Christchurch Central, the unlikely swing seat
Nicky Wagner versus Duncan Webb in Christchurch Central looms as the city’s battleground come September. Steadfastly Labour for decades, National has wrested control in the past two elections. The electorate’s legacy, though, is not as blood-red as you mi
On election night, 2008, a growing sense of dread enveloped Brendon Burns. Interim poll results for Christchurch Central showed Nicky Wagner, the National candidate, in the lead. If she held on, Burns would be the first Labour candidate to lose the electorate since World War II.
‘‘I suppose terror,’’ Burns says of his feeling that night.
‘‘Having taken a year off any earning to secure the seat, the thought that I might lose it on my first attempt . . .’’
Burns rallied and won by 900 votes, but it was Labour’s last victory in the seat. Wagner reversed the result in 2011 (after a historic dead-heat on election night) and registered a comfortable win in 2014. The commentariat baulked. National with a foothold in Christchurch Central? How did Labour manage that one? It epitomised everything about the party’s demise at the hands of a John Key-led National party. Or not.
‘‘I don’t think they were taking note of what was happening in the electorate,’’ Burns said.
Christchurch Central was established in 1946, but has only existed in its current form since MMP voting started in 1996. Before then, it cut a squat, circular figure through the centre of the city, taking in the CBD and chunks of inner eastern suburbs like Linwood, Richmond and Phillipstown. That blue-collar base really did make it Fortress Labour. In 50 years, just four MPs represented it. Ahead of the 1996 election it was largely combined with the St Albans seat, where outgoing Labour supremo David Caygill had held considerable sway. The new-look Christchurch Central shaped as more of the same for Labour.
It didn’t pan out. Newbie candidate Tim Barnett won by 653 votes. Just five of the 64 other electorate races were tighter.
‘‘I’d say we were surprised that it was so close,’’ Barnett said, ‘‘But we didn’t have much to go on apart from the history of the old system.’’
‘‘Just by the fact I was taking over from two Labour electorate MPs, my reasonably naive assumption was if you put two Labour-held electorates together and Labour’s polling the same as the previous election, that probably you get in. But of course a David Caygill vote wasn’t necessarily a Labour vote and I was a newcomer. I was gay, that was floated in the media. Probably in those days was considered a little more [of] a factor than it would be now.’’
Even so, the race itself didn’t feel tight, Barnett said. National candidate John Connelly withdrew three months before election day after allegations of a sexual relationship with a teenage girl that ended with a videotape and blackmail. It was his replacement, Kerry Sullivan, who nearly beat Barnett.
The new MP set about building a political machine based on unglamorous constituency work. In 12 years, his office opened more than 10,000 case work files.
‘‘That service, I don’t think it reflects directly in people coming into the office and then voting for you, but it reflects in terms of an image or reputation that an MP has,’’ Barnett said.
The approach worked. The next two elections Barnett romped home, boosting his majority to more than 10,000. It was just like the good old days. A bit of a blip while the new guy bedded in, before normal service resumed. Fortress Labour. In 2005, though, things started to change. Don Brash had revitalised National and things were looking tight for Labour. Barnett ditched any personal campaigning to concentrate on the party vote. Meanwhile, National candidate Nicky Wagner, with the experience of the 2002 campaign behind her, was looking more threatening. Barnett held the seat, but Wagner took 2500 votes out of his majority. National’s party vote in Christchurch Central doubled.
It was Barnett’s last contest, and the most yet influenced by the use of voter personal data. Strategists today would probably scoff, but in 2005 an electronic electoral roll with voters’ age, gender, occupation and address was a key campaign tool.
‘‘We could put in the data on some of the case work we did so we could identify who we thought were our targets,’’ Barnett said.
‘‘The last election we had 15 or 16,000 party vote targets and those are people we door-knocked on the day. So we focused on those we thought from occupation, whether they had contacted our office, [were] people who we thought were likely to vote Labour.’’
The 2008 election loomed as a 1996 redux – the favoured party fielding a largely unknown candidate. Brendon Burns, a former editor of the Marlborough Express, had twice stood for Labour in the National stronghold of Kaikoura. He took a year off work to campaign in Christchurch, mostly doorknocking.
‘‘It was a seat of two halves,’’ he said.
‘‘[It had] the Christchurch Central seat as it was centred around Linwood and the inner-city east area. Then if you like the old St Albans seat which was based around St Albans [and] Papanui.
‘‘St Albans was gentrifying rapidly . . . It was a seat where people who may well have been Labour in their origins were subject to growing incomes and growing property values and with that can come the potential for people to change their allegiances. There was also the Papanui end, although bits of it were good Labour footholds . . . other chunks of it were really natural blue territory.
‘‘There are people who thought it was that impregnable fortress but it wasn’t and I saw that.’’
Other than the demographic changes, that was because National was ascendant under John Key and Wagner, now with three years as a list MP behind her, was an even more legitimate contender.
The change was telling. After the early election night scare, Burns finished with a slightly larger majority than Barnett did in 1996. The similarities soon ended, though. Christchurch Central was about to be turned on its head by an earthquake.
In the aftermath, Burns found a role as a facilitator. He helped mobilise the heritage lobby and organised meetings of the group of community leaders who would become CanCERN. But as the November 2011 election approached he had a problem. In the 14 months since the first earthquake about 3000 people had left the electorate.
‘‘While there was some considerable damage in Papanui, St Albans,’’ he said, ‘‘It wasn’t on the same scale that was affecting places like Avonside and Richmond which were more Labour heartland areas.
‘‘[The Electoral Commission] stuck to the book and insisted that anybody who moved, even temporarily, had to re-enrol.
‘‘We made a number of approaches . . . There may have been an attempt by the commission to say, ‘If you have every intention of moving back into your home . . .’ but 99 per cent of people just re-enrolled.’’
There was also the matter of appearances. Disasters, in the first instance, are usually kind to incumbent governments, with ample opportunity for leaders to appear leaderly. Burns may have been the MP, but Key was the PM.
‘‘The Prime Minister was in the electorate every week [and] Nicky was at his side,’’ Burns said.
‘‘That’s politics. If it had been in Helen Clark’s time, she would have been there and I would have been at her elbow.’’
Burns went into the election under-exposed and less prepared. The demands of being a postdisaster MP meant the seven-day doorknocking of 2008 had become once a week in 2011.
‘‘It was a small-ish team. It’s pretty hard to get people to volunteer to doorknock if they’ve lost their house. Sometimes you couldn’t deliver pamphlets because there was no-one living there.’’
There were electorate boundary changes as well. As the earthquake scattered the city’s population, Christchurch Central lost its eastern flank and stretched further north and south.
‘‘I thought we’d scrape through with a similar kind of result to 2008, on the back of the work that had gone in,’’ Burns said.
He didn’t. He and Wagner won 10,943 votes each, with Wagner prevailing on special votes. It was the culmination of nine years’ work for the National candidate. She had first run in 2002, when Barnett bestrode the electorate, and naively thought she might win. She lost by 10,000.
‘‘It was a bit of a shock on the night, I have to say,’’ Wagner recalled. ‘‘It wasn’t a shock to the rest of the party . . . People said to me, ‘Didn’t you realise this was a safe Labour seat?’’’
Wagner was more circumspect in 2005, and pleased to eat into Barnett’s majority. She used data from the deprivation index to identify ‘‘light pink-pale blue’’ parts of the electorate – the areas away from the true-blue north and west edges and the solid Labour east.
‘‘I was pretty sensible about where I spent my time,’’ she said, ‘‘I certainly put my energy into the places where I thought I would get more votes.’’
That made the 2008 loss that much harder to take. With a smarter campaign and no Barnett, winning wasn’t such a naive goal.
‘‘I was deeply disappointed to lose,’’ Wagner said.
‘‘I lived in Christchurch Central all my life, I cared about the people there, I worked very hard for them, and somebody swoops in from Blenheim, and they vote for him.’’
The 2011 dead-heat vanquished some of that, but with just a 47-vote majority, 2014 could have exposed her win as an earthquake-induced anomaly. Labour had enlisted Tony Milne, a rising party man with a public profile through his role at the Problem Gambling Foundation, to run against her. In the end, she won by 2400 votes – a comparable margin to other electorates in the city. National’s party vote in the seat was nearly double Labour’s. Christchurch Central had established itself as a swing seat.
Wagner sees more changes in the future. Last year, the central city residential population was still one third lower than preearthquake numbers. When it eventually recovers, expect suburban outposts like Redwood and Opawa to disappear from the electorate as boundaries are redrawn. The repopulation should bring a liberal streak back to Christchurch Central, she said. There is also the challenge of new Labour candidate Duncan Webb, a high-profile lawyer with broad appeal.
‘‘Webb-Wagner – in a sense going back to some of those older battles,’’ Tim Barnett said.
‘‘The boundary’s now settled and the city’s starting to look beyond the earthquake, so I think it becomes a very fascinating race again.’’
‘‘I don’t think they were taking note of what was happening in the electorate.’’ Brendon Burns