes in a session. 

Nakhle reckons she has door-knocked around 3000 homes this campaign – she’s been out every day Covid has allowed since June.

Still, both she and Bayly are relentlessly cheerful – despite the rain. 

“You find the fun and ‘snap’ the job’s a game:” Mary Poppins. Photo: Nikki Mandow

“Honestly, I’ve enjoyed it. I hate being judged for being National – like when someone gives me the finger when I’m out sign waving.” But “human hoardings” – when you stand on the side of the road holding your campaign sign – are “so much fun.”

“You find the fun and ‘snap’ the job’s a game,” says campaign volunteer Jerina Corban-Banks, quoting from Mary Poppins about the candidate. Always upbeat, always optimistic.

Corban-Banks is another campaign veteran. It’s a question of becoming “waterproofed”, she says. “Every knockback you get is a bit of waterproofing.”

Local issues

Both Leavasa and Nakhle are hearing about similar local frustrations when they talk to people. Traffic congestion, delays upgrading Mill Road to deal with the quarrying trucks, a shortage of houses to buy, excessive rents, Ormiston Primary school that was designed for 720 students and is now coping with 960. 

Pupils are being taught in the library, the principals’ office, and the junior college opposite.

The motorway on and off ramps were meant to be completed ages ago, Nakhle says, “but the Green Party insisted on having a cycle lane”, so that held work up.

“You can’t believe how frustrating that is, when only 0.2 percent of people commute to work by bike in this electorate.”

Nakhle says Dr Leavasa doesn’t live in the electorate, although his work as a GP is there, and he’s on the local board.

She also brings up the $11.7 million grant for the private Green School, and the wealth tax, that bête noir for Labour. 

“I came across a young man who works two jobs, a traditional Labour voter, but he and his father have worked hard for the property he owns and he said ‘How am I going to get the money to pay for a wealth tax?”

You wonder how often Ardern has to say she’s ruled out a wealth tax.

“Work hard and get rewarded for your achievements – that’s one of National’s policies,” Nakhle says.

Final fling

On Saturday night, Leavasa is joining up with Labour’s Manurewa candidate Arena Williams, to host up to 200 family, friends, volunteers and supporters at the Marlins Rugby League Club. Manurewa is a pretty safe Labour seat, so there will be something to celebrate, even if he doesn’t win in Takanini.

If he does, the first thing he will do is say a prayer of thankfulness. 

Meanwhile Nakhle has a party planned at a venue in The Garden. There will be balloons and a big TV and – importantly for the Lebanese community – lots of food. She reckons there might be 100 or so people there.

In the meantime she’ll be out door-knocking, leaving her leaflets, rain or shine. A woman’s crusade to bring blue to Takanini.

“There are so many people I meet in suburbs like Totara Heights who have been Labour all their lives and are so excited about the prospect of being in a National seat.

“It makes me want to fight harder. To give 100 percent.”

Nikki Mandow was Newsroom's business editor and the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Business Journalist of the Year @NikkiMandow.

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