There’s a by-election happening in South Auckland and, as Justin Latif reports, you’d struggle to find a more diverse group of candidates.
What do a globetrotting singer, a record-breaking weightlifter, an ex-fisherwoman, a social media expert, a radio show host and an IT guy all have in common?
Not much, other than that they all want to claim the vacant spot on Māngere-Ōtāhuhu’s seven-person local board, for which postal voting is now open (ballots close at midday, February 17).
Off the back of Labour’s crushing election victory last October, former member Anae Neru Leavasa was able to secure the Takanini electorate seat, setting up an opportunity for someone new to represent the 80,000 or so residents of this South Auckland area.
After driving around the two suburbs that make up this local board, you’d be forgiven for thinking there are only three candidates in this race, judging by who has a billboard presence, but in fact six local residents have thrown their hats in the ring, from a really wide range of backgrounds.
At a recent community networking event I attended in the Māngere Town Centre, only one candidate, Elnez Tofa, was present to give his pitch to voters. A 41-year-old mental health support worker, Tofa is one of three independent candidates in this election.
“I’ve been affected by the big issues in our area,” he told the crowd, “like living in overcrowded housing, where there were 10 of us in one house in Māngere. Or like trying to find the best education opportunities for my kids. In order for these issues to be addressed, the perspective of someone directly affected by these issues needs to be on the local board.”
Tofa, who broke the world bench press record while competing in the New Zealand powerlifting team, says the discipline required in elite sport will be transferable to his prospective role as a politician.
“You’re under immense pressure [when competing], but I’ve learnt a lot from the sport about determination and pushing through when you’re uncomfortable.”
The only woman in the race is 57-year-old Sharon Bragg, another independent candidate. Her background includes stints as a commercial fisherwoman, chef and labourer. She’s currently a social entrepreneur with an upcycling business, and this isn’t the first time she’s run for a local board seat.
“I did run in 2016, and for the same reason I’m running now,” the Ōtāhuhu resident says. “I’m all about the environment. Climate change is an issue. We really have to clean up our town and clean up what could endanger us in the future.”
She would also like to see a crackdown on boarding houses to ensure better treatment of tenants, having seen a number of people being evicted from these types of accommodation around Ōtāhuhu for, she says, arbitrary reasons.
At 28, Christian Malietoa-Brown is the youngest candidate in the field, but he says travelling the world singing Croatian music has given him a lifetime’s worth of experience. Performing as Klapa Samoana, he and his brother have performed throughout America and Europe, stopping off in India to volunteer for a time at Mother Teresa’s orphanage.
“Our success has been so big that we have a square named after us in Croatia and are in the process of getting honorary Croatian citizenship,” the Māngere resident says proudly.
Malietoa-Brown managed National Party candidate Agnes Loheni’s last election campaign, but is running in this election as an independent. He says his main focus, if elected, will be to halt the gentrification of Māngere-Ōtāhuhu, starting with the removal of the cycleways concrete bollards around the town centre.
“If Auckland Transport doesn’t remove them, I will organise an event to remove those bike lanes ourselves, because they are elitist and bordering on racism. The money that’s been wasted on these could go to much better things for the community.”
While the local board election is his focus now, his sights are set even higher: to become New Zealand’s first prime minister of Pacific descent.
“The goal right now is for the local board, then build a ticket for the next election and run for councillor next year and then hopefully in the 2023 election I’ll be the National Party candidate for Māngere – so that’s the plan.”
Another candidate with National Party links is Malcolm Turner, who is running under the Communities and Residents (C&R) banner. Turner’s mother Fia ran for National in the 2014 election and the 41-year-old says it’s an honour to be following his mum into politics.
“I really look up to my mother because of the integrity that I’ve seen. I don’t care about fame. It’s about integrity for me.”
Turner, who lives in Māngere Bridge and runs the area’s community Facebook page, has the slogan “Standing up for Māngere Bridge” emblazoned on a number of his billboards. He says the current board has largely ignored the issues facing this seaside village.
“People don’t feel the local board shows up here. For example, there are no Labour Party billboards for the campaign in Māngere Bridge,” he says.
“The board doesn’t come down to the street level where the people are. And so one thing I would do is close the distance between the board and the community.”
Labour’s Papaliitele Lafulafu Peo refutes Turner’s assertion, adding that the number of billboards in an area doesn’t necessarily translate to votes.
“We do have billboards in Māngere Bridge, so he can say whatever he wants, but I know there are families in Māngere Bridge who support Labour.”
Peo, a 49-year-old social worker who hosts a popular show on Radio Samoa, says if elected, his focus will be keeping the area’s swimming pools free, enhancing the local parks and improving the health and wellbeing of the community.
“Through working together and empowering our church communities and families we need to encourage people to plant their own gardens and do their own home-cooking, rather than buying fast food.
“We also have an economic crisis, so what I will focus on, if elected, is that we’re working with big employers in our area to secure great jobs for our local people.”
Phil Bridge also sees the community’s health as an important issue in the upcoming election.
The 46-year-old stood for the NZ Outdoors Party at the last general election and is running for local board under the same banner. Having lived in the area for the last 25 years, Bridge believes he could be a better advocate for the community than the current local board members.
“I am concerned about my community because they have been getting poor representation to date – I am here to change that.”
Bridge would like to see a more cost-effective public transport system and is strongly opposed to the fluoridation of the city’s water supplies.
By the afternoon of February 17, preliminary results are expected to be released and, barring any unforeseen circumstances, Māngere-Ōtāhuhu will have its new local board member. Whoever the winner is, one thing is certain – they will be local with a passion for their area.
Eligible voters may hand-deliver their ballots to the Māngere Town Centre Library or the Ōtāhuhu Library up until 12pm on February 17. There are also two ‘meet the candidate’ events on February 4 at the Ōtāhuhu Town Hall and February 9 at the Māngere Arts Centre. Visit the Auckland Council website for more information.
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