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Election 2020: Can Labour Win Back Rotorua?

Article – Felix Desmarais – Local Democracy Reporter

 Graphic image – credit: Felix Desmarais / LDR The Rotorua electorate race has long been dominated by candidates from the two major parties – Labour and National. Despite Labour’s Ray Boord winning the seat for the first two terms of its existence, …


 Graphic image – credit: Felix Desmarais / LDR

The Rotorua electorate race has long been dominated by candidates from the two major parties – Labour and National.

Despite Labour’s Ray Boord winning the seat for the first two terms of its existence, it has been held by National candidates for 38 years before Labour’s Steve Chadwick saw off National’s Max Bradford in 1999.

Chadwick held the seat for three terms until she was in turn dethroned by the incumbent Todd McClay from National.

So was Chadwick’s win a red blip on what should be considered a safe seat for National, or was it the beginning of a tussle for a marginal electorate between the two major parties?

Local Democracy Reporter Felix Desmarais spoke to the candidates at the centre of the 2020 race for Rotorua.

[header]’I want to be the squeaky wheel for Rotorua’

Claire Mahon is confident she will win Rotorua back for Labour.

“Absolutely. I will be the next member of parliament for Rotorua. The seat of Rotorua is absolutely winnable.”

The international human rights lawyer and executive coach says she’s had a “strong connection” to Rotorua her whole life, with six generations of her family living and working in the area.

She grew up in Australia however – the reason for her “funny accent” .

But according to Mahon, Rotorua is her “tūrangawaewae”.

Working overseas as a human rights lawyer, she says every time she came back to Rotorua, she observed a “disparity between the haves and have-nots”.

She returned to Rotorua to investigate “what her contribution could be”.

Her lounge is surrounded by whiteboards detailing campaign strategy in red marker.

On this particular morning Mahon has been working on a piece of advice on the working poor in New Zealand. She pops a capsule in the coffee machine for me as she gets ready for the camera – I note most of her appliances have travel adaptors, a remnant of her time spent overseas.

But it wasn’t always a high-flying life for Mahon. She says her reason for being in politics is informed by life experiences.

She was homeless twice – at age 16 due to a “difficult family situation” and again in her 30s.

She spent a year couch surfing and sleeping on the bare floor of abandoned apartments in the middle of a European winter.

She also spent some time on disability insurance, unable to get out of bed or work.

She’s “better now, back up to full health and energy and enthusiasm”.

“I know what it’s like to be in that situation of: no money, no home, no job, no health and wondering ‘what the hell are you going to do?’

“That’s when the role of the government is really important.”

Mahon says in McClay’s 12 years in the seat is “long enough to show what you can do for our town”.

“If he hasn’t fixed some of the problems we have around Rotorua by now, another three years is not going to change that.”

She says it’s an “important opportunity” for Rotorua to swap the local MP for someone who is a part of the Government.

“We’re going to have such a stronger voice in there than having a Member of Parliament who is a member of the opposition party.”

“Our level of child poverty is double that of other parts of New Zealand. That doesn’t happen by accident, it happens through poor planning … poor leadership and poor decision-making.”

But fixing child poverty is not just the local MP’s job though, I say. It’s also the role of central government, and Labour has been in power for three years.

Two-and-a-half years, Mahon is swift to correct.

“Those levels of child deprivation … are a result of nine years of neglect from the National government.”

She says progress has been made by the Labour government.

“We’ve seen the fantastic impact that the lunches in schools programme has [had].

“We’re just getting started on these things.”

Before Covid-19, housing was the big issue in Rotorua, she says. But now it’s jobs.

She points to the various programmes the Government instigated, aimed at supporting the tourism industry, as well as retraining and re-employing people.

She says for some, the wage subsidy was the difference between losing all staff, businesses and livelihood and the ability to restart business after the lockdown lifted.

She wanted to make sure the support continued, and that there was a safety net for those who suffered “inevitable job losses” in Rotorua.

Those are things the Government is doing, with or without Mahon, however – so what difference will it make to the people of Rotorua if she was to represent them in the capital?

The answer is founded on the assumption – not a wholly unlikely one – of a second term for the sixth Labour government.

“One of the massive criticisms that people have of Shane Jones is that he gets everything that Northland asks for … that all the money goes to Northland because he’s out there being the squeaky wheel that gets the oil.

“I want to be that person for Rotorua.”

[sidebar] Quick fire hot topics

Black Lives Matter: “Yes, Black lives matter.”

Are you a feminist?: “Absolutely, unashamedly a feminist. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with feminism. Feminism is about equality. If you’re not for equality, there’s a problem.”

LGBTQIA+ rights: “Always been an advocate, will always continue to be an advocate and a strong ally.”

Abortion law reform: “I do think abortion should have been decriminalised and I’m pleased with the legal changes that have been made.”

Cannabis legalisation: “I don’t actually have a strong, firm, personal position on that. I want to hear what people think. I’m also really aware that’s a referendum decision not a Government decision, so as your member of parliament, I will act on whatever the referendum says. Personally I’ll be voting in favour of cannabis reform. I think cannabis should be decriminalised.”

End of Life choice: “People should have the choice about when to end their life within certain safety constraints. The bill at the moment has done a relatively good job of balancing that.”

[header]’Every second I’m awake, I’m thinking about Rotorua’

Todd McClay, perhaps unsurprisingly, won’t be drawn on whether he thinks Mahon can beat him at the ballot box.

The National Party candidate for Rotorua and incumbent MP instead says it’s “for local people to decide”.

“I’m proud of the record and the hard work we’ve done over nine years in government and the last three years as a strong advocate for Rotorua.

“I guess if they’d [Labour] delivered a few more projects then local people would be wondering. But they just haven’t.”

He says he’s “very proud” of the work he and staff had done on behalf of locals in his 12 years in the role – including helping people with small issues to do with the council or “large ones, where government agencies are not treating them fairly”.

“Every second that I’m awake, I’m thinking about the wider Rotorua electorate. Rotorua will always come first to me when it comes to being an MP.”

In any case, he says, “politics is not personal”.

“It’s not about whether somebody likes me or not, it’s actually about the things that are good for the local community.”

McClay points to his key highlights of his work in the previous National Government.

“Every road into Rotorua received funding and upgrades from the National government, that I advocated for as a Member of Parliament.

“Almost every school has received funding to build new buildings, in fact we created two new schools … I made a commitment to the people of Rotorua before I was elected to fight to allow them to choose for themselves over Easter trading.

“We delivered that as a National government and people now have that choice.”

After over a decade as the local MP, he’s deft at wrapping his case as a candidate up with the call for the National party vote.

“There was much more progress under a National government in Rotorua when I was there as MP and then also as Minister [of Revenue, then later Trade],” he says.

That seems to lend itself to Mahon’s argument that an electorate is better off with an MP that’s in the governing party.

McClay says not necessarily.

“That’s quite an assumption that a first-time candidate might make.

“When I first campaigned, there was a Labour government.

“Steve Chadwick was the MP then … Steve and I got along very well.

“When I became the MP we were able to put political differences aside and together work for and fight for the things that are the best for Rotorua.

He references a petition he started to draw attention to what he refers to as the “desperate” need for upgrades to State Highway 5 between town and Ngongotahā, including the Ngongotahā roundabout.

“We got more than 7000 signatures from local people. We’re able to put pressure on the Government to start to do something.”

However he admits the Government’s work on that felt “a bit piecemeal so far”.

“You pay your tax, we should have our roads, I’ll keep fighting for that … whether [National is] in opposition or we’re in government.”

McClay is a hard man to pin down as a sitting MP – we reschedule our chat a number of times due to him being needed in the capital. He comes into the Rotorua Daily Post on a Sunday to get it done.

He takes a black tea – just gumboot – tea bag out. I narrowly avoid grabbing the mug emblazoned with the phrase “HOT STUFF” from the newsroom kitchen.

McClay says the focus for Rotorua now is the local economy.

“During the lockdown … everybody in Rotorua did what they were asked to do, they sacrificed, now many of them are finding it much harder than they should through no fault of their own.

“Many have lost their jobs, they’ve lost their businesses, their livelihoods are now challenged. We need to fix that in the local economy. It needs to be done throughout the country and National has a clear plan we’ll be talking about, between now and the election, of how to do that.

“Locally it’s a real focus on making sure that when it comes to government assistance, it works and it helps.”

[sidebar] Quick fire hot topics

Black Lives Matter: “It’s important to have the debate and racism is something that doesn’t have a place in society anywhere. I’ve continued to be a strong advocate of a society where people are able to be understanding. That debate has its place, but it’s also important we have a debate that’s completely relevant to local communities.”

Are you a feminist?: “I’ve got a wife and a daughter and therefore I want every single opportunity … that can be offered to them and … be treated exactly the same as my three sons. It’s a label and as soon as you give someone a label people will have an understanding of what that means. Equal opportunity is very important.”

LGBTQIA+ rights: “It’s very important that people have equal rights and that they should be respected and that they should be treated fairly.”

Abortion law reform: “I didn’t support it because I had significant concerns around the scope of that law … it was my belief this law went further than it should.”

Cannabis legalisation: “No, I’m not in favour of that. Within reason, what you’re doing in your own home, if you’re not harming others, is your own business … the harm that marijuana does to the young mind and young people is substantial … I won’t be supporting that.”

End of Life choice: “I didn’t support that … I was quite concerned about the scope and definition. I consulted widely in the community about that but actually decided, based upon that, not to support it.”

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