Analysis: Tickling dogs’ tummies is the new kissing babies. Three of my local electorate candidates accepted my invite to biscuits and a cuppa yesterday – and all of them were anxious to show their pet-inclusive credentials on being greeted at the front door by our terrier Rusty.

“Rusty?” muses National’s Greg Fleming. “My dog, who we got when I was eight years old, was called Rusty.”

Labour’s Priyanca Radhakrishnan has two rescue dogs, from the SPCA like Rusty. “He’s a bit like my Gypsy,” she says. “She was turned in to the SPCA because her family couldn’t afford to keep her – it must have been heartbreaking.”

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The MP has to juggle her time between her ministerial portfolios and her job as incumbent Maungakiekie MP, but says the dogs help her meet people. “I walk the dogs out at the local parks, so I do think I’m out and about as much as I can be. The fact remains that ministers do need to be in Wellington a bit more, away from the electorate.”

Sapna Samant gives Rusty a friendly scratch behind the ears, but doesn’t feel the need to tell any shaggy dog stories – after all, she’s seeking only the Green Party vote, and doesn’t have to endear herself to win the electorate vote.

The issues that turn votes in the green Auckland electorate of Maungakiekie won’t be pet-inclusivity, though. They will be cost of living, the health of the economy, road and rail infrastructure, and perhaps, inclusivity of the LGBTI community, migrants and other minorities.

This is one of the most marginal seats in the country, won by Radhakrishnan with a margin of just 635 special votes despite the magnitude of Labour’s landslide victory in 2020.

Labour increased its vote by 13.1 percentage points to 50 percent, compared with the 2017 election; by contrast, Radhakrishnan increased her personal vote by only seven percentage points to 44.8 percent.

She was hampered by the rising house prices and gentrification of the electorate, which takes in the middle-income neighbourhoods of Onehunga, Ellerslie and Mt Wellington, as well as industrial Penrose.

Her vote was also constrained by a loyal personal following for former National MP Denise Lee – the red tide took only a one point dent out of Lee’s vote. If anything, Lee had been bolstered by a leaked email during the campaign, showing her pushing back against unpopular leader Judith Collins’ “nightmare” plan to review Auckland Council.

But the advantage held by Lee, as incumbent, is now held by Radhakrishnan. She’s been present and engaged – to a greater or lesser degree – in the electorate for the past three years; all the other active candidates are newcomers, fitting their campaigning around day jobs. 

Greg Fleming quit his day job as chief executive of the Parenting Place in 2020 but is still working for two charities (Hepara Charitable Trust and Oati Trust) right up to October 13, the eve of the election. Green candidate Dr Sapna Samant is a busy GP at an affordable-care medical practice in Grey Lynn who braved Auckland’s rain and wind and rush-hour traffic to come knocking on my door in the early evening.

With One Tree Hill to the north and Māngere Inlet to the south, the Maungakiekie electorate is criss-crossed and bounded by motorways and railways, real and planned.

Act’s Margo Onishchenko is a civil engineer, working at ACH Consulting Engineers in west Auckland, and was initially keen to come out in the evening to do an interview but, after consulting with Act head office, withdrew. According to her tongue-in-cheek party profile, she moved from Russia to New Zealand more than 10 years ago for her sister’s promise of an unlimited supply of dark chocolate.

Margo Onishchenko, Act Party
Margo Onishchenko, Act Party

“Thanks to my work as a structural engineer, I know how challenging it will be to fix the housing problem, and how there is no magic solution to it,” she says.

“I also have friends and loved ones who are farmers, police workers and doctors in the public health system. I hope my understanding of their hopes and difficulties might bring the desired positive change in these sectors.”

Rock the Vote candidate Eric Chuah describes himself as a researcher and policy coordinator based in Beach Haven, on Auckland’s North Shore. He’s run for election for a series of parties, since 1996. (Rock the Vote isn’t a registered party; instead it’s affiliated to Brian Tamaki’s Freedoms NZ party.) NZ First’s Andrew Hogg is or was an electrical engineer at a building firm in East Tāmaki; independent Phillip Bridge remains a mystery.

Radhakrishnan appears to be the only major candidate who lives in the electorate, with her husband and those two aforementioned dogs. Fleming and his family live only five doors up the road from the electorate boundary, in the often-pivotal Epsom electorate (he’ll be voting for his National Party friend Paul Goldsmith, he says, but only because Act’s David Seymour doesn’t need his help).

Samant would like to live in the electorate – indeed, she once went house-hunting in Onehunga. But as a single mum, she says, she just couldn’t afford to buy here. Instead, she has a small apartment in Parnell, where she lives with her 81-year-old mother and her 11-year-old son.

The commitment shown by candidates such as Samant, Onishchenko and Chuah to their causes, and to the democratic process, is worthy of remark.

There’s not a hope any of them will make it to Parliament – I had to Google to find out even their names, let alone anything about them.

They come from around Auckland to knock on doors, perhaps erect billboards, and take part in campaign debates. (Or, to Chuah’s frustration, be relegated to sparking an “uproar” from the floor of some debates.)

Greg Fleming, Margo Onishchenko, Eric Chuah, Sapna Samant and Priyanca Radhakrishnan at a campaign debate at Onehunga Sports Football Club. Photo: Supplied

The Greens don’t want to undermine Radhakrishnan so there are no Green Party billboards anywhere in the electorate, except for a slot on a digital billboard booked just this week. And even that is on the busy Neilson St transit route for traffic passing through the electorate, not targeted at locals. 

Samant is 28th on the Green Party list. To be clear, there are only 28 candidates on the Green Party list; she is in last place and it would take more than a miracle for her to make it into Parliament.

Samant says people should vote for the Green Party, and for Radhakrishnan in the electorate – she’s out there campaigning every day but she doesn’t want anyone to vote for her.

Onishchenko isn’t even on her party list; Chuah is No 14 on the Freedom NZ list. But they give up their time and probably not insignificant amounts of money, to campaign.

Lying on the tracks

One thing they’re all discovering on the campaign trail is public uncertainty about the slate of transport infrastructure proposed for the community – including National’s East-West Link highway to run past that Greens billboard a little further to the south, along the northern coastline of Māngere Inlet.

From where we’re standing, we can look 100 metres north to where KiwiRail’s touted Southdown-to-Avondale heavy rail line would cut a deep trench through suburbia. We can look down the hill to where the Auckland Light Rail line would run alongside the existing motorway, state highway 20. And we can look further round to where the East-West Link would take cars and trucks off the existing clogged Neilson St, connecting State Highway 1 with the State Highway 20 down to the airport.

Bear with me here, because it’s complicated for Aucklanders to follow: National would build the East-West Link, but would cancel this Government’s Auckland Light Rail running down State Highway 20.

The Greens would go with Light Rail, but instead of tunnelling it across the isthmus, would save money and emissions by running it overground all the way from the Auckland CBD to the airport.

Labour would stick with Light Rail (tunnelled beneath Sandringham/Balmoral at the northern end) and would not prioritise the East-West Link. 

A Labour Government would also push ahead with KiwiRail’s proposed heavy rail from its Southdown yards, running in a deep trench up through residential Onehunga and joining up with State Highway 20 to run north-west to Avondale. It would be primarily a freight route through to Northport at Whangārei, but could also carry commuters.

“I think I might cross the floor on that one, or certainly beg leave to differ. That would be such a bad piece of decision-making in terms of the impact on this community.”
– Greg Fleming, National

The Greens and National haven’t yet taken a position on the Southdown-to-Avondale railway line. Samant says it may be needed to get diesel trucks off the road. But Fleming has read the mood of the community. He opposes it.

“They want to hear me say that if I become the local MP, I will lie on the proposed railway tracks,” says Fleming. “And I will! But what I have to preface every email with is that my party has not yet chosen its position on that.”

What if a new National-led Government, of which he is a member, backs the position taken by KiwiRail, the Mayor of Auckland and the existing Government?

“I think I might cross the floor on that one, or certainly beg leave to differ. That would be such a bad piece of decision-making in terms of the impact on this community.”

A migrant community

In what is no doubt a reflection of the diversity of the community, all the major candidates except Fleming are migrants to New Zealand. (Fleming migrated from Masterton to Auckland, which I can testify is a big step, but not such a great leap as those candidates from Russia, UK, Malaysia, Singapore or India.)

So it seems timely to write about this electorate in the days after Labour leader Chris Hipkins, with half his Parliamentary front bench, returned to Onehunga to announce the party’s immigration policy, and to put flesh on the bones of the Dawn Raids apology, an amnesty for longtime overstayers.

The announcement was made to Labour volunteers, union workers and a few members of local ethnic minority communities. In one room of the 122-year-old kauri-framed Onehunga Community House, Labour held its policy announcement. In another room, a quilting and cross-stitch group met at the same time. In another room was a birthday party; in yet another, a Filipino christening.

This was a bold return to the scene of the crime, for Labour. It was here in 2014 that Labour launched its most disastrous campaign ever. The then leader David Cunliffe talked about some of the same issues that resonate today – cost of living, housing shortages, migration – with a coiled yellow extension cord slung over his shoulder. 

YouTube video

The conceit was that Labour’s MPs were pulling in together to give the community house a big spruce-up. The video shows them sanding, painting, plastering, gardening – though one community house volunteer doesn’t recall them doing an awful lot more than pulling out a few weeds.

We’re going to put the minimum wage up to $15 an hour, said Andrew Little, as he collected his paint rollers. We’re going to bring back the Kiwi dream by building 100,000 affordable homes, Phil Twyford told a young couple. We’re going to put 2000 more teachers in classrooms, said Chris Hipkins. Everyone will get a fair share, said David Parker over the paint brushes.

It was an evocative video – but perhaps the most worrying revelation for Labour is just how little renewal there has been in the senior ranks of its caucus. Sure, David Cunliffe, Dame Jacinda Ardern and Annette King are gone. But most of the others are in Cabinet today, and indeed, are seeking re-election: Chris Hipkins, Grant Robertson, Nanaia Mahuta, Andrew Little, Megan Woods, Damien O’Connor, David Parker, and Peeni Henare. Jenny Salesa and Phil Twyford are still in caucus, albeit demoted from Cabinet.

Nine years later, there are just three new faces in the ranks of ministers who front to Onehunga Community House: Carmel Sepuloni, Barbara Edmonds and, of course, Priyanca Radhakrishnan hosting the announcement.

Labour candidate Priyanca Radhakrishnan says she’s tried to juggle her responsibilities as a Cabinet minister and as a local MP. Photo: Jonathan Milne

One of Radhakrishnan’s three ministerial portfolios is Diversity, Inclusion and Ethnic Communities – so improving the treatment of migrants by authorities and by exploitative employers is important to her.

“We need to become a society that truly values diversity, so that all of us can feel safe, valued, respected, a sense of belonging and supported to participate in all aspects of life and society,” she tells the gathered supporters at Onehunga Community House.

Three days later, sitting down to talk, she explains that policies like the SuperVisa for parents and grandparents, and the amnesty for overstayers, are important to the local community. “I’ve had a fair few constituents approach me about it as local MP,” she says. “We have a very diverse electorate. About half of the electorate either identifies with an ethnic community or a Pacific community – that’s a fair few.”

At the high school up the road, 46 percent of the roll is Pasifika, and might be even higher if local families’ immigration status was regularised. One in 10 kids there is Asian, and one in four is Māori.

“So many of them are in this position where their children don’t get to go to school, because of the irregular status of the parent’s visa. And that’s unfair,” Radhakrishnan says.

“I’ve had constituents locally where the children were in that position – their parents were irregular and had been deported. The kids lived on here with other family members, and they had no status until they were in their 20s.”

Fleming has had similar conversations. His party has castigated the amnesty as a slap in the face for thousands of migrants who have followed the rules – but Fleming talked just this weekend, outside the Onehunga Countdown, to a Pasifika man in his 60s who had been an overstayer for more than 10 years.

“We can’t just go from amnesty to amnesty, right? But on the other hand, we’ve genuinely got these people who have lived in New Zealand for years, often decades. This is their home, all of their family are here. And in most cases they are contributing citizens. So it would seem that in many of those cases, an amnesty is a good thing.”

And Samant speaks from her own experience of the difficulties for migrants, as a third-generation doctor who moved to New Zealand because she believed medicine should support those with the greatest need, not chase profit.

Yet despite living for 10 years in New Zealand and honing her already fluent English by publishing articles on RNZ, and completing a Master’s in Film Studies, she faced difficulty obtaining credentials to practice medicine in New Zealand.

Even though she’d passed all the required medical practice tests, the Medical Council (“a hugely racist organisation”) insisted she pass an additional English language test.

Culture wars

This election, the diversity of the Maungakiekie community is not just about ethnicity and nationality – it’s also about gender, sexuality and religious differences.

Some candidates believe that, sadly, those differences are being used to divide people. There’s more abuse, more threats, more graffiti and hoardings being ripped down, says Radhakrishnan.

“Look, I’ve also run a refuge organisation which equips me very well for the rough and tumble of politics. I’ve had, in many cases, the partners of women and refugees who have been really angry and have hounded me. So I don’t think it’s just an issue for politicians.”

But she says MPs were briefed, ahead of the campaign, on keeping themselves safe. A study had shown a spike in safety concerns for female politicians.

For Radhakrishnan, she’s had online abuse. She’s had racist and sexist slurs spray-painted on her hoardings and her office. She’s faced aggressive behaviour at street-corner meetings. Sometimes she’s had to call the police. “I don’t feel unsafe to the point that I wouldn’t carry on in this role,” she says.

She connects it to an upsurge in misinformation and disinformation on a global scale, that has licensed people to consider political leaders as a threat.

Could she in good conscience encourage girls and young women into politics? “If I had a daughter, or any young person talking to me, I would tell them to do the best you can to stay safe; to know what the reality is of life in the public eye. But there is also so much scope to be able to effect change that is positive, even if it’s just for your local families or your local communities.”

Green Party candidate Dr Sapna Samant wants voters to look at the bigger picture of New Zealand's place in a world battling climate denial and latterday fascism. Photo: Jonathan Milne
Green Party candidate Dr Sapna Samant wants voters to look at the bigger picture of New Zealand’s place in a world battling climate denial and latterday fascism. Photo: Jonathan Milne

She and Samant believe there are attempts to intimidate women and minorities from speaking out; Greg Fleming believes that there is a converse attempt to impose a new creed around gender and sexuality that constrains expression of more conservative religious viewpoints.

“I fear sometimes that we’re replacing tolerance with a new orthodoxy. And that to me would make us a very emaciated society, if we wanted to enforce that.”

But one thing she, Fleming and Samant agree on is that they do not encounter concern about their religious beliefs when talking with the public.

Religious doctrine has been in the spotlight with questions about the National Party leader’s Christian beliefs. Christopher Luxon said last week, on the TVNZ leaders’ debate, that because of the political campaign, “I have been to a lot more temples than churches this year”.

As it turns out, that would mean he’s been to temple more often than Radhakrishnan, who practices a Hindu faith. “The thing with Hinduism, and I won’t get into a whole spiel on religion here, but you don’t really have to go to a temple. You can pray however you want – it’s a pluralistic religion. 

“I was brought up this way. We weren’t a ritualistic family. We didn’t do what were the trappings of Hinduism, it was more a way of life. If you actually drill to the bones of most world religions, the values are reasonably similar, just interpreted in different ways, and used for different agendas.

“I have to say, I feel very uncomfortable campaigning in places of worship. I do it because at the end of the day, it’s not a level playing field if you don’t, so I’ve been to my fair share of temples.”

Indeed, this weekend the Maungakiekie candidates will meet for a debate at St Peter’s Anglican Church in Onehunga – which should be a comfortable venue for Fleming.

Unlike his party’s leader, he’s not embarrassed to say he goes to church every Sunday.

For Luxon, his Christian beliefs have led to questions about his stance on abortion. When he was first elected National Party leader, he said that to him abortion is tantamount to murder. But, acknowledging the public support for women to have control over their own bodies and healthcare, he’s since offered an assurance that he’d resign than restrict abortion access.

Fleming has run into similar difficulties, after it emerged he’d argued that if the government extended civil unions to same-sex couples, it would be equally consistent to legitimise incestuous and polygamous relationships.

At the time, he was the managing director of the Maxim Institute, a conservative think-tank he’d established with the late Sir John Graham. “We must be clear that the sole purpose of this Bill is to provide for same-sex marriage in all but name,” he wrote in a 2004 press release. “Why is the government allowing discrimination to continue by refusing to legally recognise other relationship forms such as the union of siblings or more than two people?”

When asked about his comments earlier this year, Fleming told media he “wouldn’t make them again” and he now supported civil unions.

Sitting down for his interview this week, he talks extensively about his changed views on the nature of civil unions and marriage, and about supporting same-sex relationships, and the LGBTI and transgender members of our communities.

In short, he now sees civil unions and marriages as civil institutions, rather than religious. That means any person should be able to marry their partner of whatever sex or gender, and to celebrate their wedding in any church that supported them. His own Anglican church, Te Mīhana Māori Church of the Holy Sepulchre, does not support same-sex marriages, he says – but that should not stand in the way of anyone else.

Fleming and his wife have five children, ranging in age from 25 to 14. What if one of them came home with a same-sex partner, whom they wanted to marry?

“I would support their decision to be able to do what they want to do – 100 percent,” he says. “From a political and legal point of view, I don’t think the government and laws should be determining for them what they can and can’t do. 

“In terms of my Christian faith, being a member of the church that I’m part of, marriage is only between a man and a woman. So they couldn’t actually get married in the church that I’m part of, but they could find other churches that would marry them.”

And would he attend the wedding? “Yeah, I would. As my child, there’s nothing that they could do to affect my love and acceptance of them.”

Challenged by Radhakrishnan and Samant to show that his changed beliefs are more than just politically convenient rhetoric, he puts his votes where his mouth is.

“I wouldn’t want the vote of any person who opposes the right of people to have same-sex relationships. That’s not respecting the human person,” he says.

“I believe that the human person is the pinnacle of creation, that we are made in the image of a loving God, and our responsibility on this earth is to outwork our love for him through our love for our neighbour. And love surely starts with respect and tolerance.

“And I’m pleased that they’re not going to be voting for me. Because I don’t want them to be unclear about who I am and where I stand on these things.”

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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