Journalism – from Northland’s Susan Edmunds

Susan Edmunds is a hardworking Northland journo who frequently publishes longform journalism. She’s worth reading. Here’s an interesting piece she wrote for the Herald on Sunday from the election zone, 2014. tries to hitch a ride into government

By Susan Edmunds

Mana leader Hone Harawira can probably lay claim to being Parliament's only regular hitchhiker. Photo / Doug Sherring

Mana leader Hone Harawira can probably lay claim to being Parliament’s only regular hitchhiker. Photo / Doug Sherring

Never mind the hoopla around John Key and David Cunliffe meeting royalty _ this year’s election could be decided in the remote polling booths of Kaikohe and Moerewa. As the Mana and Internet parties meet this weekend, the question is Will Labour step back and give Hone Harawira a free run to provide the left a chance of rolling the Government?

It’s mid-morning, midweek in Kaikohe. The street is busy with people but if this is still the “hub of the north”, no one has told the shop owners.

Many windows are empty, still bearing painted promises such as “closing down, everything $1”. Those that are doing business are dollar shops, second-hand clothes sellers and one, without branding, that seems to contain piles of bric-a-brac poured into cardboard boxes.

An elderly couple prop up a table at the one pub that’s left – the Bank Bar. (Kaikohe Hotel closed its doors last year, deemed too dangerous to serve a pint. Now, it stands dilapidated, an eyesore covered in a brightly painted mural.)

This is Te Tai Tokerau central – Kaikohe’s polling booth in the 2011 Te Tai Tokerau byelection recorded the highest number of votes of the 133 polling stations throughout the electorate.

It’s five months until this electorate goes to the polls again and if local MP Hone Harawira is to retain his seat he’ll have to fend off opposition from his Labour neighbour Kelvin Davis and a Maori Party candidate.

Last election, Harawira took 8121 of the votes cast, ahead of Davis’ 6956. The Maori Party came a distant third.

This time, if he comes back in, he could be bringing Internet Party candidates with him – and potential clout for Labour if it is casting about for post-election allies.

But he’ll have to do it in an environment where much of his electorate has been bypassed by the emergence of the “rock star” economy, where soaring house prices are another city’s problem and where Ngapuhi is working through the fraught process of a Treaty settlement.

For much of Te Tai Tokerau, their version of the Global Financial Crisis has been running for more than 20 years – and there’s no sign of any let-up.

Harawira says he’s well aware of the problems, and they’re the same whether he’s in Waitakere or Cape Reinga.

His opponents like to describe him as the absent politician, on leave for 68 days from Parliament and conflicted in his electorate by his duties as Mana leader.

But it’s hard to miss his face as you travel through Te Tai Tokerau. There’s a Mana Party office in the middle of Whangarei, the flags are flying in Kaikohe’s main street and further north is true Harawira country.

Every Monday he’s at home in Kaitaia, then on Fridays he tries to be somewhere else in the electorate, whether that’s lunch in a food court at West City or a coffee in Whangarei’s mall. He can probably lay claim to being Parliament’s only regular hitchhiker, testing the mood of the electorate from the passenger seat. Twice this summer he has stuck his thumb out and been picked up – “they’re quiet for a couple of minutes, then they say ‘don’t they pay you enough?”‘

He hears the same things over and over again – people are on a benefit, wanting work, worried about their kids and grandchildren.

“I notice little things. Kids are going to school hungry.

“There are a lot of nasty things said about the unemployed but things are so tight that parents sometimes make the wrong choices. It’s making them frustrated and angry, they want to do better.”

Jobs are the answer, he says. “A job gives them joy when they come home at the end of the day with cash in their pocket from a hard day’s work. Some people need to learn the art of work again – some of the young ones need to learn the art of work, full stop.”

He says the Government could do this with a housing programme. Housing in many parts of Te Tai Tokerau is substandard – people are living in converted cowsheds, or in houses that should have been bowled years ago, with wiring hanging from the ceilings.

Instead of getting out of social housing, Harawira says the Government should be getting stuck in and fix housing and employment with one programme. “It could create apprenticeships – carpenters, cabinet makers, glaziers, gibstoppers, roofers. It could rebuild the life of our communities and give communities the faith that they have a future.”

That might make family members who have moved to Australia pay attention, he reckons, if they log on to Facebook and see things happening back home.

Life here is an uphill battle, says Nick Heywood, community liaison at the Broadway Health Centre. Families will come in week after week with the same ailment for different children – problems that could be fixed with basic hygiene or better housing.

Heywood says the centre will see diabetics who have to have a limb amputated. They will be told how to stop it happening again – but then they’re back again in the same condition to lose another.

The father of 13 and grandfather of 22 sees the region’s bright young things leaving town to seek better opportunities in the big cities – and no one can think of a way to tempt them back. “We do seem to have a big population of people who sit on benefits and don’t seem to want to come off that. They’re always in here asking us to sign things for the sickness benefit.”

Some want to work but don’t know how. Some families are on to their third generation of welfare dependency. It’s not uncommon to see young children wandering the streets at night, then not going to school in the morning.

Parents don’t push them to go – some because they’re scared of their kids being better educated than they are, he says.

But so far, none of the politicians have been able to turn things around for the region. It’s now got to the point where he’s not sure there’s anyone worth voting for. “A lot of people feel we haven’t got much choice. The ones that could represent us well in Parliament don’t live here any more.”

Some of the older people find it hard to relate to Harawira’s $162,000 parliamentary salary. “Will a new government make any difference? Not really. The same issues in the 1990s we’re still talking about in 2014. Nothing’s changed.”

The election is Harawira’s to lose – but how hard he’ll have to fight depends on how strategic Labour wants to be about it.

“Labour will be campaigning in all the Maori seats, as it will be in every seat in the country,” leader David Cunliffe says. “The party has selected a fine candidate for Te Tai Tokerau in Kelvin Davis and he will be campaigning hard in that seat.”

Mana is already talking up how good it would be for the region if Davis was elected as a list MP, leaving Harawira as the electorate MP.

But Davis’ campaign manager Kaye Taylor says they won’t be rolling over to let Harawira into Parliament, more Mana Party MPs on his coat-tails, and the Internet Party candidates trailing behind them. “Look at Hone’s history,” she exclaims. “He’s had the visit to the great leader Nelson Mandela’s funeral and walked with Aborigines in Australia. But that’s not who votes him in. In past elections we played the nice opposition and haven’t said anything about his past record. Now enough is enough. We need someone who can do the hard yards.”

Davis wants a focus on education, Maori development, regional development and housing, she says. “We need someone who is going to roll their sleeves up and get in and do the hard yardage, not someone who’s gone missing 68 days in the year and isn’t seen in Parliament.”

The other player in the battle for Te Tai Tokerau will be the Maori Party candidate. Electorate general manager Norm McKenzie won’t give any hints but says he’s 100 per cent sure whoever it is will win the seat. “And we haven’t even got our guns loaded. I know voters are ready for change. They want to be at the table, they’re over people doing the haka outside the tent.”

It’s easy to brush off Te Tai Tokerau’s issues as someone else’s problem.

But changing the story, making sure that Nick Heywood’s clinic isn’t seeing the same issues in another 20 years, is of more interest to me than most other general roll voters.

In a couple of months, another potential Te Tai Tokerau voter will join my family. My husband Jeremy Tauri and I live near Ruakaka, and our baby son is due in eight weeks.

One set of his grandparents lives on a semi-rural property not far from the centre of Kaikohe, worried about what a potential new social housing development next door might bring. They don’t want to be surrounded by more unemployed young people, still drinking the morning after, every day of the week.

One of his uncles lives on Kaikohe’s main street and has been targeted by thieves several times in recent months. He works at the prison at Ngawha.

The correctional facility is a bit of a mixed blessing – it provides jobs, but it also brings with it inmates’ families who, many say, aren’t always the ideal neighbours.

When it comes time for the boy currently registered with Plunket as “Undecided Tauri” to enrol to vote in 18 years, I really hope the dialogue has changed.

When my husband and I pack our son off to university, I hope Northland may offer him career choices.

I hope the children in his cousin’s class don’t drop out when they turn 16 and opt for a life on the DPB.

I hope that when he goes to visit his grandparents on his school holidays in a few years he comes back with stories about businesses opening and a town flourishing – not riding his bike around deserted industrial buildings, as I saw boys doing this week.

How to unite such a diverse electorate is one of the key challenges. It’s suburban West Auckland, it’s tourist mecca Paihia, but it’s also Moerewa, with its empty streets and run-down houses. After years of being left to fend for themselves, parts of Te Tai Tokerau have had enough and are taking matters into their own hands.

In an alley off Kaikohe’s main street, a group of women under a blue gazebo are applying papier mache to balloons. It’s not all doom and gloom, they tell me.

They’re delivering a Ministry of Education early childhood education project, in conjunction with a free drop-in centre for parents of under-5s. Organiser Kelly Yakas says it’s a way to provide friendship and support.

She says people need to be less afraid to make a bit of noise about the good things they are doing. “We’re used to creating our own opportunities. There are a lot of amazing people in this town that have a lot to offer but recognition isn’t sought after so they get lost under the radar.”

Harawira is a familiar face around town and seems to understand the issues better than most. The women say they will give him their votes on September 20 – the only hesitation comes in the form of a certain German millionaire.

Ah yes, the Kim Dotcom factor. The polarising internet mogul spoke at the Mana AGM in Rotorua yesterday. Today, Internet Party members will congregate on the sweeping lawns of Dotcom’s Coatesville mansion, towards the bottom end of Te Tai Tokerau electorate, for a picnic.

Things like better access to the internet, help for low-decile schools and a move to a high-tech economy would benefit Te Tai Tokerau, Harawira says.

“And reining in the GCSB and opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, why would I not want to work with people like that?”

The response from young people has been positive, he says, and from some of the older folk as well.

“I’ll see a kuia at a bus stop and she’ll say, ‘I don’t really understand that John but I know my mokopuna get it so if they get it I’ll back you’. Then others say, ‘you be bloody careful’.”

It will be jobs and education that get Te Tai Tokerau’s vote this election, not Wellington’s beltway political machinations.

For little Undecided’s sake, I hope the winner knows how to put voters in the driver’s seat – leave the hitchhiking to the politicians.

Herald on Sunday

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