21 Sep 2023

Election 2023: Sarah Pallett, Hamish Campbell and Raf Manji vye for Ilam's vote

5:59 pm on 21 September 2023
Collage of Ilam candidates for Labour, National and TOP - Sarah Pallett, Hamish Campbell, Raf Manji

Photo: RNZ / Jean Edwards

On a brisk Friday afternoon outside a Bishopdale supermarket, Ilam MP Sarah Pallett paces up and down in Labour red dishing out pledge cards spruiking nine election policy promises to shoppers.

Voter apathy was obvious as people waved yet another politician away, although Lexia Toki was fired up about National's foreign buyers tax and middle class New Zealanders being priced out of home ownership.

"I'm pee'd off!" she complained to Pallett.

"All these beautiful homes ... are going to be saved for foreigners, and then they're going to come back into our country and get their package deal. They'll have their electric cars to go with it. What's it going to do for our children? Is it going to make more kids homeless?"

Labour's candidate for Ilam Sarah Pallett speaks to Lexia Toki.

Sarah Pallett speaks to Lexia Toki, Photo: RNZ / Jean Edwards

Patsy-style questions from the street made for politically easy responses, as Pallett told Toki Labour will not overturn its 2018 foreign buyer ban and National's policy was unworkable.

"It's not going to give them the money they need to give tax cuts to the wealthiest people in New Zealand, and those on low incomes, they're not going to get any benefit," she said.

Ilam was a safe National territory until Pallett delivered one of the biggest upsets of the 2020 election, unseating Gerry Brownlee and ending his 24-year hold on the electorate.

The Labour newcomer snatched the seat by less than 3500 votes in the "red wave" that washed over the country, although polls suggest the tide has turned.

Last month a Taxpayers' Union Curia poll showed National candidate Hamish Campbell well in front on 33 percent, followed by Pallett on 15 percent and The Opportunities Party leader Raf Manji on 14 percent.

Eighteen percent of voters were undecided.

Pallett told RNZ the poll showed Manji had split Ilam's voter base.

"Raf Manji is basically taking a huge amount of votes from me as a candidate, which is what we expected. Raf can't win this race, but what he can do is actually give the win to Hamish. We've been saying a vote for Raf is a vote for the National Party candidate," she said.

''I wouldn't criticise him for it, it's absolutely politics, it's the name of the game, but that is the reality of the effect of him standing."

Pallett was 51st on Labour's list so must win the seat to stay in Parliament.

The former midwifery lecturer and community midwife cites the cost of living as a constant concern among constituents, who have also revealed a lack of awareness about key Labour reforms.

"One of the things I don't think we've done well is to communicate the great things that we've been doing," she conceded.

"Even free prescriptions, which you would think would be widely known, people are still hearing it for the first time. It's brought home to me that actually, some of that communication just isn't getting through."

The Ilam electorate spans the city's north-west, including the suburbs of Ilam, Avonhead, Bryndwr, Fendalton, Merivale, Burnside and Upper Riccarton.

It covers some of Christchurch's wealthiest suburbs, but also has the city's second-highest number of people in social housing and was home to a diverse mix of voters including retirees, healthcare workers and students.

At the University of Canterbury's student bar, National challenger Dr Hamish Campbell was plotting his next campaign move with team member Bryant McIntyre on his birthday - although the 22-year-old was anticipating a much bigger celebration next month.

National's candidate for Ilam Hamish Campbell with volunteers.

National challenger Dr Hamish Campbell with volunteers. Photo: RNZ / Jean Edwards

"I think October will be the birthday present when we flip the benches blue," McIntyre quipped.

The political science and economics student believes Ilam voters wanted change.

"A lot of people are really getting hit hard by the cost-of-living crisis, we're also seeing that because UC is seeing a massive increase in student numbers there's increased pressure on rental prices as well," McIntyre said.

"A lot of people are looking at us more favourably than they have in the past."

Campbell, a cancer researcher, was contesting the seat of Ilam after standing in the neighbouring Wigram electorate in 2020 when he polled well behind Labour minister Megan Woods.

"I think we do have a good ground game," he said.

"I've knocked on the doors of 14,500 voters so far. It's really about that grassroots campaigning and connecting with the voters of Ilam. I'm hoping to knock on the doors of 20,000 people, that's my goal."

The cost of living, crime, health and education were issues routinely raised by voters, Campbell said.

"The cost of living is really affecting students. Rents have gone up $150 a week here on average. The increase in the price of food is also really important for students. The price of two-minute noodles has gone up 50 percent. Similarly, some people on fixed incomes, retirees are also feeling the pinch," he said.

Campbell was ranked 63rd on National's list, so his parliamentary future also hinged on winning the seat.

"That [Taxpayers' Union] poll was encouraging, but really, I'm not taking anything for granted. I'm going to try to meet as many people across the electorate as I can. It's coming down to hard work and that grassroots campaign," he said.

The student vote was also being courted by The Opportunities Party leader Raf Manji, a former Christchurch City Councillor who stood as an independent in Ilam in 2017, coming second to Brownlee.

Manji's Teal Card - essentially a Gold Card for under-30s - would give fully-funded healthcare, free public transport and a $5000 savings boost to 18-year-olds who complete a national civic service programme.

At one of his weekly coffee catch-ups at a Bishopdale bakery, Manji chatted to University of Canterbury student Angus Mossman over a pot of green tea.

TOP leader and Ilam candidate Raf Manji.

TOP leader and Ilam candidate Raf Manji. Photo: RNZ / Jean Edwards

Mossman wanted to know how Manji was going to encourage graduates to resist the lure of Australia and stay in Christchurch.

"I know you've got your Teal Card, but salaries are also quite a big one, so what do you think about building the salaries available to those coming out of uni in the Christchurch area?" he asked.

Manji meandered through issues of migration, housing costs, the earthquake rebuild, technology and innovation, before declaring New Zealand cannot compete with countries recruiting young talent with the offer of higher salaries.

"We want to make it a bit more attractive for young people to stay here, which means we need a really vibrant economy. We want to liberalise foreign investment, but from a business point of view, not a land point of view," he said.

"Otherwise smart people like you are going to head to Bondi or Brisbane."

Manji said the Covid-19 pandemic and dashed Labour hopes meant many voters had tuned out of the election campaign.

"This feels very different to 2017 where people were much more politically engaged. I think Covid is essentially responsible for this. People have struggled through Covid, everyone has been impacted to varying levels and there is a deep apathy about politics," he said.

Yet Manji remained reasonably confident about his chances on 14 October - TOP's only hope of breaking into Parliament after consistently failing to reach the required five percent party vote threshold.

"We know Hamish is going to get 30 percent of the vote plus, that's just baked in because he's the National Party candidate," he said.

"My strengths as someone who has represented the community for the last 10 years, that's what I'm hoping will carry me over the line. It's not an easy win, but we have a chance."

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