Christchurch City councillor Raf Manji is making an independent run for the seat of Ilam - held by former earthquake czar and National MP Gerry Brownlee with a nearly 12,000-vote margin. Is Manji the Red Peak of electorate candidates, or could he actually topple Brownlee?
Leaning back on the black leather couch of his inner city apartment, Raf Manji projects an urbane air.
A copy of The Guardian newspaper sits on his coffee table, along with a book on the future of New Zealand journalism.
It seems safe to assume his choice of reading material is substantially different from that of Gerry Brownlee, the National MP and former Earthquake Recovery Minister whose Ilam electorate Manji is hoping to snatch this election.
It would be a shock result to say the least, but the Christchurch City councillor isn’t shy about talking up his chances.
The 50-year-old is originally from London - “Arsenal supporter, sadly” - with an Irish mother and an Indian father.
After getting into investment banking in the 1980s and trading in global markets, he had what he calls “a bit of an epiphany” in the late 1990s, moving into environmental and human rights issues.
Later, he began working for Trucost, a company which estimated the hidden costs of environmental damage by companies.
After marrying a Kiwi, he moved to New Zealand in 2002 with their young family “for a more balanced life”.
“I could see the strains already appearing in Europe...that tyranny of distance is a huge positive.”
He spent some time working in the non-profit sector and volunteering, before the earthquake hit and he became involved with the Volunteer Army Foundation.
Then Lianne Dalziel approached him about standing for the city council in 2013.
“I went to a few meetings, couldn’t really make head nor tail of what they were discussing most of the time, these ridiculous agendas.”
Nevertheless, he ran and won in the Fendalton-Waimairi ward and won, becoming chairman of the council’s finance and performance committee.
'Cabinet leaving Christchurch behind'
He was contemplating a tilt at central government, but not this election. That changed after former Prime Minister John Key, who Manji regards as a champion of Christchurch, decided to step down.
“I knew the attitude around the Cabinet table to Christchurch was 'look, we’re done, we’ve finished the job, let’s move on', and clearly the job wasn’t done.”
Manji says the city’s residents don’t feel they’re being listened to, with the Government tending to talk to Christchurch from Wellington, rather than on the ground.
“Things like the convention centre - there’s just been a sense that the government brought out this blueprint which was clearly a massive over-promise, under-budgeted and has been under-delivered, and you could see that at the time, but they never followed through on it, they never came back say every year to give an update, this is what’s going on.”
While there have been whispers that Manji initially hoped to stand for the Greens, he says he chose to run as an independent so he could properly articulate his plan for the city.
“Yes I probably could join any political party, quite frankly - not ACT - but for me it was the independence piece - I wanted to be able to tell a story about Christchurch, I wanted to be free to tell that story without getting dragged into all the dramas that you get with party politics.”
Whatever his shortcomings, Manji isn’t short of big ideas.
The centrepiece of his campaign is a pitch to bring the Commonwealth Games to Christchurch in 2026, along with a $1 billion investment fund to bankroll central city housing, a red zone development, a new stadium and other revitalisation projects.
Manji says the ChCh2026 plan is about “lifting our eyes a bit to the future”, inserting some ambition into the city’s future.
He describes the fate of the residential red zone as perhaps the most important project in the city, given “in some respects it is the ground zero of the earthquake”.
“Because you had nearly 8000 people have to leave their homes there, there’s still a bit of a wound which is still there. If the right thing is not done there, that’s going to be a problem.”
Red Peak redux?
It’s easy to see Manji as the Red Peak of electorate candidates: beloved by the chattering classes, but lacking in the mainstream appeal necessary to win a popular vote.
As someone with knowledge of the city’s politics notes, Manji may be popular at Merivale dinner parties but winning over the little old ladies of Bryndwr is another matter.
“That is definitely a possibility,” he concedes, but counters by pointing to his local election victory, where he beat out previous and incumbent councillors.
He trumpets strong ties to the business community and the school network, and says two terms as a councillor have boosted his profile in the area.
As far his influence in Parliament, Manji highlights Peter Dunne and David Seymour - party leaders in theory but independents in practice - as an example of what can be achieved.
In Manji’s dream scenario, he is appointed by either National or Labour as the Minister for Christchurch, given free rein to mastermind the city’s regeneration using his knowledge of both local and central government.
“Here’s your budget, you don’t need to come to any Cabinet meetings, call us up if you need any help.”
The former university gambler turns to an appropriate metaphor in explaining how he can aid the true-blue residents of Ilam as either a voice for Christchurch within National or a check on a Labour-led government.
“It’s an each-way bet, and because Gerry is back in Parliament already [on the list] it’s a free bet.”
Brownlee isn’t prepared to leave the electorate result to chance.
On a Saturday morning he is wielding a megaphone on the streets of Ilam, speaking to a couple of dozen people at a time to discuss the Government’s record and take their questions.
The crowds largely appear National-friendly.
Although he faces some tough questions on housing affordability and poverty, a moustachioed man asks him how he would like to be depicted on a statue in his honour - “As long as I’ve got my pants up”, he quips - before posing with his coffee mug for a photo with the Foreign Minister.
However, he may have been worried by retired Fendalton academic John Packer’s question about Manji, along with his comments after the meeting dispersed.
“I think I probably will vote for him [Manji] because it doesn’t affect Gerry at all...we’d get two for one.”
Brownlee may have won the seat with a 12,000-vote majority last election - “Don’t cut me short, 13 [thousand],” he corrects me, incorrectly - but he’s taking nothing for granted.
“It’s never in the bag, and I think people that lose seats generally do so because they take that attitude - I don’t...you have to be out there and you have to be talking to people.”
He values bumping into constituents at the petrol station, the supermarket or a sports match, knowing that they’re directly responsible for his election.
Brownlee resists any suggestion that his high-flying ministerial role is a hindrance, saying predecessors Murray McCully and Phil Goff also held electorates while a strong team in his electorate office also helps.
“You have to have good people and I’ve got great people, I’m very lucky. They've been with me for a long time and they know the electorate extremely well which is essential.”
Externally at least, he seems unperturbed by Manji’s run, pointing to the difficulty of surviving, let alone thriving, as an independent “outlier” in Parliament.
“No coalition in New Zealand’s 21-year history as survived on a one-vote majority, it shifts around all the time…
“It’s not a very strong argument to say that actually, they’ll have to deal with me, and the other claim that they’d have to make him the Minister for Christchurch and that they’d also have to vote [for] a billion-dollar fund - those are frankly grandiose and naive.”
He’s similar scornful of Manji’s 2026 Commonwealth Games vision, saying any bid would have to be driven by the council rather than the Government.
“The question would be why hasn’t it been put on the council agenda where he sits at the table?”
'The right framework'
As for any complacency or lack of interest in the city, Brownlee says that’s not true.
He bristles at suggestions the Government has imposed its demands on the city, saying the current framework is exactly what the council wanted.
“The Mayor of Christchurch sat down with her officials at the table in my office with Megan Woods, Eugenie Sage, Denis O’Rourke, Nicky Wagner and myself, and we thrashed out the structure that would be good for us moving forward.
“Last election, those same people were screaming at the Government to get out of town because they wanted more local leadership, they’ve got more local leadership and they’re screaming at the Government for things not moving fast enough - you can’t help some people.”
As for the anchor projects, there have been delays out of the Government’s control including the remediation of contaminated land, while the design and development process has taken time.
"You have to be very careful when you’re building these assets that you’re not creating white elephants for the future.”
Brownlee is quick to move the onus back onto Manji, citing the council’s controversial inner city transport plan as an area beyond the Government’s control.
“That’s a council thing and we keep coming back to, while I think the council have done a good job and I think Lianne Dalziel's leadership has been good, Raf’s been there all that time so where’s the voice?”
Manji would argue he is that voice for Christchurch, and would be in Parliament - although it will take a minor miracle for his improbable bid to succeed.