The contest for Christchurch Central is shaping up as a bellwether of the election at large. National won the seat off Labour in 2011 and increased its majority in 2014. Sam Sachdeva talks to the candidates and finds a fatalistic National incumbent and Labour more confident under Jacinda Ardern.
It’s pretty unique safety advice ahead of a political event: “Drop, cover, hold, and pray.”
But it’s more than fitting given the location - Christchurch’s temporary Cardboard Cathedral, complete with a stained glass window and cardboard beams - and the occasion - an election debate in the Christchurch Central electorate, intimately acquainted with shaky situations.
Six candidates are lined up to make their pitch, but it’s essentially a two-horse race between National incumbent Nicky Wagner and Labour challenger Duncan Webb.
Labour had held the seat since its creation in 1946, but the post-quake 2011 election resulted in a dramatic 47-vote win for Wagner.
Three years later, Labour expected to regain the seat; even Wagner had given up, calling it “almost unwinnable”. Instead, she increased her margin to 2,420 as Labour slumped to another disappointing result.
This time around, there are hopes that the party’s resurgence under Jacinda Ardern could help it regain the seat and restore the jewel in Labour’s Canterbury crown.
Riding the Jacinda wave
It’s clear Webb is hoping to capitalise on Jacindamania: the window of his New Regent St office is adorned with one cardboard cutout of Webb but five Arderns (reduced to three later in the week for reasons that are unclear).
The 50-year-old lawyer, who has represented Cantabrians in their battles over earthquake repairs, sports large-framed glasses, a Labour-branded Swanndri and a booming laugh.
He says the loss of the Christchurch Central seat was “a significant dent in the Labour ego”, given the city’s history as a party stronghold.
“It gave us a real reality check: I’m not saying we took it for granted but it was a real surprise when Labour lost that.”
Webb gave up his lucrative position as a partner at Christchurch law firm Lane Neave to make a bid for the seat, saying making “shitloads of money” was less important than being able to change people’s lives.
While his earthquake work was rewarding, it also showed him the limitations of the law when it came to issues like the rebuild.
“I thought the law was pretty amazing and it solved everyone’s problems, then it hit me straight between the eyes that the law was an utterly useless tool when it comes to a problem like that, when you’ve got a massive imbalance of power…
“That’s when I thought shit, the law stops here [and] politics starts here, because only politics can solve those structural problems.”
“PJ” - pre-Jacinda - Webb thought unseating Wagner was a tough, but not impossible, mountain to climb.
Now it’s a far more attractive proposition, with Labour candidates being lifted by the party’s rising tide.
Missed opportunities in the CBD
Webb isn’t shy in pointing out the Government’s shortcomings with the Christchurch rebuild. He says the East Frame is the best example of a missed opportunity: the Crown-led inner-city housing development was meant to be finished by the end of 2014, but nearly three years later there are no homes in place.
“That was exactly the right timing , we needed people to be building houses in the inner city because that was exactly when all of the insurance started coming on stream, houses were being demolished, people were having to get out of their homes.”
Webb says there have been delays and problems with most government-led “anchor projects” - major projects such as the convention centre that were part of the city’s rebuild blueprint.
The real success stories are the areas led by the private sector, such as the western side of the Avon River where a number of law firms have relocated.
“That’s the private sector getting off its arse and making things happen, unconstrained by, I really don't know what the constraint is - it appears to be that the government wants all of the upside and zero risk, and wants to offload all of the risk onto contractors at bargain basement cost.”
The state of Christchurch’s health system is also at the front of his mind, with the Government and the Canterbury District Health Board arguing over funding while the city’s mental health services are stretched from people dealing with the toll of the earthquakes.
"People who deal with people, people like teachers who deal with kids who have mental stresses...you turn up to work and all you deal with is people who have had stress and anxiety, and it’s really really stressful, and a lot of people really get mental health issues from that and that's a huge issue.”
Christchurch needs a stronger advocate in Wellington, someone independent and prepared to forcefully advocate for them, he says. However, he is mindful his fortunes, and his party’s, will be swayed by wider issues than the rebuild.
“When people break free of it, get rid of their earthquake insurance issues, they’re well free of it - they don’t want to dwell on the horror that was the past six years...
“We’re not going to win the election on Christchurch voters being disgruntled with the earthquake response, we’ve got to win it on genuine policy, and that’s a good thing.”
Wagner's 'philosophical' approach
In a Papanui cafe, Wagner and her team of volunteers are anxiously looking out the window as dark clouds roll in and the rain pelts down.
They’re meant to be door-knocking the houses nearby, but there’s understandably a bit of reluctance as the temperature heads into single digits - “I’m not getting pneumonia for anyone,” one of the team says.
In the end, a compromise is reached: two volunteers head back to Wagner’s electorate office to make phone calls, while the MP and a partner head out to brave the conditions.
It’s a mixed bag: the first eight houses are unattended, while one door is opened by former Green Christchurch Central candidate David Moorhouse - “Don’t waste your time,” he says.
At another house, a man holding his poodle says emphatically: “I won’t be voting for you, for sure.”
Yet she presses on, greeting canines as they rush up to the door - “Hello doggy!” - and is rewarded with some (human) smiles and promises of support.
Wagner seems fatalistic about her chances of retaining Christchurch Central.
“I hope to hold onto it, it’s something I’ve worked really hard for, but I’m not going to die in a ditch on it either.”
The seat’s Labour history and the party’s determination to win it back mean she’s “very philosophical”: “I work really hard in my community, I think I’ve done a really good job for them, but eventually I think it will go back to Labour.”
The former businesswoman first ran for Parliament in 2002 - “right in the heart of Labour time” - over her concerns about Christchurch’s direction.
“The city was stagnating, small businesses were feeling unheard...there was just a lack of knowledge or understanding of small business, and I thought I had to do something.”
Wagner is more positive than Webb about the current state of the city, saying there are more opportunities for young people than ever before.
“What we’re doing in the innovation precinct, in the health precinct, we’re giving Christchurch a real kick up the ladder and I just feel that’s so important.”
She doesn’t sense a mood for change in the electorate, believes people feel they are going in the right direction despite a “shrill, noisy minority”.
“In reality, even though it’s been a really tough time for an awful lot of people, most people are better off now than they were before - their houses are upgraded, they’re double-glazed, they're insulated, [and] if you’ve got a new house you’re far better off than you were before.”
'Don't dwell on the past'
Wagner pushes back at the suggestion the Government has been too slow with its anchor projects, saying all are underway and many are complex.
“Yes it has taken longer and we would have much preferred it to be faster, but I’ll tell you what, every single day we were pushing to get it done and I don’t believe anyone else could have pushed a faster project.”
However, she concedes to a government mistake in underestimating the size of the task ahead of it.
“We looked at all the overseas information and they said 10 years to 25 years to rebuild a city. We looked at it and said we’re small, we’re nimble, we’re keen to get on with this, and we can do it faster.
“In actual fact we have done a lot of it faster, we’re not even up seven years and all the anchor projects have begun, but I think we were unrealistic.”
However, it was an important to “put a stake in the ground”, to make decisions and stick to them for the sake of stability.
“It’s a bit like the cathedral - it might not be perfect, but a decision is better than no decision at all.”
She says the Government has spent a significant amount of money on social services for Cantabrians, while the community has had as much say, if not more, than the Government on those services.
As for the electorate race, she concedes Webb has been running a good campaign, but finds fault with his negativity.
“I do think it’s not good for Christchurch people to dwell on stuff that’s in the past, I think we should get on with it...
“I want people to focus in the opportunities of the city because if we get it right not only will this be a great city for the next generation, it will be for generations after that.”