Auckland Central candidates from top left: Mahesh Muralidhar (National), Oscar Sims (Labour), Chlöe Swarbrick (Greens), Ted Johnston (New Conservative) and Damian Sycamore (The Opportunities Party). Photo: Matthew Scott, Getty Images, Supplied

From skyscrapers to remote islands and immense wealth to visible poverty, Auckland Central is one of the most unusual electorates in the country.

And the political hopefuls aiming for central Aucklanders’ electoral votes are just as varied and dynamic as the electorate they want to represent.

A tale of two electorates
* Greens kick off Auckland campaigns

First-time candidates from Labour and the National Party are joined by a former mayoral candidate in seeing if they can weaken the Green Party’s grasp on the city centre, after Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick took the seat by just over 1000 votes back in 2020.

The one thing all of the candidates seemed to share was the view we are at a crucial fork in the road for Auckland Central – and now it will be up to them to convince voters they have the answers to top issues in the electorate like cost of living, perceptions of safety and climate change impact.

Historically the seat had been Labour’s to lose, but Nikki Kaye’s four consecutive wins between 2008 and 2020 saw it taken over in the blue wave of John Key’s government. 

Then after the tides turned red, polls suggested Labour’s Helen White had it in 2020. It became one of the big stories of election night when Swarbrick squeaked in ahead.

Now three years later, Swarbrick’s keen to hold on to the position. But while the seat has been a jewel in the Green Party’s crown, turbulent times and a ready pack of opponents mean nothing is assured.

Newsroom spoke to some of the Auckland Central candidates to find out what a campaign that reaches both high-rise apartment residents and rural island dwellers looks like. 

Oscar Sims, Labour

Photo: Matthew Scott

Software engineer and housing advocate Oscar Sims said the chance to run for Auckland Central came around the time Jacinda Ardern resigned.

After Helen White was shuffled out to Mt Albert, there was space for a city centre competitor for Labour.

As an organiser of the Coalition for More Homes and a vocal supporter of the city centre life, Sims is putting himself forward as somebody who can stand for the wants and needs of the around 40,000 people who live in the city centre.

“One of my big focuses is we want to make denser housing more attractive, and one of the ways to do that is to create the social licence for that by making apartments desirable, and that means they have to be safe,” he said. “You have to feel like you’re part of a community.”

There are unique challenges to running a campaign in Auckland Central. Apartments make door-knocking difficult, and part of the electorate is a good eight hours away by ferry on Aotea Great Barrier Island.

Sims has yet to make the trip out quite that far, but spent the weekend on Waiheke listening to the concerns of locals – recently inflated ferry prices being high on that list.

Sims said he’d been consulting with Labour’s Ibrahim Omer, who’s running for Wellington Central, on how best to canvass the country’s most urban locales. They’ve also been looking at overseas examples, like Japan, where door knocking is often replaced by stalls at train stations.

Sims has a tech background and the digitally-native skills of the young – at 25, he’d be the first Generation Z MP if elected. He said his comfort with social media is a skill he could leverage to reach the electorate.

But youth is a double-edged sword in politics. Although not too far off in age, Sims has been through zero political campaigns compared to incumbent Swarbrick’s four. 

Sims said he’s not daunted by Swarbrick’s rockstar public profile.

“I’ve got a job to do, I’ve got a message to deliver about myself and the party, and we’re just going to get on with that,” he said.

“Focusing too much on Chlöe Swarbrick is, I think, a mistake.”

He said one big difference people between them is that he represents a bigger party.

“Being the local MP as a member of the Labour Party I think gives me that voice inside the government in a way that the Greens won’t necessarily have,” he said. “It’s being able to get senior party figures and ministers on the phone and say ‘Here’s what people are telling me in Auckland Central’ … that ability to advocate directly is I think really important.”

Mahesh Muralidhar, National

Photo: Matthew Scott

Another first-time MP being sent out by a major party to try to topple Swarbrick is National’s Mahesh Muralidhar.

Muralidhar comes from the world of entrepreneurship, having spent the past few years running venture capital firm PhaseOne Ventures. Before that he worked in Sydney, where he spent three years at graphic design start-up Canva.

But 43-year-old Muralidhar said his heart lies in Auckland’s city centre. He spoke with nostalgia of his time at the University of Auckland, among other memories a little more out of left field. 

Back in the early 2000s, Muralidhar was the winning contestant on a Fear Factor-style reality television show called Going Straight. During a stunt that involved running through a field of pyrotechnics on a beach north of Auckland, he was badly burned.

What followed was two and half months in hospital. Muralidhar said during his recovery, pain would keep him awake and he would wander the city centre to find peace.

He still has the scars to prove it. But how is he going to parlay that passion for the place into a successful campaign?

One key to his campaign was a decentralised model, where he gives his volunteers a high level of autonomy. One of these volunteers is his wife, whom he told about his political ambitions during their second date.

“She didn’t believe me,” he said. She was surprised when he brought up those ambitions again before running. “She was like ‘Who takes everything seriously on a second date?’”

Muralidhar said politics is his last chapter in a career that’s included work in start-ups and recruitment. Will it be a long one? “I hope so,” he said.

Another key to the campaign is figuring out what different desires co-exist amongst the constituency.

“Making sure I go out of my way to connect to each group,” he said. The main groups he’s identified in the electorate are the suburbs, the city, the islands, the university, and the local Asian diaspora. 

“That’s the broad swathes, and you have tactics for each of those. Each of those are different, but at the end of they day, in start-up land there’s this phrase: do unscalable things.”

That means sometimes deliberate focus on the narrow or the personal. In business it could mean a handwritten thank you card to a customer. In politics, Muralidhar said it could be having a one-on-one conversation and trying to understand what makes an individual tick.

What has he found out so far?

Muralidhar said people in the electorate are mostly concerned with the cost of living and crime. They are weighty issues for any single MP to tackle head on, but he said having a democratic mandate means he could go into Parliament and talk about the things people in his area see as important.

He said Auckland Central, as an economic hub, was an important piece for the government to get right.

“The feeling in the country is if Auckland Central isn’t winning, the country isn’t winning,” he said.

National has a history of selecting more liberal candidates for the city centre seat, as seen with Nikki Kaye. 

Muralidhar seems to be a continuation of that legacy – he said while he believed in limited government, he also believed in social intervention and has socially-liberal views.

Ted Johnston, New Conservative

Photo: Facebook

While the two major parties are offering up fresh faces, Ted Johnston is no stranger to vying for the votes of Aucklanders.

The New Conservative deputy leader and former criminal barrister ran for the Auckland mayoralty last year on a platform of decreasing inner-city crime, cutting red tape and spending within council.

He won around 5000 votes last October. 

But this time around, Johnston’s focus has narrowed onto the Auckland Central electorate, where New Conservative policies like keeping ferry prices low and protecting heritage houses may prove popular.

“Labour has done little for Auckland and public transport in Auckland is a pathetic joke,” Johnston said. “New Conservative needs the party votes of Auckland Central to help fix New Zealand.”

Another plank in Johnston’s campaign will be crime, which his party would address by deterrents and looking at its root causes.

“I am tired of crime, and sick of seeing 388 ram raids in six months, shootings and gangs out of control,” he said. “New Conservative will make the police and justice system actually work to make people safer.”

But how does the challenge of campaigning in this unique electorate look for a smaller party with less funding than its more well-known counterparts?

Johnston said with people going online more and more for news and social interaction, he’d be focused on appearing in the media and public debates.

“We don’t have the unlimited resources and (wo)man power of the big parties,” he said. “Nor their constant free media coverage. However we have credibility, good policies and sincerity.”

Johnston was one of five mayoral candidates who last year criticised media coverage of their campaigns, which they said was biased towards more well-known candidates.

Last election was New Conservative’s first election. In Auckland Central, it received just under 200 party votes – in fact more than Te Pāti Māori received in the same electorate.

Damian Sycamore, The Opportunities Party

Photo: Supplied

The Opportunities Party (TOP) is meanwhile lining up Damian Sycamore, who comes from a job at a K Road-based construction software start-up.

He’s the only candidate who calls the islands of the Hauraki Gulf home, running his campaign from his home base on Waiheke.

But unlike the others, he’s not looking to replace Swarbrick.

“I think Chlöe Swarbrick should remain Auckland Central’s MP for as long as she’s able to do the job,” he said.

Instead he’s running a campaign asking for people to give their party vote to TOP.

Housing affordability seems to be what gets Sycamore out of bed in the morning – he says he’s a single-issue guy focused firmly on getting his party’s housing policy across to as many people as he can. 

“Climate change is obviously the world’s biggest story, but housing unaffordability is New Zealand’s,” he said. “You can’t talk to people about lifestyle changes or carbon emissions reductions until they’ve got that.”

TOP is proposing a land value tax Sycamore said would discourage profiteering in the property market and ultimately reduce the cost of living.

He said the negative impact this could have on income-poor property owners such as superannuitants would be mitigated by income tax cuts for lower brackets and protections for superannuation.

So he’ll be using the run-up to October to find a platform to sell this policy to the people of Auckland Central, with the hope of finally taking the party over the 5 percent threshold.

“If I get zero electorate votes that won’t concern me at all,” he said.

Chlöe Swarbrick, Greens

Photo: Matthew Scott

The current MP for Auckland Central won 35,603 votes in 2020, making her the first Green MP to ever take the seat.

But while Chlöe Swarbrick has a public profile that would overshadow that of most politicians with just six years in the game – recent polls had her matching Winston Peters in the preferred prime minister rankings – she’s reticent to call this election any kind of sure thing.

Swarbrick credits her success last time to a veritable army of volunteers, based out of a campaign hub on Karangahape Road.

She just recently set up another hub on the corner of East Street, which will serve as the focal point of a campaign that’s already attracted hundreds of volunteers.

Her campaign manager was apparently sceptical of the idea of a dedicated campaign headquarters back in 2020 – but this time, Swarbrick said she didn’t have to convince him.

But why has the campaign clubhouse proven so crucial?

“Obviously you can’t use your parliamentary office as a campaign space, so that’s part of the reason, but there’s a component of community building in a world that is increasingly isolated and precarious and people don’t come together and congregate in the way that they did, whether it be through unions or churches or whatever else,” Swarbrick said.

That reflects the kind of ‘people power’ approach that’s been a trademark of hers ever since her 2016 run at the Auckland mayoralty.

To overcome the unique challenges of campaigning in the city, Swarbrick said volunteers were creating handwritten postcards addressed to denizens of the inner city.

“Many volunteers in the team will write their own reasons as to why they are engaged in the campaign,” she said. “That I think is a far more personal touch than any of the actually dearly expensive rote letters that are posted out from the larger parties in particular.”

Swarbrick said the current volunteer team contained many who helped her take the seat back in 2020, but also plenty of fresh faces.

“We’ve obviously got a cast of returning members but we’ve also got some folks who I hadn’t met a month or two ago who are now running their own door knocks and organising phone-calling nights and stuff.”

As a cause and effect of Swarbrick’s notability, she’s had high-profile support from figures in arts and entertainment. 

There have been drag queen endorsements, past donations from the likes of Neil Finn, and before the last election, local band The Beths brought her up on stage to promote the Greens.

Meanwhile, comedians like Tim Batt and Eli Matthewson have supported the party as MCs for events, even handing out flyers.

Swarbrick said the support from the arts community came firstly from an alignment of values and secondly because “this is very literally and genuinely my home and I have those connections with people as my community”.

She’d lived around the city centre her whole life, and while many of her friends were going overseas back in 2016, she was thinking about how to improve it.

Nevertheless, the electorate has taken a battering since Swarbrick’s 2020 win.

“The community has been just confronted with relentless challenges and all of those challenges have had massive downstream effects and have multiplied and manifested in many and varied different ways,” she said.

It’s been tough for a politician with big ideas.

“I need to acknowledge that the past three years are not the three years that anyone who is interested in trying to look into the future and build up capacity and do visionary exciting things would have wanted to have been dealt,” she said.

She said that for now she was taking a practical approach, but wanted to grow the mandate to allow the Greens to achieve more.

“I feel like a lot of the work we end up doing in Parliament for example ends up being harm reduction, because we don’t hold all of the numbers that we need to achieve the kind of structural transformation at this point,” she said.

“I guess that’s the kind of opportunity that’s presented by the election: we did what we did and we achieved disproportionate outcomes with the power that we did hold – so how about we push that kind of community power even further and grow that mandate.”

Unprecedented feedback to council budget decisions that largely fell in line with Swarbrick’s views suggests her grassroots following hasn’t shrunk. 

She said the softening of Mayor Wayne Brown’s service cuts following submissions from Aucklanders should show “if you do get involved at scale then we as a community can actually move the needle and change things”.

But like everything in politics, nothing will be certain until the ballots are counted.

Strategists in the camps of other parties will be eyeing that 1100 vote victory margin from last time and pondering just how they can whittle it away.

These candidates will be joined by Act’s 41st on the list Scott Boness, who was announced earlier this week. The Act did not respond to a request to interview him.

In 2020, Act candidate Felix Poole took a just under 2 percent share of the electoral vote. Interest in the party in Auckland Central has been tracking up, however – party votes in 2020 went from 317 in 2017 to 2724 in 2020.

It’s yet another factor that makes this a top race to watch come October.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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